Measuring Academia

Nick Cohen\’s sorta right here but he\’s missing the elephant:

Few dispute that academia needs reforming. Britain has a university system in which the last measure the government uses to judge the quality of academics is their ability to teach. Instead, tortuous bureaucracies assess the merits of the research produced by every department in all the 200 universities. On their ruling rests the disposal of £5bn of public money.

The 2008 fight for loot is under way. Luckless workers at a Bristol warehouse are sending 200,000 scholarly books and papers to the 1,000 or so professors who adjudicate on 70 panels like the judges of beauty contests.

In the inaugural issue of the new magazine Standpoint, Jonathan Bate of Warwick University despairs of the absurdity of the enterprise. He explains that panels filled with professors of foreign languages have been more generous in rating the work of their peers than professors of English. Officially, our universities are now world leaders in the study of French literature but awful at studying English literature. What\’s really happened, says Bate, is that while other professors of literature covered each other\’s backs and looked after each other\’s departments \’the Eng lit lot couldn\’t resist biting each other\’s backs\’ even if it meant their subject lost money.

His larger point is that universities should be judged by how they teach, not by the research they put out. And yes, there\’s a great deal of truth to that. Churning out the 357 th rehash of a review of French Symbolist poetry does indeed loom larger in the decisions of funding than the undergraduate course which actually teaches the students something useful (for any and every meaning of the word useful, from the utilitarian "does it help them get a job" to the non-such "does it expand their minds or enrich their lives").

On the more specific point of how research is measured and described above there\’s one major change that really ought to be made: stop the central funding of it. A number of ways for this to be achieved of course: we could simply ask students to pay the full costs of their education (with whatever subsidy of the poor we desire) and then let the universities get on with it. We could give each university an endowment and let them get on with it. We could pay from central funds simply a per capita fee….

But all of those come up against something of a difficult political problem. The argument in favour of any central subsidy for research is that it is a public good: non-rivalrous and non-excludable, so the socially optimal amount of it will not be produced under a free market system. Thus we do indeed need to have taxpayer subsidy. We can indeed place the education of students on a market basis (although there\’s also a weaker version of this public good argument there as well, but not one that I think is important enough to stop us making a one time subsidy like the endowments and then letting the market work) but how could we with research?

It\’s a toughie and I don\’t have any glib answers: other than the point that the current method simply ain\’t the way to do it. Hugely centralised and bureaucratic….that\’s not the way to do anything, really, is it?

7 thoughts on “Measuring Academia”

  1. I think the argument for central funding of research is having less and less of an effect on people’s minds (and on the politicians) as it’s starting to become obvious that it’s just not true.

    And there seems to be an acceptance within academia now that full fees will be introduced within the next decade. My University already has plans for it happening.

    Good Unis will produce good research (and bad research) whether they’re centrally funded or funded by student fees — this can be seen in the US, for example.

    And it’s very doubtful whether the specific research grants money that have been thrown at the Humanities and Social Sciences have really produced any value for money. I got one such research grant myself, but I wouldn’t say that my obscure research is really a public good. If you look at the other projects that are done on this money (details are sometimes published in the Times Higher) you just have to laugh at how ridiculous they are.

    Anyway, this money (for specific projects within the Humanities and Social Sciences) has already been cut by a half recently. (Perhaps someone took a look at what was being produced on it).

    As for the RAE (the 7-year research assessment of departments), which is what Nick Cohen is talking about, he’s right that some disciplines look after themselves and some are far too critical of themselves.

    But there is one thing you have to remember about the RAE. It was very difficult to sack academics. And, as a result, there were plenty of
    useless academics who did nothing. The RAE provided a way of getting rid of them, or at least shifting them of to more administrative work. In this respect it has kind of worked, although in a very crude and sometimes unfair way.

    The Wittgenstein argument, however, is unconvincing, as it’s just another version of the Columbus argument — for every Wittgenstein there are 100 duffers. Anyway, if Cambridge wanted to keep Wittgenstein, the RAE wouldn’t stop them from doing so. The government does not force departments to sack unproductive lecturers. Cambridge would simply get a bit less RAE money, that’s all. Oxbridge is still full of people like this, they haven’t been sacked if they are highly regarded.

    Finally, it’s not really true to say that Universites and University departments are not judged by their teaching. There is no longer any explicit assessment of teaching (the QAA, which ran for a few years, was intended to do this, but it was a total joke). But most of a University’s money comes from how many students it enrols. (the research money is just a top-up of this).

    So a Uni that no-one enrols in because the teaching is so bad gets no money. So you do have a quasi-market system there. Of course, you may say that prospective students don’t have a very good understanding of whether a Uni is bad at teaching or not, but that’s little different than what it would be in a totally free-market system.

    But there are qualifications to this. A Uni can’t just increase its numbers dramatically if it wants to — to build more buildings it would need to building funding from the government, so in fact the government does have great control over this. But if no-one enrolled at your Uni because your reputation for teaching was so bad, then you would get no money.

    But this brings us to another qualification. No Uni is so bad that no-one enrols, but some are so bad that not enough students enrol to cover costs. In a market system this Uni would have to quickly adapt and/or improve, or die. But in this centrally-funded system the government usually bails them out by sending them more money.

  2. The two functions teaching and research should be separated. On my course many of the lecturers were very poor teachers, one barley articulate and another inaudible, but I’m sure they did some fabulous research work.

  3. More use should be made of a lottery. Any researcher who has already demonstrated that he’s up to snuff (by means that would need separate consideration) puts in for loot. He might ask for, say, four grants of 50 thousand or one of 200 thousand. Anyway, into a suitable lottery he goes. From time to time he’ll be lucky, and – one big pay off – he will might well try to get money that will get a line of work going that might later be capable of raising money from other sponsors – companies, charities, government departments, furriners, or whatnot. The second big pay-off is that chance will govern the allocation, not some odious club of bureaucrats and mutual backscratchers, so that some of the work funded will doubtless be pure I-want-to-do-this-because-I-think-it-worthwhile-even-if-I-can-persuade-nobody-else. In other words, you’ll get more of two extremes of research (application just over the horizon; blue-sky) and less of the routine, currently fashionable, “safe” stuff.

  4. The two functions teaching and research should be separated. On my course many of the lecturers were very poor teachers, one barley articulate and another inaudible, but I’m sure they did some fabulous research work.

    Agree completely. One professor I knew at Leeds Uni thought lecturing standards so poor that each new entrant should have a PGCE just so they had some idea of how to teach.

  5. So Much For Subtlety

    Tim Newman – “Agree completely. One professor I knew at Leeds Uni thought lecturing standards so poor that each new entrant should have a PGCE just so they had some idea of how to teach.”

    I disagree rather strongly. Teaching is a useless skill – depending on what you mean by that. Public speaking skills are pointless for lecturers (which is what most people mean by that). I used to know someone in the Oxbridge system who was a dreadful public speaker. He mumbled he was pathalogically shy but he was also not just clever but brilliant. Oddly enough he was also excellent on a one-to-one basis. He should have been a priest considering how quickly he established trust and rapport with the students. He always had time for them as well. Seriously. He was known to get out of bed at 3 AM and come down to the Student Halls if there was a problem. His books were few (although a reasonable number of articles) but excellent in a very academic manner. He was enormously respected not just in the academic community but also in the country he studied.

    Now compare this with, say, me. I do, or can, speak well in public if I do say so myself. I couldn’t research if my life depended on it. I have yet to meet a taxi driver who thinks my opinions are worth expressing. And frankly I don’t relate well to children. But I can and have taught large lectures and *that* I can do.

    I’d be a crap teacher. But a first class researcher doing first class research who cares about his students is a good teacher even if he mumbles his way through classes. Besides, it does them good to concentrate. Learning is too easy these days anyway.

  6. > Oddly enough he was also excellent on a one-to-one basis.

    In other words, he was a good teacher.

    Don’t know where you got this idea that a PGCE is a qualification in speech-making. It isn’t.

    There was a lecturer at St Andrews philosophy department who was awful at lecturing and quite understatedly brilliant at giving tutorials. I’d argue that the department should have made better use of their resources by playing him to his strengths and taking him off lecturing duty and giving him more tutorials, but the fact is he was good at teaching. It’s the ones who are utterly crap at teaching that some of us would like to see rewarded accordingly.

    My dad was a professor of management at a major polytechnic-turned-university, and he always complained that British anti-polytechnic snobbery had destroyed a great institution, because the real difference between polytechnics and universities was that the former were assessed on the basis of their ability to teach while the latter were assessed on their research. All those polytechnics racing to take up university status weren’t just changing their names; they were abandoning a good idea, restructuring to get rid of great teachers who didn’t produce good research, and hiring great reseachers who couldn’t teach.

  7. So Much For Subtlety

    Squander Two – “In other words, he was a good teacher. Don’t know where you got this idea that a PGCE is a qualification in speech-making. It isn’t.”

    I did not mention the words PGCE and the fact that everyone is describing bad teaching with words like “unarticulate” and “inaudible” was my first tip off. I have nothing less than total contempt for the PGCE but that was not my point.

    “All those polytechnics racing to take up university status weren’t just changing their names; they were abandoning a good idea, restructuring to get rid of great teachers who didn’t produce good research, and hiring great reseachers who couldn’t teach.”

    Except when you go to somewhere like Oxford and you do a tutorial of two with a world class researcher, then you’re getting something better than a good teacher. I despise the RAE as well. There is no denying it is rubbish. But the idea that education ought to be dumbed down, that students do not benefit from being taught by good researchers – and in fact don’t benefit by being forced to listen to an inarticulate lecturer who makes them concentrate to find the gold among the dross – is something I am also opposed to. What makes a good teacher is a very complex issue.

    But I do agree with your Father about the Polys. There ought to be room for both institutions and both individuals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *