A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not been reluctant to enter contentious debate during the course of his term of office to date. Most recently, at the launch of the Cambridge University Press History of Ireland, the President offered the following view on universities as comfortable hosts for academic studies:

‘Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.’

The President has of course on previous occasions offered a similar analysis of the direction of higher education, and it is also clear that his view has support amongst a good number of academics; this article in the Irish Times is a good example. The English Campaign for the Public University also offers very similar views.

There is in such campaigns sometimes an element of irritation that taxpayer funding should come with strings attached, and in so far as this is part of the complaint it cannot easily be upheld. There are few areas of public life supported by exchequer funds that can still expect to be outside of value-for-money scrutiny, however lofty the objectives of the funded bodies. What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.

The resistance to outcome-driven funding as a matter of principle is, I would think, bound to fail: the spirit of the age is against such resistance. The better argument would be about what outcomes are an appropriate subject of targeting and monitoring. For example, is it justifiable to reject targets for socio-economic inclusion in higher education (the access agenda)? Should research performance be entirely a matter of individual choice? How much weight do we give student opinion on quality and content of courses?

These are complex questions, but probably not questions that should be dismissed with charges of a subversion of higher education by neoliberal ideologues. Rather they are questions of policy that have never got to be the subject of agreement between the wider academy, their leaders, and government. Universities will never be run again as they were in the late 19th century; nor should they be, as they catered solely for a social elite. So we need to find a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer. That is now the task.

President Higgins is right to raise these matters. But the ensuing debate needs to be conducted outside the trenches of hardened opinion. On all sides.

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3 Comments on “A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    The knee-jerk use of the word ‘neoliberalism’ is such a cop-out. In reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that and if you really want to understand how we (in Ireland) got to be where we are today, you have to look back to the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the claims of many that the 21st century is a time of unprecedented change, the real transformation occurred in the last two decades of the 20th century. Those decades saw extraordinary advances being made in many areas but especially in molecular biology (notably recombinant DNA technologies) and digital technologies of all kinds, culminating in the creation of the World Wide Web. The pace of change was so great that policy makers believed, not unreasonably, that a new kind of higher education institution was required, one that was nimble and industry-focused. And so the NIHEs were established in Limerick and Dublin and these were characterised by their vocational emphasis. NIHE Dublin, for example, offered degrees in non-traditional disciplines like Accountancy and Finance, Languages and International Marketing, Analytical Science and Biotechnology. Crucially, all degree courses incorporated a compulsory work placement. The creation of what are now UL and DCU was a game-changer for the Irish University system and it could be argued that it led to the higher education market that we now have. The traditional universities learned from the ‘upstarts’ and began to offer degrees, often of a multidisciplinary nature, that they thought would be attractive to school-leavers because they offered exciting career prospects. The race was on.
    In the meantime, politicians in many countries, notably Tony Blair in his famous “education, education, education” speech began to view education as a cure for all of society’s ills, as well as being a sure thing at election time. Those same politicians, most of whom had a background in the humanities, remembered universities (rightly or wrongly) as places where lecturers gave the odd lecture, did little or no research, and then ‘bunked off’ for the summer. It was felt that universities could do more. So the policy makers wanted more education for everyone and they also wanted the institutions to bring more tangible and immediate benefits to society and the economy. This was not unreasonable. The problem was that they didn’t have the money to fund this expansion both of student numbers and of expectations. Or, perhaps, it was a case that they were unwilling to pay because traditionally there are very few votes to be gained by funding higher education.
    While all of this was happening, changes were occurring within the universities themselves, changes that were often supported, and driven, by academics, not just ideological managers. The teaching and learning landscape changed utterly: it became far more accountable, regulated and student-centred but the downside was that bureaucracy increased tremendously. Meanwhile the funds available for research grew rapidly and more and more academics became research-active. Everyone was getting busier and busier, and more and more competitive, and because the government wasn’t funding this increase in activity, everyone, especially senior management of the institutions, had, of necessity, to become very focused on funding. The need for money caused us all to become obsessed with the marketing of our institutions and the private companies who run the international rankings saw an opportunity. Throw in globalisation and it is easy to see that we have arrived at where we are not because of ideology but as a consequence of many events, big and small.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    “What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.”

    Most academics would agree with the above, however most also believe that the reliance on metrics for research outcomes (which are linked to university international rankings) has gone too far. The polarization between nostalgic views of the university of the past (where humanistic ideals of contemplation flourished) and mercantile ones of the present (where economic and academic rewards are the prerogative of STEMM disciplines) is reflective of the “two cultures fallacy”. It is from this perspective that one should read the statement in the Irish Times article that “the Irish university no longer sanctions contemplation as the underpinning of intellectual life” and the recent Irish Universities Association request that universities be allowed to pay super-salaries to individual academics in *strategic* disciplines. Such juxtapositions are not only useless but, crucially, historically inaccurate. As it has been rightly pointed out, far from being devoted exclusively to contemplation “ the fields first associated with the vita activa were the humanities, whose ‘usefulness’ and application for ‘the common good’ made them indispensable to the training of a new class of secular bureaucrats. Long before ‘science’ emerged as a distinct set of disciplines, the studia humanitatis defined a new model of useful learning that the sciences would later claim for themselves.” Hence, “the question at the heart of the university is not how to define and rank the relative prestige of the disciplines, but rather how best to bring the branches of learning together to inspire students to produce more integrated knowledge.” (https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Two-Cultures-Fallacy/243770?key=xyToMThrnX-D5PRf98OLFEdhUwH3aMzpnx5_hitqvFXZO-osxZzNURLG-SjNF3dxVlE1LUpPanFsVURqNWk1QmVTLWFpSWwwOG52ZUdLdExtZU10dDBTbjZvMA)
    However, it is difficult for universities to escape the logic of “ranking the prestige”, and practical effectiveness, I would add, of the disciplines in a cultural context where measuring as a methodology for quality has become so pervasive, to the point that a minister for universities tweets about a new “consumer-style ratings for university courses to help drive value for money”. (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/moneysupermarket-ratings-will-not-work-university-courses-mr-gyimah)
    Another negative consequence of the above context is the fact that rankings stimulate competition over collaboration among universities and I cannot see how “a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer” could be established if that same academy is so divided and incapable of speaking with a common voice. It is very well to pragmatically acknowledge “the spirit of the age” and respond accordingly, but conformity has never been akin to innovative thinking and that is where the spirit of the academy lies.

  3. Vince Says:

    I believe there was a time when the academy was nimble, perhaps in the years after the first war when the returning mostly officer corps pushed the existing structure. The after the second war when it had the old independence while drawing large subventions from the exchequer it expanded vastly. But at that time there was also an ethos of sacrifice which can be seen in the willingness of the medical community to see the need for the NHS, this I also think permeated the academy too.
    In the years from the mid 70s onwards the academy became more an adjunct to the civil service and became a line in both national budgets and national debt.
    I am speaking about the UK above, the Irish system continued to sail on as if it was still 1880. It had developed insane systems designed to protect wealth like the Tax Covenants which cost the exchequer more in forgone tax than it cost to cover free fees.
    Anyway, you are now in the position of a QUANGO, a taker of decisions made elsewhere. You are not nimble, nor can you become so until each academy can run it’s own show sending a bill to the exchequer for the students and to industry for it’s developments.
    My main problem is that the voices wanting to get back to a pre 1900 structure are getting louder and louder. They view the system in the US as the ideal, but they aren’t seeing the whole picture in the US.

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