A Sceptic University

  • The core to the University will be the supervisor-researcher relationship
  • This relationship will involve a huge commitment from both supervisor & researcher.
  • With no buildings, the University would in effect be an “academic dating site” matching researchers and supervisors
  • Whilst using the internet will minimise costs – it also creates issues, which whilst not insurmountable are not trivial.
  • The University would need to secure additional suitably qualified people for the final assessment and facilitate the process.
  • An important role of the University would be to publish the research and store supporting (electronic) evidence.

In my last post re a: School of Scepticism I looked at the legal position regarding what might properly be called a research University or Institute. I used the name School because there is nothing barring us using this, but to avoid confusion I will now refer to it as a “University”.

The legal issues are a hurdle, but as I started to think about the mechanics of the research, I realised that the real core of any University would be the key relationship between a supervisor and the researcher. Yes, since the University would be aimed at more mature people, they would need less guidance in some areas – but also being longer out of University and more “entrenched” in their ways, they might need far more help in other areas.

So, not only would the researchers be making a huge commitment to do the research, but the “University” would need to find a supervisor who was willing to make a substantial commitment to that researcher to guide them through the process. So, in some senses what I am proposing is a form of academic “dating” site – where the aim would be to match those willing to undertake research with those willing to guide and council them.

A huge question, is would there be enough people willing to be researchers and supervisors and another is whether this relationship would be financial and if so how would it be funded? My original hope had been that enough goodwill existed to avoid all costs. But as I begin to understand the commitments, a totally cost-free University is looking less tenable.

And like any relationship – what happens if the relationship between researcher and supervisor breaks down – particularly if the researcher has made the supervisor in any way. Even if researchers and supervisors are willing to give their own time for free, there will be a significant investment of time and that needs to be matched with a suitably supportive administration function. That needs to be done professionally which means there will be some costs.

The issues with the internet

So, far I have just assumed the University would exist, not as a set of buildings or laboratories, but as a virtual University on the web. Communications would be via the web, and I had envisaged the whole process from the initial contact of potential researchers through to the final examination of the thesis as being done without anyone ever having to meet in person.

That would dramatically bring down the costs to the extent where with a great deal of good will from those willing to supervise a doctorate could be achieved at almost no cost (although some funding would be needed for administration). However, if supervisors were being paid, then there is a financial obligation on the University to supervise the supervisor and ensure that – for a start they are who they say they are with the relevant qualifications to supervise – and that they are earning the money they get.

These issues are not insurmountable – but neither are they trivial.

Unfortunately, being online also means some types of research will be impossible unless you happen to own a laboratory or can wangle access from a friendly facility. But more and more, material is online.

Also, there will be no library. Again, many people can access material online and/or access a local University library. However, there is also a cartel of publishing houses that extort money to access journals. It may be possible to arrange group access or preferential rates of access. But such group access would create a vulnerability which might be exploited by those in academia who would not welcome the competition of new ideas. The fallback has to be to expect researchers to make their own arrangements.

Next Steps

If I can secure a great deal of good will from a few supervisors will to kick start the process and work with researchers to guide them for a number of years, I think there will be people willing to utilise their skills to do research and we could get it off the ground.

If we could get funding – it would be a lot easier.

What is the aim.

Unlike a traditional University, which sees itself as teaching students and focusses on new areas of research, I would envisage this University to some extent as inverting the relationship. Now, instead of student learning from Universities, because of their experience, it is the researcher who has a great deal to offer to the University. Whilst I’d expect researchers to be pushing back the frontiers of knowledge many may be also be in effect documenting their own knowledge.

The broad aim would be to encourage researchers to:

  • Complete three or more years (full time equivalent) of independent research on an original topic.
  • With the support of one or more expert academic supervisors.
  • Producing a significant contribution to knowledge.
  • Resulting in an award equivalent or equal to ‘Doctor’.

Given that many would be working through the process on a part-time basis, it is important to sub-divide the research into smaller steps:

  • Ad hoc papers (as appropriate)
  • One year (full time equivalent) assessment
  • Two year (“masters)
  • Doctoral ( or equivalent)

The final work (and as appropriate sub-stages) would typically include:

  • A literature review (a survey of readily available published scholarship).
  • Conducting research which significantly advances the frontiers of public knowledge
  • Collecting a body of evidence: information, data etc. of verifiable provenance.
  • Devising a thesis that collates and organises the information perhaps in the form of a model or theory and presents your conclusions.
  • Writing up the thesis as a dissertation AND making readily available the supporting evidence.
  • “External” Assessment of the thesis with supporting evidence.

Assessment

In order to complete the research, not only do we need suitably qualified people willing to supervise, but we also need suitably qualified people to assess the result. It will take time and effort just to organise people to be assessors. By the nature of the University – the  assessment would need to be done online – which again may take some work to ensure everyone has the relevant material and communications work.

Finally, because it is new, and because it will be based on the internet, it might be possible to open up the assessment – to in effect do open-review assessment: publishing the thesis ahead of time and allowing pubic comments.

Publishing and information storage

The final role of the University would be to publish the research – which may mean simply putting the material online – and being a repository of information. That may sound trivial, but if someone has been working for three years on research, the volume of supporting information could be substantial and there’s no point holding it unless it can be accessed.

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