May 17, 2013, by Sean Matthews
Overwhelming Questions: Thoughts on the UNMC Research Priorities Workshop, April 30 2013
Our UNMC Research Priorities Workshop brought into focus many elements of the sheer range of research taking place on the campus. It gave colleagues the opportunity to explore concepts and themes which unite our work across the disparate disciplines and faculties. Coming to the process from an Arts/Social Sciences background, I found a surprising level of convergence, even harmony, in the process through which colleagues articulated ideas about general clusters of shared interests and objectives, ideas which might inform our collective sense of ‘research priorities’, in broad but not exclusive or exhaustive ways. Those ideas, however, are not my concern here, I’m sure our Vice-Provost for Research and Knowledge Exchange, Professor Graham Kendall, who led the Workshop, will be blogging elsewhere on that theme. My focus in this post, rather, is how the workshop opened up questions about institutional structures, about the ways in which the conventions and traditions of professional and disciplinary organisation determine and delimit our work. Underlying all the discussion was what one might call an overwhelming question – or even an overwhelming priority: What might a 21st Century University look like? Still more specifically, what should a 21st century UNMC look like?
These structural questions were driven by the three questions which, in a series of breakout sessions, we were tasked to consider (other groups faced other questions). First, we were asked to assess what research was only possible in Malaysia (or the region), what kinds of work might define UNMC, what research could really only be achieved here. Second, how we might focus our bidding for funds to maximize external research income. Third, what non-traditional sources of research support might be available and how we might access them. In what were very open and frank and thoughtful debates, of course we also began to scrutinize some of the underlying assumptions behind these questions.
We wondered, for instance, whether at this stage and phase of UNMC’s development it was actually worthwhile pursuing external research funding at all. Such funding currently makes up 5% of total income for the campus. Nonetheless there is clearly a significant volume of high-quality research taking place even with such small baseline figures. We are well-regarded in the Malaysian Research Quality exercises. Given colleagues’ concerns about the amount of time, in already an already overcrowded schedule, they felt they needed to commit to the pursuit of research grants, we felt ,there is a discussion to be had about the cost-effectiveness of the culture of grant-chasing in research-intensive universities. One response to this issue might be for the institution to target significant investment in research support services at UNMC. More boldly, during this developmental phase of UNMC, the University and its partners might directly commission and develop research ‘in house’ for a period in order to establish technical capacity and mass. There was certainly agreement that, in any strategy discussion, there needs to be careful acknowledgement of the relative ‘youth’ of UNMC, of the need to nurture and develop the campus over time.
As the discussions developed during the workshop, colleagues were also increasingly conscious of the very fact that, at UNMC, we’re even able to hold such a forum. This led us to reflect upon issues around the size and scale of UNMC. In larger institutions, or even on our own UK campus, such a diverse group – in terms of disciplines, interests, stage of career, etc., – would never come together with such an open agenda. One of UNMC’s particular advantages, we came to feel, is therefore precisely its scale. Rather than worrying about our relatively small size, shouldn’t we be developing strategies the better to exploit that characteristic? We might usefully seek to compare ourselves with similar size institutions, looking at how they have utilized this feature, rather than feeling pressure to be a mini-Nottingham UK, or – as often happens – to be, primarily, a tributary to the wider tricampus ethos, drawing on and contributing to critical masses of research ‘power’ which are really located elsewhere. That is not to deny the value of such activities, but to question whether they should so predominate. We might, in this regard, also look at other models for research inquiry – one such being the interdisciplinary Smith Institute now School) of Enterprize and Environment at Oxford, a remarkable initiative established by Professor Sir David King, formerly UK Government Chief Science Officer, which was structured around particular, contemporary research questions, rather than disciplinary or faculty interests. Such initiatives demonstrate how research in a 21st century university ought not necessarily to be defined by the categories and structures of 19th century institutions. Given the wealth of further determinants associated with South East Asia, there is a strong sense that the structures which are good for the University of Nottingham might not always be best for UNMC…
It was this final point that marks, for me, the key ‘take-away’ from the workshop. Even as the important, valuable work of agreeing the broad priorities went on, this fundamental, this overwhelming question still resonated. Are we properly attentive to the possibility that a key priority at UNMC is to ensure that we are fully responsive to, fully profiting from, our altogether unique context and environment? Sir David King is fond of closing his lectures with a quotation from Albert Einstein which seems relevant here: ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’.
Dr Sean Matthews is currently seconded from The University of Nottingham, UK as Head of School (UNMC) in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. With Professor Christine Ennew and Dr Christopher Hill, he convenes the Knowledge Without Borders Network.