Corruption of quality

July 5, 2002

An obsession with monitoring is destroying higher education, argues Stephen Prickett

In March 2001, along with several thousand others, I received a corrupt offer in the form of a letter from an agency asking if, as a full-time university teacher, I wished to spend some of my "spare time" school-teaching. No questions about qualifications or experience were asked.

Behind this extraordinary offer lies a crisis that spans our whole education system. Not merely are thousands of teachers retiring early, but almost 60 per cent of intending teachers drop out within three years. The decline of quality in graduate students and - most telling - the fact that some university teachers must be desperate enough to be tempted to moonlight in schools suggest how deep the rot has now gone. So deep, in fact, that the statistics themselves are suspect.

Monitoring education too closely, like monitoring particles in quantum physics, changes what is being examined. British education is being systematically corrupted by its own testing systems. The recent resignation of a Charterhouse master for faking exam results illustrates the pressure created by over-examining on every sector of British education.

The process of educational monitoring, begun in the 1980s, is now an institutional fetish and an endemic source of corruption. The progress of every child from five upwards is tested and predicted. If the prediction is too gloomy, the teacher is reprimanded for failing the school; if it turns out to have been overoptimistic, the teacher is blamed for failing to meet the "target".

Good University Guide tables include among their criteria the number of firsts and upper-seconds awarded. The pressure for "progress" - Jgrade inflation - is endemic throughout the system, vitiating every result.

Like all corruption, that of British education has been so gradual and pervasive that it is difficult to recognise the significance of particular moments in the chain. We see the crisis in teacher numbers, the belief in exam statistics, we hear the "newspeak" of managerial ethics. But like all corruption, it weakens the body it feeds off.

In every university, the various quality and research assessment agencies have spawned teams seconded on a permanent basis to study and manipulate the data from their own and rival institutions. They constitute by far the fastest growing academic sector.

A conservative estimate of the annual cost of quality control, audit, accountability and research assessment in England puts the figure at £250 million - enough to pay the fees of 250,000 students, the annual cost of five universities or the salaries of 10,000 lecturers. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland spend proportionately the same.

Even this probably underestimates the time taken by teaching staff in "accounting" for their activities to their own internal audit systems, if only because the staff concerned cannot quite believe how much of their own time is being spent in this way.

According to the figures of one Russell Group university, its staff spend more time in "administration" than in either research or teaching.

Like all corruptions, this one is well-dressed, even overdressed. The mania for monitoring and inspection masquerades in not one but two sets of borrowed clothes. One form of inappropriate control - that of the civil service - has been imposed on education using the terminology of another inappropriate form - that of commerce. It is a structure of control that is essentially bureaucratic, drawn not from the world of business, but from the bureaucracy of the civil service: dirigiste , cautious, unimaginative and uniformitarian.

The true model, that of "collegiality", has been with us for a long time. Since it is about relationships, not merely between faculty members, but between teachers and students and between learning and knowledge, it has enemies as well as friends. It is not easy to monitor or control. It also involves an absolute obligation to truth. And that would be a good start.

Stephen Prickett was until recently regius professor of English at Glasgow University and now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina. He is editor of Education! Education! Education!: Managerial Ethics and the Law of Unintended Consequences , published this week by Imprint Academic, £14.95.

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