Count sheep, not metrics

Given the run of campus, some academics would target what they see as cult practices that raise stress and cut productivity

June 11, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

How to get ahead? Get a good night’s sleep. It’s an unlikely catchphrase in the world of 24-7 everything.

But according to Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, sleep – too often a “sacrificial lamb to professional and social demands” – is crucial not only to individuals’ well-being, but also to the success of the institutions that they work for. In our feature that asks five people who aren’t vice-chancellors what they would do if they were v-c for a day, Foster prescribes sleep to combat stress, anxiety and even psychosis, as well as to improve performance.

Flexitime as standard, with no staff meetings before 10am or after 4pm and no emails before 7am or after 11pm, are part of his plan, were he to suddenly find himself in high office.

If this all sounds a bit idealistic, it’s worth noting that Foster’s advice is mirrored by some high-flyers in other spheres: one such “sleep evangelist” is American media mogul Arianna Huffington, who has publicly denounced the “cult of no sleep”. “How is this cult affecting our bodies, minds, and souls? Let us count the ways. Creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, decision-making; all of these can be enhanced simply by sleeping more,” she wrote in 2013.

Foster makes a similar point, arguing that the benefits should appeal to corporate-minded managers because “happy, energetic and more creative staff would generate increased grant income, be more productive and for longer, generate more intellectual property, teach better, and communicate more effectively across all sectors, promoting broad support for the institution”.

A second contributor, Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, opts to use his day in charge to tackle another cult with a keen following: metrics.

Universities, Curry says, operate in “a system that works by numbers – income, outputs, impacts and student satisfaction”. The extreme end of this spectrum is discussed in our news pages, after a Freedom of Information investigation in which we asked universities whether they had specific targets for the amount of grant income that academics are expected to secure. (The reasons for, and implications of, this submission to the numbers game are being explored by an independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment, due to publish its findings next month.)

Curry does not claim that metrics are useless, rather that they are being over- or misused to the extent that they have formed a “Gordian knot” that is choking academic life.

What’s needed, he says, is a way to recognise and reward all aspects of teaching, research and public engagement, with measurement and evaluation accompanying a continuous, institution-wide conversation on where the university is going, and how it will get there.

Other contributors suggest measures to tackle inequality (“for every white male hired, the university would also have to hire a woman”) and disparities in pay and workload (for example, by publishing all salaries, setting standard staff-to-student ratios and allocating research time for new lecturers).

Many of these issues are interconnected and symptomatic of a hyper-competitive culture. But lest you tire of calls for a return to more collegial values, fear not; one of our writers did find space to throw in a small personal bonus: a 50 per cent pay rise and a high-performance company car.

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