Higher education performance

The statement usually attributed to the author and management consultant Peter Drucker – that ‘what gets measured gets done’ – has nowhere been as enthusiastically adopted as in higher education over recent decades. Anyone working in a university across much of the world will be aware of performance criteria which govern everything from institutional funding to personal career development. So we assess the student’s ‘learning outcomes’ and examination results, the professor’s publications, the university’s attrition rate; in fact, anything we believe we can measure. The statistical outputs from all this, unmediated by any coherent analysis, then get themselves published as some table or other that, in turn, will determine resources.

It is hard to argue against league tables, because these present an assessment of performance, however imperfect, and thereby allow interested onlookers to form a judgement about institutional quality. Those putting forward a case for universities to be left alone and find their own way of delivering good quality without external interference are not going to find a sympathetic audience: it is not the spirit of the age. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that the search for performance indicators has distorted strategy and sometimes incentivised very questionable policies. For example, it has led to a serious downgrading of teaching as against research. So what should be done?

First, if we are to have performance indicators, we should have fewer. In a recent presentation to a meeting on higher education strategy, the chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, listed 32 key performance indicators that could be used to inform strategy. Another example is the list recently proposed for Portuguese universities (in this document, at page 10). However, the impact of such lists is to reduce strategy to ticking boxes (to use that rather annoying expression); it is no longer strategy, but risk management, the key risk to be managed being the risk of losing public money.

Secondly, if you are setting up performance indicators, keep them consistent. In the Boland list inputs are mixed with outputs in a way that is unlikely to produce anything coherent. Also, relatively trivial indicators are found competing with more fundamental ones. Looking at them all together you cannot get any sense of mission or direction, you just have a list.

Thirdly, keep them relevant. Just because something can be measured doesn’t mean that it tells us anything if it is. Yet there is a lot of evidence that reporting on certain aspects has been required not because it is useful but because it is possible.

Overall, it is hard to resist the suspicion that the whole culture of performance indicators has been more one of bureaucratisation than of transparency. And yet, clarity about purpose, mission, priorities is important; as is the capacity to report on how successful these have been. It’s not that we shouldn’t do this, we just need to do it better.

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9 Comments on “Higher education performance”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    *Those putting forward a case for universities to be left alone and find their own way of delivering good quality without external interference are not going to find a sympathetic audience: it is not the spirit of the age*.

    There is more than a hint of ‘realpolitik’ in this sentence – which is hardly surprising, and I hastily add necessary, in university leaders – also, though, one cannot but detect an alarming acquiescence towards the ‘spirit of the age’. I have always found the expression ‘Zeit Geist’ captivating since I first encountered it, in Herder’s use, as an undergraduate in a German (early)Romanticism class. For some reason it seemed to *resonate* better than its Latin or Italian equivalent…Anyway, the quote I selected from today’s post which revisits the familiar topic of universities accountability got me thinking on what is the role of universities in relation to the spirit of the time, should they simply *reflect* it, become the interpreters of such time, contribute to the ‘main narrative’ or instead resist some aspects of such narrative and even construct ‘counter-narratives’ which expose the often unethical incongruities of what constitutes the intellectual and cultural climate of an era? Universities have performed the latter role in the past, most recently in the 1960s when countercultures in America rejected racial segregation and the Vietnam war for example. To my mind the often debated issue of accountability cannot be addressed in isolation because it *really* represents some of the most debatable aspects of the ‘spirit of our time’: excessive emphasis on competition, quantification, individualism, commercialism. This is a result driven era, results must be quantifiable and identifiable in the short term and there is no time to wait for education which has always been, and still is, a long-term *process*. I think that we can only be truthful to the spirit of our time if we resist its most questionable aspects, if we reform our institutions from within, if we present our students with alternative cultural models. It might be insignificant but, for a start, we might like to use the original expression Zeit Geist. Robert Frost once noted that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’ and we all need some poetry in our lives..

    • I think the spirit of the age I was referring to here is not the market-oriented one (which may have faded anyway, perhaps too much), but rather the spirit of public scepticism about self-regulation. That’s not likely to be a mood we can resist, or at least resist successfully…

    • Fred the dog Says:

      ‘Zeit Geist’
      ‘real politik’

      I am confused by your emphasis strategy, which seems to be based on nothing at all. What do you have to say about that?

  2. Al Says:

    How can anything be introduced at present where further cuts in the education budget await?
    Maybe it can…

  3. ‘it is no longer strategy, but risk management, the key risk to be managed being the risk of losing public money’

    Having done both in my time, I’d have said that risk management was more useful than strategy, and the risk of losing puiblic money an important risk. I can see how strategy might be useful in theory, but in practice it is almost always a waste of time.

    A clear focus on risk would, for instance, help you identify which of that basket of performance indicators really matter, and then you could largely ignore the rest.

    Anna, you say ‘Universities have performed the latter [i.e. countercultural] role in the past, most recently in the 1960s’, but I think this is a misleading view of the past. Universities corporately have been anything but countercultural: they have sometimes provided spaces in which it is possible for privileged groups within the institution to do so.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Yes Andrew you are quite right to remind us of the conservative/corporativist character of universities, however it is a hard distinction to draw the one between the ‘space’ that a university provides and the institution as such, the two categories often conflates being ‘inhabited’ as they are by human beings. Actually, I have always found the contrast interesting: (conservative/corporativist) universities (spaces) as playgrounds for testing and disseminating radical thinking (one needs to consider the already mentioned Occupy Wall Street Movement to realize, once again, the links between the world/space of academia and social protest movements).
      Last point on accountability, only to underline one of the ironies we are faced with: universities (like most other institutions for that matter) increasingly under pressure within a culture of performance indicators etc. having adopted the language(and ideology) of neoliberalist finance and this at a time of economic crisis caused by the unaccountability of the financial and banking sector!

    • I am much more doubtful about the merits of risk management, at least as it is practised. It tends to obscure any broader vision in an avalanche of listed risk factors, some of which are wholly trivial while others are no doubt important. Because there are so many angles to watch, it induces paralysis.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    The inclusion of inputs as a performance indicator is particularly insane. Imagine a private sector firm boasting “Hey, we managed to increase our expenditure by 100% this year”.
    It is not academics in the humanities and social sciences that drive this.

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