The Academia - Part I

Volume 9 Issue 2 News & Resources | February 2016

The Academia - Part I

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   1. The academic reality

A typical academic staff of faculty member in a university set-up will have to execute few basic things such as teaching, supervising, researching and writing. Having to teach from 5 to 20 hours per week in a semester is quite typical, depending where one is working and what kind of programme one is handling. From teaching, an academic staff will have to manage some supervision roles such as lab-based and final-year projects. Supervision can be in the form of face-to-face discussion or the online virtual monitoring. If one is supervising final-year project students, then the supervision will be for the complete academic year. At the post-graduate level, supervision tasks would be a lengthy process. A postgraduate student may require close supervision from a year to four years. There are cases where the supervision went into the fifth year. And, if they ran out-of-luck, they even failed after sacrificing so much. This postgraduate supervision task coincides with the research work which one would need to embark on. Nowadays, it is inconceivable for an academic staff to not be involved in research and development efforts. In fact, the main criteria for promotion in many universities is the output from research and development work, i.e. indexed journal paper publications, and now, how many citations have one garnered from one’s publications. On top of all these roles, an academic staff might be involved in administration job, and will need to spend time, energy and mental power in order to be able to deliver. Administration post will be a slightly different ball game for many aspiring academic staff. One’s soft skills will be tested to the brim. Handling machines are much easier than managing people. What more when handling personnel with the perceived cognitive prowess and constant urge to challenge the status quo in every possible occasion. In today’s competitive and budget-constraint environment, academic staffs are expected to create income-generation activities or bring in money into the university. Yes, you have read it correctly, i.e. we are to become businessmen. From nothing, we must create something. There you have it, some overview of the role and responsibilites of an academic staff.

   2. The basic tools

In order to be able to teach, supervise, research, administer and bring in money, one needs a number of basic tools. These preparation and enhancement of these said tools will be a continuous process as one will continue to learn new knowledge and skills in order to adapt to the existing challenges.

  • To teach well, one will need to grasp the subject matter and the pedagogy of teaching, and be passionate of the teaching profession. The skills of a teacher will gradually as we teach more and more.
  • To supervise efficiently, we need to be able to set a clear and digestible technical (read: research) directions and be accommodative to the weaknesses of our students. We should also be considerate in judging the student’s capability and capacity. Their output may be fledgling at first, but it will improve surely, albeit with your close supervision and support.
  • To execute proper research, we need some form of research funding, graduate students, facilities and solid networking. One pre-requisite will be as important as the others. With the current downturn in economic cycle and the stiff competition to get research funding, we must be creative in ensuring our research efforts are not stalled. Probably, we can still utilise the old equipment and components. Probably, we can also utilise the existing testing modules in our teaching labs with some retuning for research task. Probably, we can shift our research to more simulation-based or industry-based, and less prototyping type projects. Out of so many probabilities, who knows, one of them might be the best answer to our research quest.
  • To administer fairly, we must be able to listen to others and be receptive to feedback, no matter how harsh it may be. We should also realise that we must be firmed and objective in decision-making. Consistency is also an important trait. Be consistent in our words and actions.
  • To be able to bring-in money, we must learn and join the experts out there. We certainly need something in-hand before we embark on the money-making journey. The money-making world is wild and uncertain. Be ready to fail and have some back-up plans.

Basically for all the segments, we need appropriate knowledge and know-how. The rest will be gained through real-life experiences. May the force be with us.

   3. The expectations

In spite of all the constraints we are facing to deliver, the expectations have never been lowered. Yes, the grant money is dwindling and difficult to acquire, but your research output must be improved further. Yes, the students teaching and learning commitments have never been higher than today, but that is no excuse for you to slack. Yes, the business sectors are very difficult to break into, but you need to bring in money this year. Those are some examples, and we surely have many more. The expectations have always been like these. They seem to be so inconsistent with the reality on the ground. But then, goals and dreams have always been like these. They were set in such a way in order for us to achieve certain ideal or desired level in our performance. We should do our utmost to meet these expectations. Is there an alternative solution? Can we opt out of this race? Can we choose our own dreams and not of the institutions? Can we just be a teacher and not bothered with all the KPIs and research output? Can we just be the way we want to be? Of course we can. But not without any consequences. The road ahead seems tougher and difficult compared to what we have seen before. We must be agile and versatile enough to adapt to the new reality. An academic staff of the future will have starkly different traits than their older counterparts. The world is changing. Being good enough today may not be sufficient to guarantee a solid future presence. The world of academia is in the process of transition from being simply a centre of knowledge and for seekers of knowledge into an economic-driven entity that will shield the nation from economic instability and self-mutilation.

   4. End game

Being a cog in the wheel of academia is an interesting position. One can feel the importance of academia and the challenges being faced by the institution. One can also sense the respect and persona assumed by others towards the academic institutions. They are the feel-good factor of being part of this set-up. Nevertheless, the world of academia must now prove its worth. The nation is waiting for our end game in the face of troublesome conflicts and worrying destructive trends in the country. Be strong my fellow academics and do something. Now! 

It is one of the great ironies of corporate control that the corporate state needs the abilities of intellectuals to maintain power, yet outside of this role it refuses to permit intellectuals to think or function independently

― Chris Hedges, The Death of the Liberal Class

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Written by : 
Prof. Dr. Mohd Rizal Arshad 
School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering 
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