So the UK higher education sector has just been evaluated again – this time, via the teaching excellence framework (TEF). This brought good news for some and bad news for others. And that is the problem with evaluation, it is divisive – there are winners and losers.
This moves academia away from being a collaborative team effort with a free flow of ideas between individuals and a pooling of talents and towards being a fight to the death for limited resources. However, regardless of your opinion about the validity of the process, external assessment of higher education is unlikely to disappear any time soon. This means that we need to think about what is being assessed and to shape it so that it builds rather than divides.
While the assessors claim that it drives up quality, assessment can put undue pressure on the people being assessed. And it changes the focus to the metrics being assessed. We should be in higher education because we love doing it. But, since the sector has moved away from the generation of gentleman scientists performing research on their country estates in their spare time, to be involved in higher education you need a space to do it, income to support you while you do it and funding to pay for it. And to get these things you need a career. And to get a career you need to tick the boxes.
Call it what you want: gaming the system, focusing resources for maximum effect, metrics-based performance criteria, we all do things to progress our careers. If you don’t think you do, you are either in denial, stuck in a scholarly Stockholm syndrome where you think this behaviour is the norm, a Nobel laureate or about to get sacked.
Changing the metrics is the easiest mechanism to deliver change, giving clear guidance and enabling senior staff to support people as they advance. But the new metrics need to be meaningful and, critically, understandable to everyone involved. Poorly constructed metrics can lead to the loss of potential by cutting off careers at an early stage, perpetuate gender bias and pile on unacceptable levels of stress, especially when used as a tool to manage, rather than to support and develop.
The best metrics will align to support and deliver performance, scientific excellence, service and personal development. Easy to say, much harder to deliver. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) is a start, but focuses mainly on research output, without assessing the academic in the round.
Here are my suggestions for underpinning principles for new metrics:
- Holistic: we need to demonstrate that we are improving and growing, that the work we are doing is of value and that we are making a meaningful contribution to the community, both the greater community and also to the institutions in which we are based. Contributions to these communities – through teaching, service, outreach and mentoring – need equal weighting to grant income and papers. Not just as boxes to be ticked, but actual equal weighting.
- All informed: both the assessors and the assessed need to understand, accept and stick to the new metrics.
- Supportive: It takes time to discover your academic niche – not all of us are great teachers, not everyone can be on television, only nine of us a year are going to get Nobel Prizes. There needs to be space to develop our talents and not to be cut off after three years because you failed to get a million pounds in grants and the cover of Cell.
- Simple: we are all trying to juggle too many things. Clear, easy to understand metrics help both the assessor and the assessed know what they need to do.
If metrics can deliver academic excellence, personal development, community engagement and the greater good, we might get the sector that we are all working hard towards.
John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College London. He runs a blog on academic life.