If I Were a Vice-Chancellor

With all of the trouble being faced by universities and researchers, I go thinking about the things I would do if I were a vice-chancellor for a day. I made a list of 11 items. The cover gender equity, PhD training and recruitment, staff development, and the allocation of IP ownership.


Good day there, bakers, writers, and rockstars. Richard Huysmans here. Today’s vlog is all about being a vice-chancellor for a day.

So, researchers and universities are going through a tough time at the moment. Researchers and scientists are seen as less relevant. Things like climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified crops, medical marijuana, people aren’t believing the evidence. They’re you know, going for hearsay. Maybe anecdotes rather than the evidence itself. Employment as an academic procedure has a lot of researchers has lost the shine. Degrees are being devalued and graduates are wondering whether it’s all worth it. So, if I were a senior in a university say a vice-chancellor or a provost, there are a few things that I would change to try and fix that, and to fix the value of academia as a career to the people who are currently in it. These are in no particular order. Just the order that they came to my mind.

So, the first thing that came to my mind was to disconnect grants from research contracts. Currently, lots and lots of researchers are essentially on research contracts that directly align with a grant or several grant outcomes. The problem with that if we’re on a three-year cycle you spend a year trying to get the grant. Then a year trying to do some work for the grant. Then you spend another two years trying to get the next grant, and it ends up being a thing where you as a researcher. You’re constantly chasing your tail or chasing the next grant rather than focusing on actually doing research. So, if we disconnected the contract from the grant cycle so, we could still put people on three-year contracts if that’s what universities want. We could still put people on five-year contracts, but instead of aligning with a grant deadline it would not align with the grant deadline. So, we might say to a researcher we want you to win a certain number of grants. We want you to earn a certain amount of money, but you’ve got time to do that. So, in your fourth of a five-year contract if you haven’t won any grants that won’t matter.  If in your fifth year you win a grant that gets you over your KPI value, then you get renewed but getting grant might go for 10 years or it might go for one year. But if it hits your target, if it makes you meet your quota your KPI then you get to get your contract renewed for the for the next period. So, we just trying to disconnect grant outcomes and contracts.

The next thing I think is really important universities might have started out as research organizations, but teaching is becoming increasingly important, and universities essentially build their reputation through research, but then attracts students as a result of teaching. I think if we want to have more PhD graduates in the academic sector. We need to allow for more teaching only positions. Too many good teachers are lost from academia because they’re told they need to do research. Too many good teachers are lost from academia because they’re told they have to do lots of administration as well. So, I think we need to bring back the idea of a teaching only academic. In the same way that there are research only academics. Obviously, a teaching-only academic should excel at teaching, and a research-only academic should excel at research. We need to set performance targets and performance outcomes that fit with that in fact. You might have an industry engagement only academic whose sole purpose is to go out and engage with industry. Whether that be through research contracts or that through teaching contracts or consultant kind of contracts, maybe we need to have an industry-only academic as well.

I would definitely set quotas for the inclusion of women. I think it’s taken far too long to get where we are now, and organizations that have got quotas have moved more quickly. So, in the first instance I would definitely set quotas for inclusion of women on committees. All the committees because in universities I feel like that’s where decisions are made, and then ultimately that will filter through to the rest of the organization. So, we can have more women in leadership within academia. More women making decisions within academia, and ultimately a more diverse workforce in general particularly at senior levels.

I would scrap the annual performance review. I know that’s probably controversial. I would replace it with a quarterly performance discussion rather than a review. One of the reasons I think this is really important is because a year is far too long. You know, if you drove from Sydney to Melbourne, you wouldn’t check the map or roadsides every few hours. You would be checking all the time. You’d be looking, “Have I made it here?” “Have I made it there?” “Where’s the next petrol station?” You’d be checking your progress regularly and the problem with annual performance reviews, particularly if you make a mistake in like the first 3 months of the annual cycle you don’t get corrected. There’s no course correction that happens until 12 months from now. So, you could make that mistake for another 9 months before someone picks up on that. That doesn’t mean the mistake is fatal or the mistake is career limiting or anything like that. It could just be that you could be doing running a research project more effectively. Or it could be that your grant application process isn’t great, and you can improve that. So, we’re not even talking about performance review in the sense of negative performance. We’re talking about basically, generally speaking improving performance. Even good performance if it takes 12 months to be recognized. That’s ridiculous too. So, I think having performance discussions on a more frequent basis is really important, and that can also mean we can reduce the length of those discussions. So, if they currently take an hour and are done once a year, we could make them 15 minutes and done every quarter.

The next thing I think is really important is to better support PhD supervisors. There’s a lot to be said about improving the supervision of PhD students. We know that we’re over training students for the number of academic jobs available and if the system is comfortable with that, and I as a consultant on the outside, I’m comfortable with that. If the system is comfortable with training more students than are required, cool, we’ve got to improve the way that they’re supervised. So, we’ve got to improve our support for PhD supervisors, one of the things we know from research is that your PhD supervisor is the biggest influence on your satisfaction with your PhD. So, if we can improve the relationship between supervisors and students, we can improve the PhD experience without essentially creating a whole bunch of curriculums that we don’t want. Perhaps want to create in some instances. Perhaps need to create in other instances or perhaps can afford to create. So, I think supporting PhD supervisors would be another thing that I do.

Controversial, the next one but I think being on campus should be compulsory. Now, I’m not saying that you need to be on campus every day, and perhaps not even every week, but I think being on campus regularly and somewhat frequently. So, maybe every fortnight or every month should be compulsory. One of the reasons I think that is because serendipitous interactions, it’s really difficult to have that in a digital space. It’s really difficult to have that if people aren’t meeting accidentally. So, that would mean to me if we’re forcing people to be on campus regularly. That if we’re saying it’s once a fortnight that it would be everyone on campus once a fortnight on the same day. So, that would create issues particularly around COVID and how we’re working now with COVID, but I think we need to work through those. Maybe that day is a performance development day. Maybe that’s a professional development day. Maybe that’s a seminar day so, we can have people in the bigger spaces with more space to mingle. More opportunity to mingle and that might be a way of creating one opportunity for serendipitous interaction, having staff on campus regularly as well as meeting COVID requirements.

And this feeds into my next point which is I think that we should be having compulsory professional development for academic researchers. So, most researchers in the PhD is a bit of PD to become a researcher. Professional development you have to do a PhD. Awesome, and then you go along, and you identify techniques or tools that you need to build, improve, develop, understand, and so you go, and you build those skills awesome as well. But there’s very few people developing other sides of their profession. They’re not developing better meeting skills, better organization skills, better managing email skills. I mean we just take it for granted that everyone should be at a quote unquote, “manage email”. So, I think professional develop in those areas that are related to research, but not unique to research need to happen in academia.

The next thing, number 8 is to have a pathway for technical experts. So, at the moment academia like many industries is not unique. Academia applies the Peter Principle that you get promoted to your highest level of incompetence. So, essentially you get awesome as a researcher and then you get made a manager and if you can’t manage you get stuck in that gap. You know, you have to take on responsibility of managing people and you lose the opportunity to be at the coal face. So, instead what I want is more people to be promoted because of their excellence as a technical person. Maybe it is running a piece of equipment or running a certain type of experiment, and that they get to get more and more senior in terms of their responsibilities. In terms of making stuff happen for themselves, but they don’t necessarily get promoted to management just because they’re an expert, and therefore they should manage people who are also good at what they do or becoming good at what they do.

I would do things like make all equipment rooms shared. I think we do too much holding on to equipment and too much keeping equipment to ourselves, and as a result there’s poor utilization. Limited funds for maintenance both corrective and prevented. So, I’d make all equipment shared across the university with the idea that into the future we could share all the crisp equipment across all universities.

The tenth thing is that I would change IP ownership and give far more ownership to the inventors themselves. I would go down like 50 % straight away to the researcher than 25% to their department school or faculty whatever that needs to be, and 25 percent to the university. In my mind, most IP is developed by individuals not universities, and the risk is all taken by the individuals. You know, university researchers need to get their own grants. That is a risk that the individual takes not the university. The individual then needs to go out and find a staff. That is a risk that the individual takes not the university. The individual then needs to go out and buy the equipment, facilities, renter, whatever they do. Again, that’s a risk that the individual takes not the university. If any of those steps fail the university doesn’t suffer, the individual researcher suffers. So, I think the IP ownership should be shifted so that researchers have far more of it. If there is a collaboration, I don’t think that we should be diluting the share of the inventors. I think we should be diluting the share of the universities, and the faculties and departments that they live in rather than the inventors. So, I always want to see inventors get a much higher proportion of the IP that they generate.

Finally, in this series of what would I do if I was a vice-chancellor for a day, I would focus on more mature entry PhD pathways. So, I think where a lot of students now particularly in the biomedical sciences are going straight from high school through to university. I reckon if we had more mature entry pathways where we selected students that have come from industry, we’ll have one, better connected students like students that are better connected to industry. We’ll have students who better understand the problems the industry face, and so, it could have PhD projects that are better targeted to our industry. We’ll have better collaboration with industry because those people will have networks. But we’ll also have people who better understand what it is they want to do with the knowledge that they generate from their PhD other than just kind of going I want to do a PhD because it’s the next easiest thing to do. To be honest I think a lot of people go through that process of, “Oh, it’s easier to go out and get a PhD than it is to go and apply for a job. So, cool I’ll just go and get a PhD.

So, there you have it 11 also things that I would do if I was vice-chancellor for a day. I’d love to know whether you think those are good, bad or indifferent. And of course, I’d love to know if you’d add anything or take anything away or make any changes yourself.

Take care. Bye.