The Nature of University Culture
The university sector in Australia is currently undergoing dramatic change, which is challenging the traditional values upon which universities are based. These traditional values include:
An Interest in Knowledge for its Own Sake
The fundamental product of universities is knowledge. Universities function on the basis of innate curiosity – seeking knowledge on issues regardless of whether that knowledge has any clear practical application or use. Although often criticised as impractical, this trait is actually the basis for most real innovation as important disciplines such as computer science, biotechnology and nuclear physics all arose from ‘pure' research for which practical applications were not obvious when that research was commenced.
Academic work must build on existing knowledge through accepted processes – observation, testing and the development of rational arguments. Evidence and supporting arguments must always feature strongly in academic work – relying on intuition, hearsay or unsupported personal opinions is not sufficient. (More generally, critical thinking represents an important attribute that universities seek to instil in their graduates – a major role of universities being to help students to learn how to improve the way that they think. Critical thinking can involve reasoning, analysis, problem-solving, evaluation and creative (‘lateral') thinking – all practiced as rigorous and systematic processes to test ideas in order to see if they are logical and convincing.)
Academic work is typically thorough, involving exhaustive analysis of the subject under study. Scholars will not restrict themselves to that which is considered economically or practically important – they want to know everything, and in considerable detail. This is often interpreted as being ‘nit-picky' by non-academics but it forms the basis for society having available to it a deep and profound knowledge-base that can be drawn upon when required.
Modern scholars typically specialise in a particular area of knowledge – which can sometimes be particularly narrow indeed – for example, becoming a specialist in the wing structure of a particular species of fly. Scholars are often described as ‘people who know a lot about a little'. This depth of knowledge is necessary to position scholars to add new knowledge to their own area of expertise and forms the basis for humanity moving ever forward in its understanding of things.
Advances in academic disciplines occur through people putting forward different opinions or theories to explain things and then seeing which holds up best. This process is called ‘disputation'. If you have a point of view that differs from someone else's you are encouraged to put it forward AS LONG AS it is supported with good arguments or evidence. Theories are constantly being introduced, amended and mixed together – this is how our overall understanding of things improves.
Universities rely on the free flow of ideas and continuous debate. Ideas will stand or fall on the strength of the arguments and evidence that support them, but there must always be opportunities for existing ideas to be challenged and for different points of view to be put forward. This should occur in a constructive way, never maliciously.
Scholars are always asking questions, always questioning accepted wisdom, always looking for better ways of thinking about things, always hungry for new ideas. This willingness to doubt accepted ways of thinking and to think about and evaluate new ideas is a cornerstone of the academic process.
Universities must remain tolerant of different ideas, viewpoints and cultures.
Scholars are as critical of their own ideas as they are about the ideas of others. Scholars need to be cautious about making statements unless there is good evidence to support them. In academic life it is seen as preferable to live with uncertainty – to admit that they ‘just don't know' – unless there is compelling evidence to support a particular point of view. The aim of academic writing is to seek the truth through logical and ordered processes, not just to try and put together ‘a good story'.
The work of scholars has little value unless it is honest. Scholars must assess evidence on its merits, even if it serves to go against their own ideas or beliefs. Scholars must never fake or distort evidence to suit a particular point of view but interpret evidence objectively and without bias. Scholars must consider all sides of an argument. Scholars must also ensure that they give proper credit to people whose work or ideas they are using in their own work
Respect for Intellectual Property
Plagiarism is the act of passing off the work or ideas of others as your own or without due acknowledgment. It is considered as a very serious violation of university rules and is never condoned.
The essential core of any university is its staff and students who interact, engage in dialogue and debate, and generally create a productive and creative academic environment. The way that staff members interact with each other and with students is critical to maintaining an effective academic environment. Universities operate on democratic principles and ‘collegiality' describes the arrangement whereby staff and students treat each other fairly and with respect as a professional collective.
Scholars have a particular responsibility to critique their society – to draw attention to ideas and practices that are unproductive, unjust, illegitimate and harmful. Serving as a mirror for society provides an important mechanism for societies to improve and develop.
The notion of academic freedom arose in times when putting forward new ideas and challenging conventional wisdom could result in the individuals concerned being persecuted, imprisoned or worse. Academic freedom contends that academics should be allowed to pursue scholarly activities without fear of reprisal and without direction from authority.
(Adapted from Wallace, A. and Schirato, T. and Bright, P. 1999, Beginning University: thinking, researching and writing for success, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, PP 15-21)