Caught in the crossfire of conflicting cultures

September 18, 1998

Education's new management style must not impair sound pedagogical judgements, says Conrad Russell

People working in public service jobs today are at the sharp end of a violent clash between two cultures. The first, traditional public service, traces its history to the Northcote-Trevelyan report and originates from the tradition of judicial impartiality. Decisions are made in the public interest. For the person taking the decision to have any financial interest in its outcome is seen as inherently corrupt. It is not necessary to prove that the financial interest has led to an unjust decision. Its mere existence is sufficient proof that the decision cannot be seen to be just.

The second originates from modern management theory and draws its inspiration from the principles of the market. It is seen as essential to "motivate" public servants. It is not believed that people will do their very best, as G. K. Chesterton put it, "for love of the Leeds International Stores". It is necessary to motivate them by giving them a financial interest in their decisions. It is from this culture that performance indicators and performance-related pay have sprung.

University teachers, who are being subjected to both these cultures simultaneously, are being asked to serve two masters, a difficult task.

Both cultures have weaknesses. The Northcote-Trevelyan culture is not proof against sloth and depends heavily on a doctrine of commitment to the public service ideal. If that commitment is not there, it can depend only on the fear of being found out, therefore producing a type of service that, like Dogberry's swearing, "goes by the book".

The management culture, on the other hand, is inherently tainted with short-termism. Quick profit, if it depends on the sacrifice of safety or quality or the depletion of resources, may well conflict with long-term profit.

It is right and proper that a private business should not be run in exactly the same way as a public service: the objectives are different. For us, the essential question is what are the objectives of university teaching and how well they sit with performance indicators.

The aims of university teaching cannot easily be defined as a list of quantifiable objectives. Teaching is subject to a duty that it be done in the interests of the student. That may often coincide with getting the student the best possible results in examinations, but it need not always do so. The responsibility to the whole development of the person is a higher obligation.

On the other hand, the interest of the student is not the only obligation. There is an obligation to the interests of the subject. When they can be reconciled, the student comes first. When they cannot, the subject does. There is no duty to assist a student to get a good degree by lies, plagiarism or cheating.

If the interest of the student conflicts with a performance indicator, it is positively immoral to follow the performance indicator. I have, for example, had students whose debt level exceeded Pounds 2,000. Obviously, I have discussed with them dropping out for a few years, paying off the debt, and being readmitted. If we are now to have performance indicators penalising our institutions, and therefore ourselves, for drop-out rates, I would have a financial incentive not to give such advice. To respond to it would be corrupt.

Indicators may conflict with each other. It is proposed that there be incentives, both to restrict drop-out rates and to select more students from poorer backgrounds. Both objectives are good, but when the majority of drop-outs are for financial reasons, they conflict.

In admissions, the moral imperative is to select on academic merit. This must be judged as potential, not as achievement. One is looking for the person who will be the best in three years' time. That means one should take account of disadvantages. Yet poverty is not the only disadvantage. Suppose I have to assess a poor student against a deaf student, and I think the deaf student has more potential. I must select him or her, and pressure to do otherwise is corrupt.

Performance indicators will never be always accurately measured. There is nothing wrong with encouraging good teaching, but if this is to be done on outcomes of the teaching quality assessment, any resemblance between what is encouraged and good teaching will be purely coincidental. We have judgement, and must follow it.

When my father sat his scholarship exam to Trinity Cambridge, another candidate got better marks. Whitehead was certain my father was the better candidate and burned the marks. He did not confess this until my father had got his F.R.S. We should not do this sort of thing often, but if we can never do it, we should not do the job at all.

Earl Russell is professor of British history, King's College, London.

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