Leader: Not all tools are blunt instruments

April 20, 2007

It is hard for those outside the university sector to appreciate the hostility many academics feel towards what are regarded elsewhere as routine tools of management, in this case psychometric testing. These tests are equitable: the most effective are gender, class or race blind. They can probe ability in a more objective and transparent way than interviews allow. And they are infinitely preferable to more exotic methods certain organisations have resorted to - such as inviting prospective candidates to sing Blame it on the Boogie or perform the Haka. So why the derision?

Perhaps staff fear that the tests are the advance guard for more colourful innovations. A few administrators have been guilty in the past of inappropriately applying management practices common in the private sector to universities. But that does not seem to be the case with the latest proposals. Is it because psychometric testing can be flawed and partial? Undoubtedly true, if these tests were to be the sole determinant of deciding recruitment or promotion. But is anyone suggesting that they should be?

Many academics would retort that other and better means exist of judging a candidate's likely performance, namely an individual's teaching and research record. Again, true. But most of the proposals advanced are about career progression rather than recruitment. Peer review is no guide to social skills or the ability to lead or work in a team, for instance.

The principal reason such initiatives appear to cause apoplexy among many academics is because they are perceived as emblematic of an attack on the idea of a university; that an institution cannot advance and impart knowledge if it succumbs to "creeping managerialism". That line of reasoning is, frankly, bizarre. As John Rust of Cambridge University points out the level of decision-making and initiative required of academics today is on a par with the skills required in the boardroom. It would seem appropriate, therefore, to employ techniques that test them. More fundamentally, is it not time to recognise that whatever the shortcomings of some and the incompetence of a few, university administrators are as committed as academics to the status, excellence and role of universities?

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