Reviewed to death

Eighteen years ago this month I had my first encounter with a quality review. At the time I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School, and the system that became known as ‘quality assessment’ had just been introduced in the UK. This was the framework for teaching and learning reviews, and the Law School in Hull was the first unit to be assessed ever. And did we prepare for this! I set up a working group that included an external expert, we had daily briefing meetings for months, every lecturer was coached in how to teach a class in front of a reviewer, the paperwork we put together probably created serious deafforestation somewhere. In those days there were only three ‘grades’ you could be awarded through the site visit of the reviewers: excellent, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. You could not be found to be ‘excellent’ unless you had applied to be considered for this up front, which we did. When the review visit began, the chair of the panel told us she did not believe any academic unit – except maybe two or so in the entire world – was excellent, and that she did not approve of any request to be considered for this. In the end we were judged ‘satisfactory’ with ‘some excellent features’. After all that work…

Nowadays I could not see how anyone could afford to put in that amount of time end energy into just one review. And I say that because, at least for some people, reviews are coming out of our ears. Every major research project has initial site visits, mid-term reviews and site visits, end of term reviews and so forth. Every unit gets regular quality reviews to look at teaching and everything else. The university itself gets reviewed overall. Not to mention that need to put together review documentation for our auditors, and for the Comptroller and Auditor General. And then there are audits conducted by this or that agency or funder. In short, the sheer volume of reviews now visited upon us is such that for some people the process never ends.

Of course I would not suggest that we should not be monitored and held accountable for our standards. But we have reached a point where review mania has taken over, and as this is growing just as money and resources are declining, it creates a major problem for us. And it is made much more complex by the array of organisations and agencies that feel they have a right to review us; and also, by the bureaucratic complexity of some of these processes.

Nowadays when a public utility wants to dig up the road in order to put in new cabling or whatever, other utilities are asked too join in and deal with their deeply buried technology also, so as to avoid a multiplicity of such diggings. It may now also be time for a much more coordinated framework to emerge for quality and other reviews. If there is to be a digging around in the university, let it be one coordinated process sharing relevant information as may be useful. It would also be timely to look again at some of the more specific requirements for reviews, to avoid them becoming excessively bureaucratic.

Back when I was in the UK, and a couple of years after the above review of the Law School, we had a university-wide quality review. There was a session with the visiting reviewers open to some senior staff, and I was one of those present. At the end of the meeting the chair asked us ‘what single change would make the most positive difference to your work and your ability to support the objectives of the university and ensure high quality?’ One of our number responded quickly: ‘Stop having these reviews!’ Here in Ireland, it is important that we conduct and organise reviews so that these can be perceived to be constructive and helpful engagements, but for that to work we must not over-load people. We must take care that we don’t drown in paperwork, to the point where we consider the idea of people asking questions about quality to undermine that same quality. Those who feel we need to be more accountable need to watch they their concept of accountability does not in the end destroy the very quality it seeks to protect.

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3 Comments on “Reviewed to death”

  1. Sally Says:

    Is it a case of who will assess the assessors?

  2. It’s a case also of why are the assessors assessing? I don’t mean that we should query the value of peer reviews, but that peer reviewers should have a clear sense of the value they are adding. I am concerned that such reviews are often being conducted because that’s what the procedural rules require, and not because they will help to identify good and bad practice.

  3. Just one example: In UL we have 4 reporting mechanisms for the same thing: publications. First, there’s your CV, which most academics update anyway, second there’s the departmental report, which feeds the faculty board report. Third, there’s the RISS system, which each individual is expected to keep updated once or twice a year. Fourth, we have research themes, and each theme shows its members are active in certain areas, which demands its own report.

    Wisely, this reporting structure is being reduced, perhaps to two, in the next few months, but this is the picture as it stands today. I don’t mean to be critical of UL at all: there are good reasons for each reporting mechanism (promotion, accountability, external assessment, internal research collaboration), and good reasons why each was set up. But there is a clear overlap here, and perhaps in other areas, too.

    I have worked on 2 EU projects so far. Both were extremely exciting to be involved in, but both projects required me to spend perhaps 1/5 of my time reporting what I was doing.

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