Performance indicators may be welcome, but interpret them with care, warns John Brooks
Measurement of performance exists in almost every aspect of our day-to-day life - in sport, society, business and now in education. We all like to be informed of success and failure, and ranking individuals, groups or organisations according to their performance against one another is a fact of life.
League tables will exist whether we like them or not, whether they make meaningful comparisons or not, and whether the data are valid or not. When validated and collated correctly they serve a vital purpose, making their subjects accountable while potentially inspiring improved performance. But do they work? Do they encourage change or merely reinforce what we already know?
The "official" performance indicators compiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for the first time last year, and published again this week, appear to promote such accountability among universities, providing a reliable set of comparative data against institutional benchmarks.
The choice of indicators has been strongly influenced by government priorities of access and widening participation, progression and efficiency. And, as a single-year snapshot, they provide an interesting - if somewhat limited - profile of performance, with a more meaningful picture likely to emerge as year-on-year information is collected.
But what we should always want to measure is the progress of the individual. Success for higher education is the distance travelled as a result of the individual's learning experience - the value-added element. This is more difficult to measure than projected learning outcomes and efficiencies. It means the performance indicator data alone are not enough. We have to try to make sense of them and to turn them into useful information.
To some extent, Hefce has recognised the difficulty of making meaningful institutional comparisons and has attempted to address this problem by the introduction of benchmarks. These try to reflect different institutional profiles and acknowledge that education is a complex process.
But, while performance indicators are beginning to celebrate successes and highlight areas for improvement in participation, non-continuation, academic outcomes and efficiencies, they still do not show everything.
An increasingly dominant influence upon progression and academic achievement is debt. Many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, combine full-time study with near full-time work. For others, debt is a constant worry. This strongly influences progression and academic achievement but is something that strategies to improve performance indicators often do little to address.
So while these key performance indicators are welcome and might influence change, they must be interpreted with care and with an understanding of how modern higher education works - warts and all.
John S. Brooks is vice-chancellor, University of Wolverhampton.
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