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We read the editorial by David Thompson and Philip Darbyshire (2013) with interest. The editorial covers a broad array of issues that influence the current state of the nursing academy but not entirely all. We write from the Australian perspective and also from the perspective of nursing academic administrators within a Group of Eight (Go8) university.

When nursing moved to the tertiary sector in the mid-1980s, the focus was on educating nurses. Hence, the wholesale move of ‘sister tutors’ and the transposition of traditional training programmes into the university sector. Any nurse with a bachelor degree was highly sought after. A master's degree was rare, and a PhD was almost non-existent. It is clearly understandable that those who had these qualifications would be appointed to senior positions with or without the necessary vision, scholarship, research or managerial skills.

In addition, there was little expectation for nursing scholarship at that time. We were teachers first and foremost. With the Dawkins (1988) white paper and the merger of colleges of advanced education into universities, the need for scholarship and research became more important and measured. More recently, the research excellence exercises have further driven that need. Unfortunately, in the beginning, the acquisition of a PhD seemed to be the key to any professorial position, joint or otherwise. This set the bar and a low one it was. Nevertheless, many professors at that time produced exemplary work and continue to do so. Some were ill-fitted for the professorial role but processes were not in place to address this and performance management of under-performing staff to this day is a protracted and difficult process.

Thompson and Darbyshire (2013) note the decline in scholarship over the past decade and we tend to agree with this position. We have noted the slim CVs of some very senior academic staff which make a mockery of those who have strived for academic excellence. The requirement by many universities is for nursing to be an income generator rather than a potent research and scholarly discipline. Some even curtail the appointment of Professors and Associate Professors with the intent to focus activity on teaching to meet teaching loads to build income. We have certainly heard statements by some Vice Chancellors confirming this. Nurse academics who want to research have to secure their own funding in lieu of university support which is directed towards traditional hierarchies. Hence, we have observed the dissolution of nursing schools into disciplines and departments subsumed in larger faculties to meet desirable multidisciplinary profiles.

It is no wonder that a review of the websites of universities shows a lack of scholarship. The ability to attract and retain the best scholars is becoming more difficult because many universities require high teaching loads in addition to scholarship and research. Research grants are increasingly difficult to attain in a highly competitive market. Those in strong positions are loath to uproot and take up new positions especially in universities that have ‘dumbed down’ nursing. They do not want to be classified as, and with, under-achievers. The rest frequently do not meet the standards set for Professors in prestigious universities such as the Go8 or in others aspiring to those standards. The best researchers want to continue to research but, in the absence of attracting funding, seek leadership positions on offer, such as Heads of School and Deans. Although, as Thompson and Darbyshire (2013) note, there are many examples of excellent leadership and scholarship among the Deanery.

While we have witnessed many of the examples of the killer elite described in this editorial, it is not just nursing that has killer elite. We also are aware of professors in other disciplines who work the system by riding on the backs of smart, junior staff. This has been the nature of academia and most businesses with ingrained hierarchies. Some universities are striving for true adherence to the Vancouver guidelines for authorship to address this exploitation.

This critical piece clearly raises the problem of the so-called killer elite. It does not, however, offer a solution. We do hope the discussion spawned will enable feasible, workable and acceptable solutions to be generated.

The old guard's work is done and is now moving on to allow the new wave of nurse academics to propel nursing into the future. We are confident that their legacy will not be one of ‘more of the same’.

References

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  2. References
  • Thompson D.R. & Darbyshire P. (2013) Is academic nursing being sabotaged by its own killer elite? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 69, 13.
  • Dawkins J.S. (1988) Higher Education: A Policy Statement (‘The White Paper’). AGPS, Canberra.