Small islands, little empires, partisan labelling: fear and loathing inside university

University academics say research collaboration is being held back by a lot territorialism and partisan labelling

A group of University of Malta researchers have revealed deep fragmentation and fear of partisan labelling amongst academics at Malta’s national university.

The study in the International Journal of Higher Education Management, based on an online survey of 226 academics, non-academic staff and students and 29 face-to-face interviews, said these anxieties were hindering public engagement and collaborative research at the University of Malta.

Instead, academic collaborations was being carried out through the researcher’s personal networks, creating an environment where “the university can metaphorically be described as a group of small islands isolated from one another”.

One of the interviewed academics said the University of Malta had “a lot of little empires” with friction found among academics working in the same department. “People don’t talk and people say, ‘This guy was on TV and they were talking [their] research; they’re just showing off’.”

And the fear of being politically labelled was another obstacle for socially engaged research projects. One academic said this fear inhibited researchers in presenting the full truth. “For example, you could be saying the truth, but you’re actually saying the half-truth because the moment you say the full truth, ‘Mr. X’ will think that you’re talking about his institution and ‘Ms. Y’ would think that you’re speaking about her government or her party in the opposition.”

Some interviewees raised concerns over speaking out against the government and its policies, despite having gathered empirical evidence to support their claims. One academic said colleagues were afraid of repercussions if they speak up. “Fear of chastisement, fear of being seen as anti-government or anti-establishment may be one barrier to public engagement,” said an academic who framed the body of academics as being “okay to have an opinion or to philosophize or to discuss around” but “afraid of criticizing because they are afraid there will be repercussions”.

Malta’s extremely small size also results in a situation where staff and students have multiple, and at times confusing roles. “We all wear so many hats, so you may say this is an ivory tower, but you’d be completely wrong,” an academic said. “It’s not even one degree of separation. It’s the same person engaged in multiple roles.”

But academics’ ability to play multiple roles in Maltese society and act as “boundary spanners” was considered an asset but had its downsides with “the biggest challenge being political as Malta is heavily immersed in bipartisanship.”

Another possible reason for lack of engagement indirectly stems from lack of funds and human resources. “Funds, the UM is severely underfunded, particularly with respect to research funds…. In view of this, work with external organizations in public engagement takes very low priority,” a member of the non-academic staff said.

The study’s authors Nika Levikov, Daniela Quacinella and Edward Duca are members of the University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Incubation. The study assesses attitudes and perceptions towards to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), a term used by the EU for a framework that aligns the scientific process with the societal challenges of European society.

The authors proposed the setting-up of a Committee for Research Engagement to build an RRI ecosystem at the University of Malta to address the fragmentation identified in this study.

 

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