Raising the Bar – Liz Morrish

James Wilsdon may as well not have inveighed against the ‘metric tide’, and Jo Johnson could have saved printers’ ink asking vice-chancellors not to waste academics’ time, and students’ fee money by operating multiple ‘mock’ REFs (BIS Green Paper November 2015 Chapter 2, para 7).

It is time for a critical conversation to take place about the use and abuse of metrics. In July 2015, Hefce published The Metric Tide, the report of a review body chaired by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.

Despite the report’s chilling preface, announcing a “new barbarity” in our universities, we continue to witness the misuse of metrics as a tool of management in UK higher education. “Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods”, wrote Wilsdon. Universities should proceed with caution, then, lest metrics should spread like a digital Himalayan Balsam and undermine the ethical architecture of universities.

It is ironic, but perhaps fortunate, that students find universities a very different experience than the academic staff who labour in them. For students, the intrusive scrutiny of metrics can at least claim to betoken a therapeutic and supportive institution. Generally speaking, the student ‘dashboard’ does not harbour the disciplinary function of its academic equivalent. 

For academic staff, audit has become a central organizing principle of life in universities (Strathern 2003). Our working lives are structured around the requirement to undergo ‘rituals of verification’ (Power 1997), and there are as many anticipatory audits as there are demands for post-hoc justification. Such is their prevalence that the behaviour of academics has been transformed so that they are interpolated primarily as auditees (Petersen and Davies 2010). Benchmarks, metrics and dashboards are examples of calculative practices (Shore and Wright 2015), used, apparently, to measure and improve the productivity of academics. This imposes a rationality whereby we face a future of ‘algorithmic regulation’ (Morozov 2014), and regimes in which employees are hierarchized according to metrics. University policy documents endeavour to justify these practices as essential, and even empowering to academics.

I have blogged previously about the difference between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, citing a report from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (Franco-Santos et al. 2014).

Stewardship approaches frame a long term direction of travel which relies on individuals exercising autonomy, while agency approaches address short term goals via monitoring and tight control. While UK universities seem beholden to the short-term, agency approach, stewardship approaches are favoured by Umran Inan, President of Koc University in Turkey. He writes that “that any attempt to pass down norms or procedures” from on high is antithetical to creativity, and that universities must instead “allow unusual [and] inconsistent things to happen” (Parr 2014). At Koc, quality of scholarship is allowed to flourish and internal evaluations take place every five years. By comparison, in the UK, we are in danger of allowing academic freedom and creativity to founder under the distorting constraints of audit.

I am not fond of sports metaphors, but many vice-chancellors are. I understand that what has made the New Zealand All Blacks a great team is a sense that there is a long-term investment in each player’s development, rather than the England team’s reliance on a permanent sense of insecurity and enforced competition for their place on the team.

Raising the Bar is a sports metaphor that will be familiar to academics at Newcastle University, as they have become one of the latest universities to publish their expectations for research performance. All of this was initiated by managerial anxiety, amidst chatter about so-called ‘bottom Russellers,’ that Newcastle has been “lacking in competitiveness compared to other Russell Group institutions”. The Vice-Chancellor, Chris Brink stated in a ‘town hall meeting’ in November 2015 that Newcastle had lacked 4*-ness in the last REF, and that an institutional goal was to be in the top half of the Russell Group. This can be attributed purely to league table-induced status anxiety. But I do wonder when, exactly, did academia become a combat zone? Probably it was at the same time they started awarding stars, like US Army generals. When did the amount of grant money eclipse the actual content of the research? But Raising the Bar is a coercively innocent phrase. It conveniently conceals all the judgement, hostility, pain and pressure that we know will follow it. Academic endeavour is not something that can just be improved by order. Research functions within a context, an ethos and a dynamic.

Now that I have built a reputation for busting managerial myths about performance management, kind Twitterati send me their universities’ policy documents. As a linguist, I feast upon their discursively encoded ideologies. As a human being, a scholar and a friend of many victims, I weep at the cost for these individuals, but also for the future of universities.

More… Read the full post at Academic Irregularities

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About Sean

Senior Research Fellow, Survey of English Usage, University College London
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