Assessments 'destroy' HE

May 22, 1998

An Edinburgh University professor has condemned current teaching and research assessment methods as part of higher education's slide in "a Dutch auction towards disaster".

Ged Martin, giving his inaugural lecture as professor of Canadian studies, said few universities had confronted and none had solved the problem of reconciling inherited values of academic collegiality with imposed structures of modern management.

"As a university teacher, my task is to create an environment in which students can learn. I am an educator, not a petrol pump," he said. "It follows that the only point at which the effectiveness of teaching can be monitored is after a course has been completed. Any procedure that purports to assess teaching while it is in progress is illegitimate, especially if it violates the basic principle of scientific research that the observer must never influence what is observed."

Fifteen years ago, not even the worst nightmare could have foreseen the research assessment exercise, with scholarly work graded by panels whose judgements were necessarily subjective but whose decisions were not open to appeal, Professor Martin said.

"The petrol-pump approach to teaching has been matched by the sausage-machine evaluation of scholarship."

Scholarship is primarily an individual achievement, he said, and although scholars might join together for specific projects, those combinations rarely coincide with the broad coalitions that constitute university departments. "A system that consigns entire departments to the Third Division North in order to restrict research funding is inherently absurd and harmful to the national interest."

Universities were suffering because of a well-meaning belief "that if we kick our own backsides hard enough, the government will leave us alone", but this attitude had only invited more assaults, Professor Martin said. "The inherent flaw of the collaborationist strategy is that it guarantees the destruction of what it seeks to preserve. Attempts to roll with successive punches will only encourage the knock-out blow."

Professor Martin said that although Canada is associated with compromise, he found inspiration in its history, which reflected "the premise that it is often necessary to say 'no' to solutions that conventional wisdom finds overwhelmingly logical as a precondition to saying 'Yes' to aims that doubters dismiss as utopian." This included the rejection of anglicisation by French Canada.

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