Nothing is worthwhile except that to which we can ascribe a number

[warning: Monday ramble ahead]

I’ve now got to the point of the semester where I am tired and cranky and grumpy (why yes, some of you might enquire as to how you’d know the difference between now and the rest of the semester). I’m tired of assigning numbers to the work of students, considering numbers ranking our programmes in league tables, rating satisfaction with stuff, and all the other metrics that dictate life in a university. And let’s face it, metrics are generally a proxy for who’s got the biggest…

So of course I’m truly delighted to be standing on the precipice of another giant set of metrics, in the form of TEF, that will not only likely be discriminatory (see here), abuse existing surveys and whatnots into saying things they were never designed for, but generally lead to greater aversion to risk. And less risk taking in teaching means less innovation, fewer insights into really effective learning and teaching and generally a poorer student experience over the long term. It makes me genuinely angry to hear that innovative academics feel they cannot try something new in their teaching for fear of the student feedback.  And new things take time to get right so giving up after the first attempt is just plain stupid. Forcing someone to give up after the first attempt based on some set of metrics is equally stupid, as is giving them a hard time. If it was a student, we’d sit down with them and discuss what they did, what they might do differently and come up with an action plan. We should approach our professional practice in the same way otherwise we propagate a system where old style values of what teaching *should* look like.

Should we accommodate some students’ expectations of university? Should we accommodate the expectation of being able to doze in lectures, cram all the necessary stuff in the hours before a final exam, pull all nighters to complete work left until 24 hours before the deadline, but still come out with a very desirable qualification? No. If the purpose of universities is to critique and contribute to society, to develop an understanding of how the universe works and equip our students with the tools to carry on that work then we must turn that lens on ourselves first and critique the ways in which we propagate that which we criticise. And we can carry on with the commodification of education, continue the drift into the commodification of experiences (must tick CV box: work placement, research placement, volunteering, part-time work), maintain the pressure on our young people to do something, be something and have it all figured out by the time they pick their A-levels or highers, but at some point surely we have to stop and say enough is enough, let our young people be. But I guess as long as there are metrics, everything will be OK.

So how about this as a set of metrics for a university:

– number of students attending counselling or submitting EC for stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions indicative of a high pressure environment.

– number of students who pass modules at the first attempt, submit coursework on time and to a level where they can say ‘I could not reasonably have done more, I did my best’.

– number of staff days sick due to stress and related conditions.

– number of evenings and weekends worked by staff to perform their basic duties.

– number of staff who feel they have the freedom to pursue their research, teaching and admin in a secure and supportive environment. An environment which accommodates the natural ebb and flow of careers and acknowledges that life happens, and careers sometimes take the back seat.

Instead we’ll be looking at the NSS and quibbling over averaged likert scales. And the outcome of this TEF will be a rank order of universities that, on the whole, maintains the status quo and keeps everyone in their place. Because how could it ever be any other way.

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