What’s going on? Impact metrics won’t tell you

The real work and worth of the academy can’t be described by ‘business performance’ metrics and management-speak, argues Tim May

June 11, 2011

Universities are a mix of competition, uncertainty and fear, as well as cooperation, respect and dedication. And in this mix we find university managers emphasising the importance of engagement and knowledge-transfer activities, very particular ideas of customer satisfaction and the impact of research for economic development.

Higher education institutions are now judged in terms of their “business performance”.

To that end, enormous amounts of data are collected on these and other activities that do not accurately reflect what actually takes place in universities on a daily basis. Performance indicators are then pored over in numerous meetings by people who have nothing to do with the activities that these indicators are supposed to describe.

What we see, then, is a separation between the way knowledge is actually produced in universities, and the way the production of knowledge is judged in terms of its value to different communities. What is more, particular communities are clearly seen as more important than others when it comes to the assessment of “impact”.

That word, impact, disguises more than it illuminates. It focuses purely on the outcomes of knowledge, not the processes in which people have been involved and the difference that they may make to the quality of their lives. Meanwhile, speaking of what makes the university a distinctive place of learning and knowledge generation, beyond short-term economic objectives, is set to one side.

These ways of seeing the role and contribution of the university in society allows managers to speak of “opportunities” emerging from the current “crisis”. We are all now apparently “moving forward” – but to what exactly?

It seems that we do not learn from history and instead are giving over the future of these important institutions to consultants and private companies. Meanwhile, institutional positions in “change management” are being created, services are being contracted out to private organisations and consultants are being paid to produce recommendations for yet more transformations.

To embrace the current crisis as an opportunity is possible because its real effects on life within universities and their futures are not properly understood. Instead, the focus of management in the higher education sector is on corporate rebranding and constant change that increases uncertainty among staff.

In these seats of learning, the casualty becomes learning itself.

Why does this happen? Because when learning is stifled, numerous processes with little connection to the purpose of the university are no longer open to proper examination. That kind of examination would lead us to an uncomfortable conclusion: that the idea that management equals control is a fantasy. Enormous amounts of work go into avoiding this conclusion, because it requires a degree of honest appraisal that is all too rare. In its place we see the production of more chaos and poor consequences for the future of universities.

There is no doubt that universities are facing profound changes driven by blinkered ideologies. However, because of the processes within them, driven by very particular and narrow responses, the choices about how to face these challenges in imaginative ways are being removed.

We need to move beyond this state of affairs. Different communities and civic interests must be involved in shaping the futures of universities, and that will require some innovative practices and a willingness to learn. That means listening to voices that have historically been excluded from their doors. Without this in place, we learn nothing from the past.

Our fate would be a retreat to a narrow elitism along with the worship of a market whose only purpose is the frenetic search for profit. We would then have to reinvent the idea of the university.

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