Friday, 5 August 2011

The Doctors Are Taking Over The Asylum

Sydney College of the Arts at the former Callan Park Lunatic Asylum for the Mentally and Criminally Insane

I’ve just started an Artist’s Residency at Sydney College of Art and yesterday I had an introductory meeting with the Dean and Associate Dean. As I was being shown around the studios and introduced to the customs of the college it came up in conversation that there is a growing pressure upon Australian universities, whilst making new staff appointments, to employ applicants with doctoral degrees (especially with staff under the age of 35). I’ve never previously heard any explicit mention of this particular “pressure” before but it was spoken of as if it were both familiar and internationally recognised. Quite what form it takes and how forcefully it is exerted is still unclear to me but it would appear to have a logical, if rather suspect, basis. It reminds me of something an ex Programme Leader at Glasgow School of Art (also an Australian as it happens) used to describe as “creeping credentialism”: the tendency for university degrees to become devalued due to the increasing numbers of graduating students and the associated pressure to gain (and provide) postgraduate degrees (MA, PhD etc).

It’s logical because it makes sense that institutions dedicated to the propagation of credentials should be run by people who are qualified to do so. For example, in the last 3 years I’ve been roped into “2nd” supervising two doctoral students even though I only have a MA. My 15 years of teaching experience at both BA and MA level obviously count for something, but until I get some PhD “completions” under my belt it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be made a principal supervisor to a PhD student. In this respect then, I have been aware, for quite some time, of the subtle pressure academic institutions are under to provide adequately qualified staff to support the increasing number of doctoral students they are offering places to. It also hasn’t escaped my notice that “experience” is only ever grudgingly accepted as a qualification for teaching. And this is the strange irony, because in practical subjects, like art and design, there is only so far a research oriented academic qualification will take you in terms of a genuine engagement with the stuff of making and doing. And as qualifications become increasingly inflated and the staff that administer them become more academically qualified there’s a real danger that experience, as well as all things experiential, become relegated to the lowest orders of education. This privileging of theory over practice, knowledge over skill and qualifications over experience isn’t simply an Australian problem, it’s a problem the world over.


Jenny Hood said...

Having become disillusioned by my own experience of doctoral level study, and the world of academia more generally, I am in firm agreement that the seemingly 'necessary' nature of a PhD is unhelpful, and detrimental, particularly to creative institutions. Furthermore, the widespread nature of this preoccupation is slowly devaluing the qualification itself- despite the fact that PhD study is an undertaking which tests even the most tenacious of individuals!

J. Hamlyn said...

I’m saddened to hear that doctoral study is not what you’d hoped for. If my own recent experience of post grad study is anything to go by then I can certainly understand how different the reality can be from the expectation – not least because it was clear to me that the very preoccupation that you mention seems not only to be devaluing post grad qualifications but also to be throttling the quality of ‘support’ (I was going to write ‘delivery’ but that’s the very problem). Having our tenacity tested is one thing but being treated like products on a conveyor belt and being expected to jump through hoops to satisfy the ever increasing demand for institutional accountability is a far cry from progress.

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