Government and governance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

13 January 2017

In the new Policy Forum Pod, Asit Biswas and James Giggacher discuss how universities are neglecting their duty to engage in public debate on crucial policy issues, and what needs to happen for scholars to make a difference beyond the ivory tower of academia.

Universities have long been valued for their role in creating knowledge – knowledge which can hopefully be used for the betterment of society and humankind. But in the age of social media and in what has been called a world of ‘post-truth’ politics, are the best ideas of our scholars and academic institutions cutting through? In the new Policy Forum Pod, experts Asit Biswas and James Giggacher discuss whether universities are now more concerned with chasing global rankings than making a meaningful contribution to society. Listen here:

Professor Asit Biswas is one of the world’s leading authorities on water and environmental management, and currently the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy in Singapore.

James Giggacher is Editor of New Mandala and an associate lecturer in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

In presenting the case that universities are failing society, Professor Biswas says that academic research is mostly geared toward publication in high-impact journals.

“That is because of the incentive structure of the universities, all universities. We have to publish in high-impact journals. If you want to publish in high-impact journals, the elegance of the theory takes precedence over application.”

Biswas also points to a disconnect between academics and policymakers.

“Even if you come out with a wonderful exposition of the problem and the solution, no one at the policy level is even aware of it.

One clear disconnect is in the realm of digital media, and universities aren’t doing enough to take advantage of digital disruption and the opportunities offered by online academic blogging, says Mr Giggacher.

“I fear that much like media, [universities] could be quickly left behind, and be left scrambling to be relevant… If handled correctly, digital disruption gives us the historic opportunity to change the way we research, the way we teach, the way we communicate that research.”

Part of the problem, he adds, is that universities aren’t recognising the value of online platforms in influencing society and policymakers.

“There are no incentives for academics to write an article on a blog post or a blog platform… It won’t help them win promotion as it currently stands, it won’t help them keep a job. And as we see in some spaces, when academics are making controversial comments in public, it can even lead to them losing their jobs, which is a worrying development.”

Biswas further highlights the need for academics to engage in popular media by drawing from his own personal experience advising senior ministers on water issues.

“Taking my field of water, the highest ranking journal has six subscribers in India, and all of 13 subscribers in China. For 2.6 billion people, we are talking 19 subscriptions.”

So what needs to happen in order to get academic knowledge into the hands of policymakers?

As Giggacher sees it, universities need to reclaim their research and put it where it can be seen and used by the public.

“Universities have handed the keys of their knowledge, the blood sweat and tears that goes into that knowledge production from our scholars, to journals.”

Instead, says Giggacher, universities should create public-facing portals which include both peer-reviewed research as well as shorter summaries accessible to lay people.

“I don’t think it would take much. The barriers to entry are very low, and I think the results would be quick and exponential.”

Is there much hope on the horizon that universities will change?

It will probably take five or six years before this becomes a mainstream issue, says Biswas, with the main catalyst being whether or not the rating agencies change the criteria for how universities are ranked globally.

Giggacher is also optimistic. He says that the younger generation of scholars coming through is hungry to engage in more public-facing work, and that already we are seeing conversations on this issue at the highest levels of academia.

“It may be half a decade, or possibly a decade. But change is coming, and change is welcome.”

Asit Biswas and James Giggacher were in conversation with Policy Forum’s Martyn Pearce.

You can catch up with our Policy Forum podcast series via iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please give us a review on iTunes and help us get the word out.

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