Problems preventing academic reforms

by Flor Lacanilao, 19 June 2009

Academic excellence has always been the dream of every UP official and faculty member. Effort has been directed to improve teaching and research as far back as many alumni can recall. Programs include curriculum revision, institution or abolition of academic degrees, providing incentives through honorariums and chairs, policy reform, opening of campuses throughout the country, and giving equal opportunities for admission of students from all sectors of society.

Finally, at the start of this century, UP realized that an essential component of real academic reform is significant improvement in research performance — vital to UP’s role as the National University. This was brought about mainly by cash incentives given for publications that meet internationally accepted criteria. As a result, UP’s publications in 2002 increased to 40 percent of the national total, up from 25 percent in 1997-1999. (The combined publication output of La Salle, Ateneo, UST, and San Carlos during the same period increased from 7.8 to 8.0 percent only of the national total.) The rest was largely contributed by IRRI.

The cash incentive program (which is effective in developing countries) for quality publications also introduced a reliable and objective method of evaluating research performance. Foremost is the use of peer-reviewed international journals as the standard for research publications; in particular, journals indexed by Thomson ISI. The incentive also reduced the waste in research funds but generate only gray literature. Such reduction in waste would justify a budget increase.

While reform in performance evaluation is ongoing, other problems of university functions are still awaiting determined action. And they continue to hold back UP’s academic growth. Major problems, true also in all universities in the country, are discussed and important references to proposed solutions given, in “Celebrating the UP Centennial” (http://www.ovcrd.upd.edu.ph/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=461&Itemid=81
or http://www.philippinestoday.net/index.php?module=article&view=479).

I will review some of them and focus on the important problems with specific examples. I see these problems as a hindrance to developing a research university, crucial if UP is to function as a true National University. Let me again quote this, “America’s huge economic success comes from innovation, which is fueled by its research enterprise. And this in turn is driven by graduate education.” This reminds us of a university’s role in economic transformation.

The ongoing reform in research, which is toward this end, should be pursued relentlessly and should focus on some practices that obstruct the overall program of change. Such practices are still prevalent in the University, and they cancel out most of the gains.

Let me first sum up some vital features of doing research designed for developing countries. Properly done research is published in adequately peer-reviewed journals, which are widely accessible for international scrutiny and confirmation of published results. The important ones are covered in Science Citation Index, SCI Expanded, Social Sciences Citation Index, and Arts & Humanities Citation Index.

These indexes have been the recognized sources of publication and citation data, which are used in evaluating academic performance when ranking nations, universities, and individuals. In a developing country, there is hardly any better alternative measure of academic performance than publications in said journals. Getting scientific papers published in international journals is essential for researchers from Boston to Beijing, says a 2007 Nature editorial.

The number and quality of publications are the important indicators in rating performance. One way of assessing quality is the number of times research articles are cited. (Note that in research universities of developed countries, the preferred way to assess the merit of a paper is peer review or personal judgment, since they have enough experts in all fields.)

The number of publications and citations obtained from the indexes mentioned above would also serve as measures of competence to do other academic work — training graduate students, reviewing manuscripts, evaluating research proposals & publications (for giving grants, promotion, or awards), disseminating information (as in writing books and extension manuals), administration, and policy-making. All of these are important means of advancing academic excellence and nation building.

The publication and citation data are also effective tools for periodic checks of a university’s performance or monitoring progress. The data will also show a country’s state of human development. UP has yet to use reliable indicators for keeping track of academic progress.

Counter-productive practices

Common in many poor countries is to judge a graduate degree as an achievement. Although a graduate degree is an indicator of qualification or capability, a holder of a graduate degree with unpublished thesis is poorly prepared for research and training of graduate students. (The thesis is meant as training for research, which is completed only when published properly. Hence, a graduate degree with unpublished thesis implies an unfinished graduate training.)

Such degree holders, even PhDs, don’t get a faculty position or research grant in leading universities abroad. Whereas a PhD degree is an indicator of qualification or capability, what is important is an indicator of performance, such as valid research publications.

Such confusion between qualification or capability (e.g., based on possession of a degree) and performance (based on the objective measures outlined above) continues in the University. It is often seen in performance reports. Indicators of qualification or capability include advanced degrees, coworkers, counterpart funds, support facilities & equipment, curricular reform, and improved ways of administration & financial management. Academic performance, on the other hand, is measured by indicators like valid publications, citations, and major prizes. An international research grant is sometimes listed as an indicator of performance.

In a UP Centennial lecture, the speaker kept referring to academic performance and excellence, but gave only improved capability or qualification for academic functions like those given above. No indicator or measure of performance was mentioned that would clearly show academic progress.

Another serious problem is faculty recruitment. It has to change to facilitate developing into a research university. Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, president emeritus of The Rockefeller University, says, Research is no longer an ancillary function of the university; it is the principal criterion of recruitment to our major universities.

In another UP Centennial lecture, the speaker said, in connection with faculty recruitment, to choose the best among the applicants, but failed to give any indicators on how to pick out the best. While members of selection panels believe they decide on “the best” when going through the process of hiring, they often give more weight to length of teaching experience than research track record. Years of teaching experience does not necessarily distinguish a good from a bad teacher, whereas research track record can be reliably measured by objective indicators.

Even in the College of Science of UP Diliman, which has the best academic capability and performance in the country, practices on faculty recruitment can be hostile to applicants and harmful to the University. For example, new recruits with the best track record in research in an institute, and easily among the best published in the entire College, were not given graduate teaching load (because they were new); neither were they given their tenure in due time. Whatever the reasons may be, they cannot be relevant to academic function.

UP has lost many good scientists because of such policies, which also drive away potential and promising applicants. These are also some of the reasons why most members of the graduate faculty are hardly prepared to train properly our future scholars. Similar problems are also seen in other academic positions. They are clearly a result of poor hiring and promotion policies. Since important decisions are made by the same people, a radical change will challenge the UP leadership at all academic levels. This suggests that the principle of democratic governance within the university may not be enough. Instead, strong, visionary leadership from above may be necessary to bring about real change.

Where or how to start will be an important step. Setting up a few guidelines will help. At the conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Nature in 1994, the speakers agreed on the conditions for excellence. Among them are the following: First, excellence should be the primary criterion in decisions on appointments and funding. Second, excellence in research is not an excuse for mediocrity in teaching. Third, regular and objective assessment of research and teaching is essential. Note that they have been largely ignored. The indicators of performance suggested above are applicable with ease to all of them.

As a research university, UP can concentrate on graduate training and leave most of its undergraduate teaching to other universities. It will then be the national training center for the country’s future leaders and teachers in higher education. This in turn will improve instruction, particularly in science, at the undergraduate level and produce better prepared teachers in the primary and secondary levels.

According to Carl Wieman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, It is doubtful that great progress can be made at the primary and secondary levels until a higher standard of science learning is set at the post-secondary level.

It is important that those with valid publications — as sole or lead author — should make up the majority of the members of decision-making bodies. Opposition to every step in this kind of reform program is expected. It will come largely from those without research publications in peer-reviewed international journals. Such opposition has been seen in the past and will further delay achieving the desired objectives,

Bold actions will decide UP’s development into a functional National University, which will make important contributions to new knowledge, education, and building a nation. It can still aim to be counted among the top 100 universities in the Asia Pacific and the world’s top 500. And we can hope to hear again that Centennial catchphrase — this time not as propaganda from some UP constituents, but an honest, well-deserved acknowledgment from the entire nation — UP, ang galing mo!

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Flor Lacanilao, retired professor of marine science, University of the Philippines Diliman