Universities focus too much on measuring activity, not quality

Aug 15, 2014 by

This meaningless pursuit of ‘quality’ is transforming academics into part-time administrators

Administrators in universities used to be people who would support academics in their role. Now it feels increasingly as if the administrative machine follows Parkinson’s law, not only creating more work for themselves (under the guise of quality monitoring) but also more work for people who entered academia.

Strategic planning at every level used to be the responsibility of people who had already gained the trust and respect of their peers in teaching and/or research. Now, I see an increasing number of people who have no noteworthy research and supervision experience, who switch to administration, and are then put in charge of teaching, research and supervision committees.

The holy grail of all this administrative work is “quality”. Quality monitoring, quality reporting, quality measuring, Office of Quality and so forth – this is the name of the new deity. I am afraid however, that all this paperwork suffocates its own raison d’être. All of these monitoring mechanisms are geared to measure activity, but not quality.

Every time I pick up the phone to speak to a doctoral student, both I and they have to complete a form that will reflect what we talked about. Every time I give a lecture, I am expected to record how many people were present, whether they had to pay, and what their approximate education level was, and then at the end of the year to collate all that information using the format my department administrator will send me (which, not surprisingly, changes every year).

In other words, I have to be my own secretary and report on my own activities. Well…I don’t fit well in forms, and I don’t think that it is possible to capture the real quality of a lecture, or the drive and originality of a student, on a piece of paper.

I am afraid that this paper trail, which is based on the mentality of “evaluate everything that moves,” does not prove anything. It is a simulacrum of quality measuring rather than a real encouragement of a culture of quality, originality and excellence. In the end it leads to mediocrity, especially since the people who move the strings are usually the ones who have done enough in their sector to show activity, but not enough to show originality and new research directions.

About one third of my time is dedicated to reporting what I do in the other two thirds. This is, naturally, not coming out of a reasonable time allocation. There is no single person in my faculty who can afford not to work at the weekend – marking, second marking, moderating, preparing handbooks, writing reports, catching up with research.

I often wonder how the middle administration (such as my department head or my dean) copes with the ethics of allocating workloads that they themselves know are not realistic. Honest to God, if I were placed in such a position I would step down. But the short-term effect of the additional and constantly increasing work is that we need to cram more things into the eight days we are working, and of course, we cannot afford to do things correctly.

But let’s talk about quality. The deception of the whole system can be seen, first of all, in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) mechanism of the four research output items. Four items every few years sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yet, how can we account for the lecturer who has published 24 articles during that time, who may be given the same grade as another one who has published four, of similar quality? Or what about the researcher who has managed to produce only one item during that time, the definitive book in a certain subject, which may prove to be the point of reference for many years to come?

Measuring the “impact” (whatever that may mean) stops after a couple of years. And, perhaps more dramatically, what about the researcher in the hard sciences who designs a risky experiment, which, because of the valuable risk that needs to be taken, may or may not lead to a successful publication? I am afraid that the way we pretend to manage quality and excellence is not much more of the newspeak rationale of the opposites – and hence “quality” becomes the tombstone of real quality.

Where is all this going? Research, imagination, reflection and academic freedom are giving way to a generation that tries to measure and evaluate what it cannot understand. Many good people are already leaving the sector or the country, and of course this will have even more of an impact on our future.

We are creating the perfect conditions for a brain drain. The cynical transformation of centres of knowledge into self-sustained enterprises and the constant strive to translate academic activity to administrative language and to a meaningless paper trail that does not interest anyone except the people who create it in order for the system to pat itself on the back, are indications of an era of new barbarity, the new Dark Ages.

This week’s anonymous academic is a professor in the humanities, who has lectured in the UK and US.

via Universities focus too much on measuring activity, not quality | Higher Education Network | Guardian Professional.

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