Imperialist metric systems

Inappropriate measures of performance are detrimental to the intrinsic motivations of an academic workforce

June 19, 2014

It is pretty standard these days to be asked to do more with less. If it isn’t austerity, it’s free-market efficiency turning the metaphorical screw, and higher education isn’t immune to either.

The focus is often on the “less” as the most obvious source of pain, but constant pressure to do more can be just as serious, whether it’s the impact of growing class sizes on teaching and learning or the “publish or perish” culture in research.

This week, sociologist Laurie Taylor writes in praise of ethnography, an immersive and necessarily slow form of research that, he fears, stands like a swaying sapling before a gathering storm.

“It is difficult to believe that many researchers would choose to embark on a three-year qualitative study when they could gain all the research excellence framework credit they need by placing three short articles in peer-reviewed journals,” he writes.

Differences between the commercial and public sectors are so fundamental that what is logical in the former can be ‘simply alien’ in the latter

His fears tap into a wider concern that universities are undergoing a cultural shift in which square management techniques are applied to the polygonal academic workforce.

This worry is not unique to the UK. A paper in the current issue of Studies in Higher Education considers the effect of what it terms “management-by-results” in Finnish universities.

The danger, it says, is that this can boil down to “maximising production regardless of the product” and “threatens to ruin one of the core elements of [academic] work – intrinsic motivation”.

The examples given will be familiar to many: the use of student feedback as a performance metric, or “strict systems for counting publications and transforming them into research scores”.

The problem, the paper says, is that the differences between the commercial and public sectors are so fundamental that what is logical in the former can be “simply alien” in the latter.

The authors of the study surveyed about 1,000 academic staff, and an astonishing 80 per cent agreed or mostly agreed with the statement: “Nowadays in universities the content of the work is secondary; what is important is to produce as much as possible.”

The UK has its own pressures: the REF has become all-consuming for managers and caused distortions in the lab, while impact assessment is the national metric du jour.

At a local level, many universities run their own performance-based management exercises, and in a recent blog, Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, decries the growing trend for using annual grant income as a measure of staff performance.

“What’s wrong with that you might ask? Surely it’s your job as an academic to secure research income? No. My job as an academic is to do high-quality research,” he writes.

What’s more, Moriarty argues, this particular approach does not take any account of the quality of output, so it does not even drive efficiency for the taxpayer.

Those who do not perform need to be held to account, of course, but that’s always been true, and it is clear that inappropriate management techniques – those that are nakedly “managerial” – can severely dent the intrinsic motivation that is so crucial in academia.

It’s the foundation on which higher education is built, and if it’s undermined, no metric will fill the hole left behind.

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