Higher education: all about numbers?
An academic who climbs up the career ladder and makes it to a senior position will, sooner or later, find themselves under pressure to take on a leadership position, perhaps as Head of Department. Once that happens to you, it changes your view of higher education for ever. Until then, you will probably have thought of the academy as being about pedagogy, principle, analysis and scholarship. Within ten minutes of having slipped or been pushed into administrative leadership, you will see it just as numbers: student-staff ratio; the unit of resource; recurrent grant; student attrition rates; student satisfaction rates; return on investment; contact hours; research income – the list is endless, unless that is you already have a number for it. In fact, the flood of numbers almost inevitably kills strategy, or rather turns it into a game of targets and deliverables. We present figures for what is achievable, and then we review whether it’s been done.
This proliferation of numbers is subjected to some criticism in today’s Guardian newspaper by Professor Peter Scott of the Institute of Education in London. He points out the distortion and, sometimes, corruption that can result from this particular obsession of today’s higher education system.
However, it may be worth noting that the numbers game is not some aberration visited upon the system by malicious or insecure administrators or even university managements. Rather, it is the spirit of the age which, in other contexts, has often been stoked by members of the academic community: the principle of ‘accountability’. As society has started to ask more and more questions about how public money is spent, or how those entrusted with public duties are discharging them, there has been an irresistible drive towards measuring performance across almost all aspects of public life. This is a process that is hated by all those to whom it is applied and demanded and admired by everyone else (including those who don’t want to have it applied to themselves).
We have, frankly, lost the ability to assess or appreciate quality on any basis other than metrics. If you haven’t measured it, it doesn’t exist.
Of course it is right and proper that performance should be assessed critically across public life, but maybe we should occasionally pause and ask whether a more discursive analysis would sometimes be more helpful in addressing issues that confront us, and would encourage us to re-discover deeper principles of education and scholarship. Anyway, I am contemplating having occasional meetings in my university in which any reference to numbers – of any kind – is prohibited. I wonder whether that would change our outlook, just a little and just for a moment.