Education International
Education International

A Bean Counter’s Worst Nightmare

published 12 July 2013 updated 28 August 2013
written by:

Now is the time to decide – do you really want to read on?

Some years ago at an International Labour Organisation hosted conference on Employment Practices in Higher Education one of the invited panellists from the employer side caused noticeable discomfort to his colleagues. To their obvious dismay and disapproval he did the unforgiveable at such a sophisticated forum – he blurted out his honest opinion. “It is a recognised fact”, he said, “that you cannot control that which you cannot measure”. “Bravo, for candour”, I thought, “now that’s a revelation and an explanation!”

Ever since being the beneficiary of this unexpected openness from a Management advocate I have found that I am no longer able to bring myself to differentiate between “assessment” and “control”.

“Quality Assessment” is such an accepted, innocuous phrase whereas “Quality Control” evokes images of, well, control and interference, not to mention deciding on what actually constitutes “quality” in the first place.

What my interlocutor has done is render me incapable of seeing “control” and “assessment” as anything other than a manipulative hand inside a fashionable glove.

When challenged at a higher education conference to speak for my first time on the topic of measurement/assessment/ranking etc I racked my brain for some personal encounter with the relatively recent obsession (oops! bias display!) with Quality Assurance. I was just about to give up when out of left field I recalled a parabolic story from my primary school reader.

Cleansed of its then ubiquitous racist stereotyping the story told was of a good-hearted but naive little boy who was sent by his mother to purchase a dozen eggs. “But be sure”, she said as he departed on his mission “that each one is fresh”.

Now, as we say in Ireland “eggs is eggs” and they all have shells. How then to ensure “quality”? Our hero knew and accepted that Quality Assurance was his number one mandate. So, applying the logic of modern-day rankers, he broke each egg to examine its inner goodness.

Quality assured! Product destroyed! Quel dommage!

What has all of this to do with Higher Education rankings?

Well, for those of you who do not see what I see from the above let me get down to fundamentals.

Ranking implies a comparison/assessment of a product, an entity. Rankers are, no doubt, honourable and decent people. But, what if something is not a mere (oops, bias again!) product? What if one accepts that the expansion of the store of human knowledge (research) and the transmission of that to a new generation (teaching) is not a product but a process? What then for measurement/ranking?

Are there any areas of (vital) human interaction not susceptible to measurement/ranking?

If you are in an Opera House when a new Gigli or Pavorotti is singing and you feel moved to tears, do you stand up and proclaim “excuse me, but with the utmost of respect, this is so much better than the last time I was here and I don’t know why. So, if I may, could I just check (a) the response of the audience [heartbeat etc] (b) the quality of the singing [volume, resonance, timbre] and (c) the physical environment [temperature, size of the room]?”

Did you just hear the sound of a dozen good eggs being cracked open?

Throughout human history our literature has been sprinkled with the fantasy of the return to earth of departed gods and heroes.

For many years I wallowed in the fantasy that Shakespeare, Dante, Joyce and others returned to a university near me. Now my fantasy is destroyed. Ever since I entered into the world of ranking all I can see is the look on the faces of these my heroes as a well meaning official from the OECD (the Office for the Effective Codification of Discourse) presents each of them with a 15-page “user-friendly” questionnaire on what exactly made them what they are. I struggle to wake and then the realisation dawns. I am awake. Welcome to planet ranking aka AHELO (The OECD’s study, ‘Assessment of Higher Education’s Learning Outcomes’), aka “we just want to know what it is that you do”.

Let’s get measuring. Let’s get controlling. After all, these university guys have had it all their own way for over 600 years now and look, they have only created a world-class, fit for purpose higher education system.

Surely with a bit of measurement and the odd stop watch and clip board we can do better!

Let me conclude on a less flippant note. The current preoccupation with ranking and endless measuring is not an inconsequential fact. It may not be a crime but it is not victimless either! There is ample evidence of the distorting effects on university values arising from the pursuit of higher placements in ranked tables. Who can deny the inadequacy of even the most sophisticated ranking scheme to capture the true magic of teaching and learning?

To those who refuse to recognise the damage they have done and will do to the “product” they seek to measure and reduce to a ranked list can I, untypically for an Irishman, I assure you, quote Oliver Cromwell – “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken?”