Shame, pain, disdain and learning gain

Why don’t people fund small things any more?

I’ve been following policy developments in English HE aimed at modifying academic behaviour over the past few weeks : specifically (though not exclusively) a HEFCE seminar on “Learning Gain” and the ongoing deliberation around the REF and HEFCE’s (shortly to be released) allocation of QR funding that will be linked to it.

The latent conspiracy theorist in me insists that I mention that both “Learning Gain” and the “Impact” component of the REF are being designed and delivered by Rand Europe. And Rand, in a triumph of private sector management excellence, are basically doing the same job twice.

Though in disparate fields, both initiatives are an attempt to do the following:

  • to measure an attribute of education or research that was previously thought immeasurable.
  • to use this scheme of measurement nationally, across multiple institutions in multiple contexts
  • to make an assessment of the activity that allows significant gain to be made against these measurement schemes.
  • To reward and fund these areas of “excellence”, to encourage others

(anyone who is muttering “deliverology” or “new public management” here gets extra credit)

The big stretch comes with the first – convincing otherwise sane and rational people that the huge methodological, ethical and contextual problems that measure multi-variable second-order effects on human beings can simply disappear if you are the RAND corporation.

This faux-scientific nonsense has replaced the kind of small targeted investment in the community that has been proven to actually work. The kind of thing that other HE sectors around the world have learned from the UK and are currently implementing whilst we import failed approaches from elsewhere.

Changes in large systems like HE are substantially unlike the changes in production lines that this kind of Neotaylorism was designed to address. (It didn’t actually work too well there either…). Modern enterprises have swung round to the idea of autonomy and responsibility rather than measurement and comparison. A small investment in an expert-agent led evolution of working practices is  likely to be of much greater benefit than an intervention from someone outside the system.

And we used to do this in HE, before we got caught up the old orthodoxies of “scientific” management again.

  • comparison is not a natural motivator for beneficial process change – it only becomes a motivator if both parties to the comparison are in competition for limited resources. In my experience, this does not lead to genuine improvement in processes, but to a focus on the units of comparison themselves.
  • collaboration can be a useful way to bring about improvements in practice and efficiencies. Forced standardisation brings about a focus on the standards themselves rather than improvement.
  • autonomy is a powerful generator of innovation. Top-down imposition of change is a powerful inhibitor of innovation.
  • individual ownership, value and agency supports sustainability – enmeshing this within a collaborative community of practice multiplies this exponentially.

So why are things moving in the other direction? Primarily fear.

  • Fear felt by organisations and agencies who have lost their previous and established functions and are under real or imagined pressure to prove their worth.
  • Fear felt by institutional managers who are under real or imagined pressure to prove their worth
  • Fear felt by politicians and policy makers…

The quickest way to generate “proof” of worth is an intervention which produces a line on a graph that points upwards (again, classic deliverology). So if you are going to do this you’d first of all ensure you’ve defined a measure that would show a gain that you could link to your intervention. And this is the service that RAND Europe are offering, the effects of which is heavily multiplied by HEFCE linking impact in the REF to QR funding (and, I imagine, linking some similar funding pot to improvements in learning gain).

If there’s a CETL-sized prize (or even a couple of league table places) at the end of learning gain, I could see a lot of institutions taking it far more seriously than it deserves, and in doing so moving away from teaching innovation practices that actually work.

Which would be a shame.

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