Do sporting metaphors sell academics short?

Using the language of sport to sell metrics-based performance management ignores what sport can really teach academia, argues linguistics scholar Liz Morrish

January 6, 2016
High jump
The 'Raising the Bar' initiative was designed to improve research performance by 2020

I am not fond of sports metaphors, but many vice-chancellors are.

“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 amid chatter that Newcastle has been “lacking in competitiveness compared to other Russell Group institutions”.

Chris Brink, the vice-chancellor, stated in a “town hall meeting” in November 2015 that Newcastle had lacked 4*-ness in the last research excellence framework, 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 that they started awarding stars, like US Army generals.

When did the amount of grant money eclipse the actual content of the research?

“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.

Metrics, then, are unlikely to offer any of the certainties that their champions have promised, and doubly so because of the sheer irrationality that governs their application.

The bar must be raised, and raised again. No one must slip beneath the bar. There is only the bar, the metric that cannot lie.

Except it does. There is always a rush to judgement as metrics occlude any other evidence. This is the weak spot, and one that offers a route to resistance. What about content? What about the imagination, passion and risk-taking that animate research? What about bright people having fortuitous conversations?

Of course, Newcastle is not alone in planning to audit its academic staff on the attainment of quantifiable targets, with some, such as grant capture, quite outside their control.

Nor is the misery confined to the Russell Group. Newcastle joins a long list that now amounts to one in six UK universities, according to Times Higher Education.

So let’s indeed raise the bar. Let’s raise the bar for decency, humanity, respect and trust. Let’s realise that academic staff do not have either the resources or the capacity to keep expanding their workloads and output every year, and please let’s keep in mind the human consequences of systems that push people above, over and beyond.

And when we read “we” in a university document, we should be able to feel that it includes everyone who works in a university and not pertain exclusively to management.

I understand that what has made the New Zealand All Blacks a great team – and champions at the Rugby World Cup – is a sense that there is a long-term investment in each player’s development.

In contrast, the England team’s reliance on a permanent sense of insecurity and enforced competition for their place on the team did not end well.

Liz Morrish is a principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Arts & Humanities, whose teaching interests include language and sociolinguistics. A longer version of this post can be found on her blog, Academic Irregularities.

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