Aztec empire-building

June 21, 2012

A number of articles in Times Higher Education have reflected the unrest among UK academics at the way in which universities are managed (eg, “Academy rots from the head and it stinks”, Opinion, 10 May; “Dismissal threat for metrics letter”, News, 17 May). What is causing this malaise?

In the 1960s, everything seemed so different. Sparkling new institutions, the University of Sussex first then others, with radical designs both of their buildings and the courses they offered, attracted bright undergraduates. All were convinced that the future offered a multiplicity of opportunity and that every path was legitimate and open.

Then there were the polytechnics, supported by local education authorities (sometimes handsomely): each had a role and all were unique. Indeed, some had a special cachet in their own specialisations (Regent Street and Hatfield polytechnics being just two examples). Today, Sussex, the University of Westminster and the University of Hertfordshire (as those polytechnics are now known) are all competing in the same university league tables (of which there are many) published by the media. Their distinctive individual qualities have been all but obliterated.

Someone tell me, what do the ranking systems do for us? How do they inform us? And how do they support originality, creativity and the development of new knowledge and skills?

Quick to see the implications of the explosive expansion of university numbers caused by the transformation of the polytechnics in 1992, the founder members of the Russell Group (primarily the older civic universities, dragging in Oxbridge for credibility) set themselves apart in 1994. They later justified this on the grounds that they are the UK’s research elite. Like the claims of any other self-appointed, self-promoting pressure group, this only ever had limited validity.

Our academic leaders have now abandoned any pretence of nurturing the essential universal ideal of academic -freedom: all have one eye on the league tables (with the other anxiously looking for chinks in the Russell Group armour). Perpetual evaluation of academic staff by “metrics” – which actually measure nothing relevant if they don’t use the research excellence framework’s peer-review process – leads to periodic academic bloodletting and competitive hiring raids on sister institutions (Sussex yesterday, Queen Mary, University of London today). The Aztec priesthood would have approved: human sacrifice today ensures the Sun rises tomorrow. But on whom? All this suffering in order to move a few points up league tables determined by numerical legerdemain, journalism, PR and lobbying.

Scholarship is not served. Will no one defend academic freedom?

Gavin P. Vinson


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