Friday, 15 June 2018

The Breathless Pursuit of Excellence

'Excellence of physique': soon to be a REF category
(Image: Wellcome CC BY)
The rhetoric of excellence has become all pervasive in higher education and beyond. We all aspire to excellence, but what does it actually mean? It's become an empty phrase that can mean anything to anyone - and that's its appeal.

In the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate Laurence Harvey plays an American sergeant who is captured and brainwashed by the Soviets to be an assassin. He is programmed to respond to a trigger phrase "Why don't you pass the time by playing solitaire?" The consequences are potentially catastrophic, but luckily Frank Sinatra’s on hand to save the day.

In twenty-first century higher education it feels like we need Frank Sinatra more than ever. Like Harvey, universities across the globe have been programmed to respond to a specific phrase: ‘excellence’. They can’t help themselves. As soon as the word is mentioned they become transfixed, and will go all out to claim it.

Moore et al (2017), writing in Nature, highlight this: ‘institutional mission statements or advertisements proclaim, in almost identical language, their “international reputation for [educational] excellence” (for example, Baylor, Imperial College London, Loughborough University, Monash University, The University of Sheffield), or the extent to which they are guided by principles of “excellence” (University of Cambridge, Carnegie Mellon, Gustav Adolphus, University College London, Warwick and so on).’

And yet this is a relatively new phenomenon. Bj√∂rn Hammarfelt et al (2017) showed that, when university rankings were first devised a century ago the original compiler, James McKeen Cattell, wasn’t seeking ‘excellence,’ but rather eminence or greatness.

He was attempting to remedy ‘a perceived decline in great men compared to earlier periods,’ highlighting and corralling examples to encourage and protect them in their work. ‘The fate of the nation was dependent on the overall quality of ‘men’ and the measurement and promotion of eminence was deemed as an important task.’

He set about this with pseudo-scientific relish. He drew up an initial list of ‘prominent scientists—derived from university rosters, scientific journals and bibliographical dictionaries—[then] asked ten prominent representatives from 12 disciplines to rank individuals according to merit.’

 This seems laughable now, but is it any more ridiculous than the current global rankings which insist on the equally nebulous term ‘excellence’, and use equal suspect methodologies to identify it?

The rise in the use of excellence as a descriptor seemed to come about in the early years of this century, and was either coincidental with, or caused by, the establishment of the QS/Times Higher global rankings, before being confirmed by the rebadging of the Research Assessment Exercise as the Research Excellence Framework.

Now, as Moore et al state, ‘the rhetoric of “excellence” is pervasive across the academy.’ They go on to examine whether this rhetoric is useful to the sector and conclude that no,  ‘academic research and teaching is not well served by [it]. Nor, we argue, is it well served by the use of “excellence” to determine the distribution of resources and incentives to the world’s researchers, teachers and research institutions.

‘While the rhetoric of “excellence” may seem in the current climate to be a natural method for determining which researchers, institutions, and projects should receive scarce resources, we demonstrate that it is not as efficient, accurate, or necessary as it may seem.’

Essentially, the very facet that makes it so attractive for universities to reach for - its broad applicability as an easily understood shorthand - is the very thing that makes it useless. It’s empty of any real meaning. It ‘serves in the broadest sense solely as an (aspirational) claim of comparative success: that some thing, person, activity, or institution can be asserted in a hopefully convincing fashion to be “better” or “more important” than some other (often otherwise incomparable) thing, person, activity, or institution.’

And yet all universities have bought into this, and are complicit in its continuation. They take it further, expanding this cacophony of empty wordplay into their soaring strategies. I wrote about this in Research Professional last year (republished on Fundermentals, here). There are so many identikit university strategies because, ultimately, we all want the same: excellent research and far-reaching impact, which informs and ensures excellent teaching.

Claire Taylor, writing in Times Higher Education, reiterates this: “university strategic plans all [seek] to achieve common goals using a language of superlatives and meaningless aspiration: ‘to be world leading in x’; ‘to be the best at y’; ‘to be internationally renowned for z’.”

With these guiding parameters in hand, universities encourage, support or even demand that their academics achieve excellence. They have to have it formally validated in the REF, but must go further and demonstrate it by winning grants. The income generated will, in turn, go on to be a factor in future REFs and the global rankings. The excellence circle is complete.

A school close to my home has the strapline ‘excellence in everything.’ A brief Google search shows that this is shared, unknowingly, with the Nobel School in Stevenage, the KIMS Hospital in Maidstone, BCM Construction, Kateera and Kagumire solicitors, and British Athletics, amongst many others.

It feels as if the same empty slogan could, ultimately, be applied to every university. We’re not far off that point. In a wonderfully illuminating survey, the Knowledge Partnership (2017) showed how similar and banal the straplines of most UK universities are.

In trying to differentiate themselves from each other all have become the same, chasing the empty aspiration, and pushing their academics to do the same. We are all excellent now.

No comments:

Post a Comment