Red tape is alienating academics from their own research and work


When South African academics want to set up a new degree module, they’re entering into a process that can take years to germinate. These modules must be approved through an incredibly cumbersome process – departmental, school, faculty, various university quality control committees, an institution’s senate, the South African Qualification Authority. Only then can they be registered by the National Qualification Framework.

This is just one example of the bureaucratic chores that now occupy academics’ days. It’s a reality that prompted me to edit a new book called Making Sense of Research (Van Schaik, Pretoria, 2018). It’s written by supervisors, deans, research coordinators and lecturers who offer suggestions about how students and academics can negotiate the reams of red tape that typify modern universities.

Bureaucracy is necessary to manage large institutions. But it can also be alienating. It alienates the researcher from their field or discipline. It alienates those who are researched from those who conduct the research. And ultimately, it alienates both researchers and the researched from the academy.

Take the example of student protests held under the banner of “fees must fall” between 2015 and 2017. Events unfolded on an hourly basis at breakneck speed. These deserved careful study and scrutiny by trained academics who knew what questions to ask and what information could be gleaned. But procedural knots meant it was impossible to secure ethical clearance, for instance, and this hampered knowledge production.

That in turn hampered the benefits for the public, who could have learned from research conducted on the ground during these important protests. And then researchers are dismissed as being distanced from the real world – irrelevant and out of touch with breaking events. The problem, of course, is that real world events don’t conform with research committee schedules.

Dodging red tape

This trend towards bureaucratised research and teaching, particularly in the humanities, has come about because outputs must be measured, managed, and made to justify bottom lines to qualify for state subsidies. Everything from students – too many – to resources – too few – must be managed, administered and audited.

Bureaucracy, as anyone who has encountered it knows, makes it increasingly difficult to get any work done. For academics this means that field work is placed on the back burner. Just registering a topic for field work can take many months and involve multiple committees and numerous university divisions. These time-consuming and increasingly cumbersome procedures – though often necessary – delay the start of work, students’ progress through a degree and publications linked to the planned field work.

This process alienates academics from the “meat” of their work, the active research that produces nuanced results. Many students and their supervisors are responding defensively. They simply conduct desk-top research that relies on texts already published by other scholars.

This is the quickest, cheapest route. It helps both academics and the students they supervise to circumvent red tape. But it’s a route that excludes subject communities or research participants who used to be the focus of interactive academic work. These groups are left in the background and reduced to mere texts in contemporary research projects.

So the instrumentalisation of research practices alienates those who have traditionally cooperated with researchers and who expect tangible benefits from such partnerships.

The third alienation is of researchers and the researched from the academy. What works for the university as an institution does not necessarily work for the lecturers or students. Students do research because this is a curriculum requirement. But they must also become aware of why they are doing research, who it will benefit (or disadvantage) and what the implications might be

There is a fourth alienation, too, exemplified by the many hoops academics must jump through to register and begin teaching a new module or the requirements for designing field work. Knowledge has a rapidly decreasing half-life. It is being revised continuously. Too much bureaucracy alienates academics and students from breaking developments that impact their own disciplines.

Over-regulation means academics are often teaching approved but outdated knowledge rather than updating it daily.

Arresting alienation

The good news is that this alienation can be turned around. In Making Sense of Research, contributors offer advice for making sense of academic rituals. It’s not a dry book about “how to” research as much as it is about “why” do research and how to negotiate the institutional swamps in conducting it.

Ordinary academics can kick back against the system in a useful way, despite the cautioning effects of managerialism. There are creative ways to deal with bureaucracy; the best is to take students off campus and into the fields of the real world.

Books and articles about the real world must be complemented with direct exposure to those worlds. Bureaucrats must recognise that experiential learning is the best kind. Sitting in classrooms and being referred solely to books that other people wrote is only half the story. The full story involves getting one’s hands dirty in the field, too. That may be costly; it may transgress timetable schedules and stress capacity – but it must be done to tackle the growing problem of academic alienation from life.

Author Bio: Keyan Tomaselli is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg