Madness of metrics

David Bignell scorns target-focused managers whose restructuring may destabilise when what is needed is common-sense adjustment

May 3, 2012

I have much to thank Queen Mary for: the opportunity to carry out satisfying and useful research; a secure and convenient base for international collaborations; stimulating administration; and, par excellence, the chance to enthuse on my specialty to successive generations of students in the classroom.

The once-grotty East End of London is an unlikely place to find a thriving university - no green acres or dreaming spires here, just the never-ending roar of the Mile End Road. But here is a brave institution with a century of noble history, a strong commitment to teaching, a record of nurturing mature students years ahead of its time and, above all, a healthy record of research. Just in science, three examples - inventing the MRI scanner, understanding the dark cycle of photosynthesis and formulating string theory - all owe key contributions to Queen Mary academics.

At one time, the only headlines were about nagging deficits, poorly qualified students and mergers with reluctant medical schools. An early attempt to join the Russell Group in the 1990s was laughed off. But, little by little, the college stepped forward - a good appointment here, a handful of telegenic professors there, bright British Asian students flocking in, new buildings, new labs, more cafes, more trees. Suddenly, we were in the top 20 in the research assessment exercise of 2008. Better still, we're now approaching the giddy heights of the Russell Group, and this time the welcome mat is out. We must have done something right.

Enter the new leadership, and you know what came next. That's right, they decided to restructure, and with this came a sinister new piece of jargon: the "aspiration". To keep your job you must conform to the "aspirations" of the institution. Not to be distinctive, not to be noble and not to be the cradle of ground-breaking ideas: it's simply to have the metrics of the Russell Group.

Was change necessary? In my old department, yes. Despite a large surplus, we were 35th in the RAE. This happened because we had too many students. As one colleague put it, "teaching was in competition with research". We were asked to pack them in, the applicants were lining up and we agreed. But research time simply fizzled out. We had succumbed to greed and forgotten what a real university was for. Now we face a reckoning, not to save money but to raise metrics.

How would you solve this problem? Common sense suggests: 1) reduce student numbers; and 2) encourage colleagues crushed by teaching back into research with more time and resources. Surely, gradual change in a happy ship is the key to long-term, sustainable improvement. Instead, my colleagues are to be frogmarched into the top 20 per cent, with redundancy or demotion to teaching-only contracts for those whose retrospective metrics don't match Russell Group means. At the latest count, this is 20 per cent of the establishment; those leaving will be replaced by outsiders already performing at the required level. No extra resources for survivors and no lowering of student numbers. Does this address the root causes of underperformance? No. So is it cheating? Yes. Even worse, it is grandiose posturing where, absurdly, everyone has to be above average. Will they replace one set of unhappy researchers with another? Almost certainly.

But the real scandal is this. The casualties are the better teachers and more than a few promising youngsters with research on the verge of taking off - in short, the carers and the seed corn. Let's not be naive. However you wrap it up, teaching and scholarship status is second class. How can a real university consign the bulk of its teaching to staff who are deliberately prevented from doing independent research? Ask the managers to define how "scholarship" is different from "research" and all you get is evasion. Slavery beckons.

Will restructuring work? Everybody except modern managers knows a good department is not about metrics but about spirit. Do you want to come in each day or are you scared of your dean? Is your inspiration your own passion or the bidding of your performance manager? These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don't lead by example.

We have all stick and the wrong carrot. What's really needed is a bit more space and time, some more resources, a free hand, a modicum of encouragement and no interference. What you get are endless targets, no space in your life to think and constant assessments. Academic life will always be a struggle with something and if you're not struggling, you're not a real academic. This is how the best research is born. But now your struggle is with your manager. That's not aspirational, that's plain stupid and it could be ruinous.

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