Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Pascual's Wager

UP President Alfredo Pascual gives his views on research at the UP
With apologies to Blaise Pascal we paraphrase his famous wager as

"If the fact that UP is really a top notch university cannot be revealed by reason alone, then a rational UP alumnus should wager as if UP really is tops!"

This probably was in the mind of UP President Alfredo Pascual when he spoke to the scientists and researcher academics at the latest "Kapihan" at the UP Marine Science Institute newly refurbished auditorium last Friday, August 5, 2011. Diliman Diary has reported on what was discussed.

Do you notice what is wrong with the above wager? Answer: Any rational mind will be able to conclude that the wager has a false predicate! UP is not tops! To insist it is, is to hold on to a delusion!

The University of the Philippines is faced with a serious and increasing budgetary shortfall. The coming fiscal year saw the university budget slashed by Congress to the tune of 800 million PhP. This piece of news was told on the eve of the UPCAT (admission) exams, which 70K high school seniors took, the highest in UP's history.  The situation is serious enough that the frank Fred Pascual had to entertain the possibility that the undergraduate admission may be reduced so that academic excellence many not be compromised.  But Mr Pascual said that he hopes it doesn't come to this.

The 2008 UP Charter names the UP as the "national university" which also is a research university. The university has to give emphasis in research but it is hindered by many factors. Foremost of which is that the median age of professors is in the early 50s. Since the retirement age is 65, many of these professors will retire before 2025. And there will be very few who would replace them. Without younger replacements, no graduate students can be trained and ergo, no research outputs that will make the university more competitive.

The longstanding debate on the standards for research was noted by Pascual. But it is clear to him and most of us that UP needs to identify specific areas for research prioritization. This will entail a large dose of political will in central administration since some pet research foci of some academics will not be prioritized. Since the budget is small, there is a need to consolidate resources at the university system level. This would make research grant applications more competitive. With the increased competition, those who come up with innovative ideas will be more likely to win grants.

Academic Affairs Veep Professor Giselle Concepcion unveiled the plan and mechanics of this new systems grant. What I noticed as major innovations include the emphasis on external review, publication output, patents (for technology research) and the training of post-docs and graduate students. If the plan works, then it is possible that the UP will be able to attract post docs (most likely Filipinos who are based abroad) to eventually be appointed as assistant professors. This may be a great opportunity to rebuild and reorient UP as a real research and innovative university. We all know that the majority of post docs abroad don't get faculty appointments.

Only when you have these outward looking young professors can we see real change in how UP does research. But this has been implemented at the department scale by Professor Ed Gomez of marine science. It has to be replicated in all departments but according to their competencies and disciplinary bounds. An MSI clone will not work!

But that would require a major cultural change in UP, especially in the Diliman campus. Pascual also mentioned his concept of a "one UP" which would link and make operations of all the constituent universities more efficient. Since I have worked with an international agency for most of the 1990s, I see where Fred Pascual is coming from. He spent most of his working life in the Asian Institute of Management and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). At these international institutions, there is a different kind of accountability associated in coming out with outputs whether these are for development or planning. The top honchos of institutions like these are accountable to the board of trustees who obviously are the representatives of States that fund these development organizations. Such is not part of the UP culture, which is premised on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Thus one colleague remarked to me that the research plan just unveiled is like what an academic has to come up when he/she applies for EU or USAID funding! If Pascual's wager works then we can expect that institutional autonomy will be less at UP. It is the "corporate scenario" that UP academics fear!

No one in Diliman ever mouths the words "educational provider". But in foreign universities, the corporate nature of the university is simply that. Academics will have to face this reality and work with corporate planners to ensure the university is successful and efficient.

If Pascual's wager works then the UP will make its final transition from being partly medieval, colonial, ideologically petrified to post-modern!

Of course we cannot hold to the old wager I first stated. To do so is to hold on to the Diliman Delusion which I will discuss in the future. I am in discussion with UPIS alums now professors. They have a good view on what this delusion is!

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