Saturday, February 02, 2013

Improving university education

Reading Ian Parker's resignation statement from MMU has made me think about the effects of the target culture on universities. MMU has a change agenda based on a corporate strategy that sets 14 key performance indicators. In the current competitive market with other universities, there must be  a question about whether these are achievable. For example, by the law of averages, half of the universities will score above average on student satisfaction and half will score below.

I'm sure Ian has been defending academic values. The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) has been set up because misguided policies are undermining universities. Target cultures arise from not being able to easily measure a broad social good like "health" or "education". This blog has commented several times on the problems this created in the NHS (eg. see Why do staff report high levels of bullying in the NHS? Note that Ian says he has been bullied and this should be taken seriously.). The boxes were being ticked by NHS Trust Boards in their reports to the Strategic Health Authority but in fact a poor culture of care had become endemic. In a culture that could punish people for failure to meet targets, managers and staff in general are likely to behave dysfunctionally.

It's perfectly reasonable for Ian to defend his students but this has cost his job. Hopefully university education can be improved beyond increasing the number of 3 and 4 star staff submitted to the REF (Research Excellence Framework). As CDBU says, universities should be "places where students can develop their capacities to the full, where research and scholarship are pursued at the highest level, and where intellectual activity can be freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic benefit".

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