Tell the emperors they are intellectually naked

April 16, 2004

If you want to improve academic performance, why not adopt a corporate strategy à la Network Rail, says Bob Brecher.

One of the most challenging intellectual tasks of academics working in today's universities is to ensure that everything we do offers clear evidence of "immediate and significant performance improvement" (Network Rail, but unhappily no less relevant for that). As piecework or, as it is now called, performance-related pay, becomes the norm, we'll find that in the absence of such improvement there'll be a concomitant absence of pay. So we need to give some thought to improving our performance - as, of course, our vice-chancellors must have done. After all, how else would they keep getting pay rises so much bigger than ours?

Now, what exactly counts as "performance improvement" will of course depend on which particular HEI plc you happen to work for. For example, it might involve, at least by 2010, "leading the world intellectual agenda in [a] selected key subject area(s) and matching it in all" (according to the corporate strategy of one that apparently hasn't quite made it yet). Or, if you work for a rather less august business, it might mean "delivering" the university's "product" to hundreds, rather than to just dozens, of customers and hoping they give you good marks on the local version of RateMyProfessors.com ( The Times Higher , January 30). If you're unlucky, it will mean both - at the same time. For everywhere the educational visionaries running more and more of our universities are busy working out how to "convert their strategic goals into individual targets for frontline staff" (RSM Robson Rhodes, with thanks to Laurie Taylor, The Times Higher , September 19 2003) - although naturally they "will [also] remain true to the ideals of [their] staff and students" (that corporate strategy again).

Never mind that "performance" is a term suited to the circus or the athletics track, not the university; never mind that the "improvement" demanded is likely to be a "continuous" one, and therefore unattainable.

Performance is the name of today's game.

So how should we perform? One obvious response is for us to collectively point out that the various emperors issuing these demands are intellectually naked, and refuse to go along with them. But, of course, the chances of our doing that are pretty remote, to judge by the past 20 years.

What does that leave, then? We have, I fear, to learn how to play this game from Network Rail itself. How did it suggest that an "immediate and significant performance improvement" be brought about? By adding five minutes to every train-journey time (BBC FiveLive, January 16). Now that really is ingenious and a splendid example of that "creativity and critical independence" that our employers value so much (the same corporate strategy).

In the spirit of critical independence, then, let me offer just a few suggestions by way of achieving the sort of improvement in our performance that I think our employers would welcome. Forty-five minute lectures might usefully be redefined as one-hour lectures; the teaching year cut to two semesters; 2:2s rebranded as 2:1s, so that our learning-facilitation performance can be shown to be no less immediate than significant; and last, but by no means least, research - the painstaking matter of writing books and articles that might be worth reading - could be redescribed as whatever counts in the latest version of the research assessment exercise.

Doubtless, there will be some people who might regard such a strategy as dishonest and as unworthy of academics who ought to have a particular respect for the truth. But that's just awfully old-fashioned, isn't it? In today's bright, fresh, forward-looking and, above all, challenging times, when universities at last have "the freedom to define their own future" (that corporate strategy again), we should surely grasp the opportunity to do so and ensure that the future really does belong to "us".

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, University of Brighton.

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