‘Macho’ university culture mirrors banks’ mistakes

Professors issue warning over obsession with performance management and research excellence

February 19, 2015

The way that UK universities prioritise research over teaching echoes the way that banks put profit before the interests of customers prior to the financial crash, two academics have claimed.

Ken Starkey and James Devlin, of the University of Nottingham Business School, say that students at some higher education institutions have become “a means rather than an end” and that their fees “are treated as capital to be leveraged with a lack of transparency in terms of how [the fee income is] contributing to an improved student experience”.

Writing in a pamphlet published on 19 February by the Centre Forum thinktank, the pair argue that universities’ focus has instead been on the pursuit of supposed research excellence.

But much research, the professors say, “lacks impact and relevance”, and “fails to ‘add value’ beyond the narrow confines of academia”.

At the same time, research is “increasingly heavily audited and metricised”, becoming the main factor in decisions on recruitment, promotion and salary negotiations, the article says.

Professor Starkey and Professor Devlin say the result is a “culture dominated by a focus on publications and research achievements”, with top performers enjoying “by far the best promotion prospects and commanding large salary premiums in the employment market”.

University managers have encouraged such an approach “as it has provided obvious mechanisms for punishing perceived underachievers and for enhancing the reputation of their institutions”.

“Anecdotal tales of increasingly macho approaches to performance management abound and, in common with banking, those who challenge the dominant narrative of hyper-performance are shouted down as complicit in maintaining the old status quo rather than embracing a brave new world,” the report says.

“The net result has considerable parallels with the situation prior to the financial crisis, as students and their fees are taken for granted by a culture obsessed with research excellence in much the same way as banks were focussed on the glamour and profitability of investment banking at the expense of more traditional activities.”

Writing in Fit for growth: Investing in a Stronger Skills Base to 2020, Professor Starkey and Professor Devlin acknowledge that there is unlikely to be a “crash” in higher education like that seen in the financial sector.

What is more probable, they say, is that students will become increasingly vocal over time, and that metrics will increasingly be applied to the teaching and learning experience – through the National Student Survey, for example.

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