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There have to be better ways to play the academic competition game

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Thursday, 25 September 2003

The sky was as big as a blue billboard, and a little plane droned away, laboriously writing something. U... N... S..., and then the final W. Sky-high advertising – it’s not exactly novel. But as far as I know, it is a new strategy for universities. And UNSW, presumably advertising its open day, had a cunning plan. The advertising hung in the skies above both UTS and University of Sydney.

The idea that universities compete with each other is hardly news. It’s inscribed in government policy and in our everyday work practices. Anything you can do, we can do better. And like the underlying logic of higher education reforms, we seem to be grouped in different leagues. So Sydney and UNSW continually look over their shoulders to see what the other is doing. Sydney also implicitly and explicitly benchmarks itself against Melbourne but seems to care little about competing with UNSW or Swinburne.

Horses for courses - the stakes for competition are clearly set. We compete for research income, national and international recognition, and sometimes for researchers. We’re also competing for students but not necessarily as an undifferentiated mass. Our sights are set on the high achievers – for instance those who would have seen UNSW’s logo from their selective grammar schools.


If competition is a fact of life, within academia it has an ambiguous status. Non-academics like to imagine lecturers living a carefree existence beyond the rough and tumble of corporate competing. It’s a vision totally disconnected from reality but it persists because of lack of information and interest, perhaps combined with a nostalgic desire on the part of non-academics to fantasise about places of quiet contemplation untouched by the hurly-burly of the rat race. Years ago, as a young academic, I complained to my brother about the pressures of my new position. He’s a big corporate wheeler and dealer and he just laughed at my worries: “Geez,” he said in his big brotherly sympathy. “Stress in academia? Give me a break!”

The gist of his remark lingers. It was so at odds with my initiation into academic life. It’s bad enough that part of academic training is competing with other PhDs for sessional contracts but once you’re fully in the game it gets fierce. In my first “real” job, the dean summoned me for a pep talk. “You’ve got to build muscles and flex them against others,” he said without a hint of a smile. “If you don’t, you’ll never have an academic career.” And so began the serious training for academic competition.

For the driven, there is any number of different academic events to compete in. There’s the publishing stakes – how many articles you notch up in A-list journals and how fast. Then there’s the conferencing event – which, like dressage, is about going through the paces. The prize isn’t clearly stated but it’s obviously very important.

In other academic events the stakes are brutally clear. The success and failure rates of competitive grants are widely published so everyone knows the top players.

Despite ample evidence that competition is a fact of academic life, in some circles it’s taken as quintessentially male, or capitalist, or unethical. As a pragmatist, I think this is rot. In the words of Juha Heikkala, a sociologist of sport, “competing is about producing and acknowledging actual differences”.

This is not an apologia for the new industrial reforms on the horizon. We do compete but equally there may be more and less ethical ways of competing. And there are instances where what could be ruthless competition turns into something like team spirit – or what used to be quaintly called collegiality.


I’ve been reminded of this elusive but precious part of academic life by the results of my latest attempt at entrepreneurial flexing. For pedagogical, and financial, reasons, we’ve been investigating possible markets for postgraduate programs. With funding secured from a previous competition, my research assistant, Adam Eldridge, has been checking out who’s doing what in Australia in the areas of gender and cultural studies. It’s a woeful waste of a brilliant theoretical mind but Adam has got into it and contacted a number of players in the fields. Of course, this operation could be seen as empire building or just getting too big for our boots but the response has been enthusiastic and helpful from individuals and institutions who could have seen themselves as rivals.

This type of response is evidence of what could be called an ethics of academic team sports. Like some of the initiatives prompted under the new ARC scheme for building teams of researchers, the focus is on building a better field.

This is in marked contrast to the continuing turf wars that rage in some universities over certain disciplines. For instance, people are still competing over who gets to “own” cultural studies. The games that get played within cultural studies are bad enough but the fight over cultural studies - as if it were a glittering prize - is really weird. In this strange proprietorial competition, no one seems to know what they are competing for. I suppose it’s a race for student numbers, or for an elusive appeal. It’s framed by a zero-sum logic – if you get more, we’ll get less. Whatever the rationale, it’s a purely negative form of competition where the end result will be that no-one gains anything. Given how badly it’s being played in some universities, the referees will be brought in and the whole competition will be called off.

It’s an experience that makes me want to hang up my shoes and let my muscles turn to flab. Is the competitive drive no longer in my blood? Maybe, or maybe it’s just that I don’t want to compete in certain ways anymore. There must be more interesting academic games and better ways of playing them.

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This article was first published in The Australian Higher Education Supplement on the 19th September, 2003.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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