Friday, February 20, 2009

Universities, Medical Schools and disgruntled professors

The recent report on a bunch of disgruntled professors from the NTU raised a bit of a smile. Their grouse was the undemocratic and non-transparent way the university (NTU) awarded tenure. Presumably they were the ones not awarded tenure. But I am not so sure their complaints will go very far. There is no employee's union through which university professors can seek redress if there is any employment dispute. Once I remember there was an Academic Staff Union at the university but this, I am told, was unceremoniously dismantled a few decades ago by MM Lee KY. Now academic staff are entirely at the mercy of their employers.

Also they don't seem to have to much leg to stand on. The universities are brutally going ahead with the single minded drive towards 'excellence' (whatever that means). Ranking is important, apparently. The Medical Schools in Singapore have been similarly affected.

After my recent postings, I have had some passing discussions with colleagues from the NUS School of Medicine (correctly Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine ... duhhh....), and was reliably informed that the problems affecting the NTU staff were not unique, and that NUS went through the same painful process of renewal and redefinition. Actually many of them, having themselves suffered the same indignities, are secretly (and not so secretly) cheering on the NTU staff in the efforts to take on their university.

It sounds like they were not really questioning the university's need to reform and upgrade. Nor the need to set academic standards. Their main grouses appear to be related to their sense that they have all been treated very unfairly and sometimes very callously by their institutions that they had given so much for, and whom they have supported often so sacrificially in the past. Many of the staff had felt rather cheated because the universities had at the last minute moved the goal posts (something which happens rather commonly in Singapore). Many of the senior staff at the universities had committed the best years of their lives with the university, and had pursued zealously the university's educational mission. This was at a time when there was little money for research. Now in their 50's and early 60's, they have been told by their employers that they are pretty useless and unneeded because of their relatively weak research track record. No fault of theirs, they felt. Just that the goal posts shifted. Which was the other bone of contention.

Many of them also seem to felt that the universities had been less than honest with them. In all their meetings with university leadership management, there had always been emphasis on the three main pillars of excellence, namely research, teaching and education. These were to be their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). In reality their performance reviews took into consideration primarily their research output. Many of the senior staff who had committed their lives to student management and the educational agenda, found themselves suddenly marginalized and very little valued in an organization that was intent on achieving research 'excellence' even at the expense of their teaching mission.

The medical educators I have had a chance to talk to all echoed the same sentiments, and almost uniformly lamented the recent obvious degeneration of the medical educational mission because of the (to their perspective) over emphasis on the research mission. In the clinics we see the same deterioration in quality of the students coming through.

What to do?


auntielucia said...

Not being an academic or even having any intellectual pretensions, I don't think I'm in any position to comment on the angst felt by the NTU dons. Still, if u look at it in a totally practical way, the dons might not be entirely blameless. Had they been too comfortable? What sort of intellectual capacity do they have to be so trusting? Unquestioning faith shld be placed in the almighty, not another human being. Anyway, at 50 and 60 (given a life expectancy of 85), it shldn't be too late for them to start all over again, other than whinge. Think of Oshin..
Lastly, how in tune are the profs with what's happening 2day and going to happen tmr, in their own and wider fields? This reminds me of a GP I know who tho a very nice man is completely clueless abt alternative medicine. He has never heard of exsativa when even young children of my acquaintance can tell u what it does!!

gigamole said...

Perhaps they won't blameless. But The university's KPIs of of teaching, admin and research does suggest that all three need to considered equally in performance evaluations. The reality apparently was that only one, research, was overwhelmingly considered. A but played out, lah. If they were bad performers in all three, fair enough...but many were good committed teachers and admin people just not world class researchers on par with Standford Harvard.
Can argue about fairness till cows come home, but unis need to address this perception and morale problem within their midst, or education will continue to degrade despite rankings etc.

Exsativa is a bit of quackery there...:). Don't need to comment much on that!