Measure still for measure?

Is the sector placing too little trust in academics and too much in performance management techniques?

February 5, 2015

One of the most significant shifts in higher education over the past decade or more has been the adoption – often lock, stock and barrel – of commercial-sector performance management techniques.

If the most important question is “Why?”, then the only credible answer can be “To improve teaching and research” (and, perhaps, to demonstrate that improvement). Yet the warning voiced repeatedly by academics is that the approach often has the opposite effect.

That’s not to say that performance shouldn’t be measured. Academics interviewed for a study in Australia, published in the journal Critical Studies in Education, were found to be “generally accepting of the notion that their work should be subjected to various forms of critical evaluation”.

However, “there was concern that the current forms of measuring and managing academic work…were distorting and potentially counterproductive to the aim of building good research and teaching”.

The metrics have gone absolutely berserk…There’s this blinkered view that’s what the world is all about

As one physicist put it: “The metrics have gone absolutely berserk…There’s this blinkered view that’s what the world is all about: you must publish papers, you must meet these key performance indicators.”

This is not just a corrosive distraction: at its worst it can encourage research fraud, while low-level fibbing and fudging are seen by some as common by-products of the system. Others raise concerns about the effect on teaching.

Highlighting the dominance of research assessment in fuelling academic careers, a historian points out that in his native US (which, unlike Australia, does not have an equivalent to the UK’s research excellence framework), “even the big superstar professors all teach”. Elsewhere, he implies, ambitious staff are encouraged to focus solely on those research metrics to get ahead. The conclusion suggested by the paper’s authors, Peter Woelert and Lyn Yates of the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, is that universities may be placing too little trust in academics and too much in performance management as an “effective instrument of governance”.

This professional disquiet is echoed in the results of our second annual Best University Workplace survey, published this week.

There’s obvious dissonance in the way academic respondents feel about their work in a broad sense (80 per cent say it is a source of satisfaction), and the daily pressures and realities.

In a discussion about the survey’s findings, Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath, suggests this is partly down to the “crude performance management” that undermines academics’ professional identity. What defines a professional is independence, Briner says, and “when I entered this career I would have recommended it to most people who have a strong intellectual interest and enjoy teaching. Now that isn’t enough; you need to have a level of discipline and to be interested in performing in certain ways to get anything out of the job and to be successful.”

The result, he says, is that “for the first time I would really question someone’s motives [for considering a career in academia] to make sure it was what they wanted to do”. Briner’s colleague Yiannis Gabriel, chair in organisation studies at the University of Bath School of Management, says that as the father of an early career academic he is asking similar questions.

The question for our universities is: what are they going to do about it?

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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