Arguments of merit

July 9, 1999

Aristotle warned against importing standards of measurement where they do not belong. For good reason. Teaching - not least, higher education - is not commerce, but a vocation. To think otherwise is a "category mistake" of presenting facts or properties of one kind as if applicable to another.

Performance-related pay ("A scheme with merit", THES, July 2) will foster competitive rivalry and antagonisms between academics in an already demoralised profession, and thus undermine the group solidarity, cooperation and performance on which education depends.

There will be further decline in standards as academics massage students' results and salami their own research.

Good lecturers and researchers, by contrast, and those whose research is long-term, probably self-funded, and with significance not immediately recognised, will be penalised.

It will compromise or curtail critical independence, encourage conformity to prevailing ideology and orthodoxies, stifle pluralism and diversity, and imperil fledgling fields.

The academics who will lose out will be those who question and transcend the limitations of present curricula and the exam system and ethos.

The assessment of merit is profoundly and ineluctably ideological: content matters as much as form or communication and presentation skills. It will be viciously circular, unless there are the financial independence and the interdisciplinary, and epistemological and sociological checks to inform it. (And what about the appraisal of interpersonal and pastoral skills, and those beyond the call of duty?) Anyway, existing career structures provide adequate incentives and sanctions (with heads having a fair idea of good and poor performers).

Academics need decent - not indecently eroded - pay. PRP should be vigorously resisted. It will be another nail in the coffin.

Marie McDougall, London SW15

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