The death of learning in higher education: quality nazis, “strategic” leadership, blinkered project managers and idiot academics

Based on my experience in Australian universities I would like to suggest four archetypes that are destroying the quality of learning in higher education. They are, in order of arrival at universities:

  1. Idiot academics.
  2. “Strategic” leadership.
  3. Blinkered project managers.
  4. Quality nazis.

This is not to suggest that all academics, leaders or project managers fit into the above archetypes. I do think, however, that the trend within the higher education system is to increase the proportion of these archetypes.

I would also argue that the last three are often seen as necessary because of the “idiot” academic. In fact, the “idiot” academic is the known enemy of the other three. Over time the other three archetypes see the “idiot” academic as the enemy and can end up treating all academics as idiots. This failure to differentiate is a major problem.

Idiot academic

This is the lady or gent who doesn’t respond to student queries. Is obviously ill-prepared for classes. Regularly returns assignments weeks after they should have been returned (if at all). Is still using the same content and assessment from 10+ years ago. e.g. are teaching a computer hardware course using Intel 8086 chips. It’s the type of academic who complains about over-work but is about to commence their 2nd hour of the morning in the staff room and hasn’t produced a journal paper for the last 5 years (if ever) and probably bemoans the quality of teaching of those who do research.

It’s the type of academic that should have been shown the door years ago if universities had anything approaching appropriate human resource management processes.

The quality of learning and teaching is not important for these folk, they wouldn’t know it if it bit them on the hind quarters.

Strategic leadership

10 or 15 years ago universities tended only to hire Vice-Chancellors as strategic leaders/saviours. i.e. they were given 5 year contracts, money and responsibility to “make things happen”. Which gave rise to the standard KPIs that went something like this

  • End Year 1 – have replace University senior executive with my mates.
  • End Year 2 – have implemented flagship projects (e.g. 5 term year, international campuses, partnerships with an employment firm or publisher).
  • End Year 3 – start spruiking how effective the flagship projects had been.
  • End Year 4 – start looking for a VC’s job at a better university.
  • End Year 5 – Move on before the waste product hits the cooling device.

This trend has slowly moved down the hierarchy to Deans of Faculties and most recently to Heads (now known as Deans) of Schools.

By definition these folk can’t grapple with or understand complex contextual factors. They have to get on with their flagship projects.

The quality of learning and teaching is not important for these folk, successful completion of flagship projects is.

Blinkered project managers

These folk are also usually on contracts, specifically to get a project done. Strategic leadership needs them because the leader can’t actually do the implementation. That would take time away from looking for the next job.

A blinkered project manager doesn’t care about anything except the successful completion of the project. In fact, a truly blinkered project manager doesn’t even care if the project was a success, as long as they can claim it was a success in public. And since the strategic leader who was “leading” the project also needs it to be a success, they are almost certainly going to have a success.

e.g. a LMS implementation where the LMS is unavailable for the first 2 weeks of go live because the database configuration couldn’t handle the load. This after a term of testing and numerous indications that it wasn’t working. Is still considered a great success.

The quality of learning and teaching is not important for these folk, successful completion of flagship projects is.

Quality nazis

The second cousin of the blinkered project manager. Teaching and learning in modern higher education is complex. There are problems (see idiot academics above) and mistakes. The obvious way to prevent these from happening is to have quality assurance processes, checklists, templates, forms, and systems. Since it is obvious if idiot academics spent hours more completing these checklists, templates, processes, forms, and systems to prove that they did what they didn’t do in the first place, the problems won’t happen.

The quality of learning and teaching is not important for these folk, successful ticking of the boxes is.

7 thoughts on “The death of learning in higher education: quality nazis, “strategic” leadership, blinkered project managers and idiot academics

  1. Get up on the wrong side of the bed, eh? As an instructional designer at a large university, I probably qualify as a quality nazi. We’re up to a 15-item checklist for new courses. What’s the answer David or anyone?

    1. G’day Kevin,

      Actually the day I wrote this post was a good day, studies finished and a bit of a holiday. However, I had experienced and heard quite a bit in the lead up that had me thinking about this.

      Please don’t take the above as suggesting that there is no place at Universities for project management, quality assurance (checklists etc). leadership or academics. These responsibilities and approaches have their place.

      The problem I’m bemoaning with the above is that there are people in these jobs that have lost sight of the original purpose, improving learning and teaching. Instead, their focus has become on the project or the quality assurance project.

      This isn’t necessarily a conscious decision on their part either. I’ve seen well-meaning folk suffer from Confirmation bias, the law of instrument etc.. i.e. “Oh there are still problems, another check list will solve it.”

      All of the above are more than useful, but have to be kept in perspective. (Though the idiot academics should just be gotten rid of).


    2. David –

      You are absolutely correct. I lump these people under the name of Administrative Nazis because they don’t care about the purpose of rules, checklists, etc., only that the rules are followed.

      This reminds me of a time when I was doing training with a group of local government supervisors, and attendees were complaining about citizens not following rules, procedures, etc. I ask what a solution might look like. The best response was something like, “Make a rule that people have to follow the rules.”

      They’re out there.

  2. M-H

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but some Unis have a different model. The projects we do are requested by academics, and the outcomes aren’t always as expected. Some fail, often because of an idiot academic, but sometimes because of a fatal mismatch in skills between our team and what the academic expects. And we’re all on permanent staff, so we do develop working relationships with faculties. The quality improvement in learning and teaching that we can demonstrate is the part of the basis for our annual budget, not how many projects we can rah rah about.

    I think that we have too much to do with the LMS, but that’s what the system is based on, and we can’t avoid that. There’s an element of ‘quality nazi’ in what we do (also part of our budget’s requirements), but we try to minimise it. As much as possible we try to engage with the non-idiot academics and support their endeavours to engage students and keep their interest high.

    Worst thing is we’re almost completely invisible. Students probably hardly know we exist, many academics think we’re ‘techies’ not ‘teachies’. But we really do care about the quality of teaching and learning, and we practice ‘pedagogy by stealth’ to improve it as much as we can.

    1. G’day Mary,

      A bit like the prior comment, I accept that there are limitations to my claims. There is good in these roles, it’s when they are taken to extremes.

      Also, I agree with you that there are real difficulties associated with being the “middle people” in a university setting. I had quite a few years in similar type of roles and the invisibility/lack of understanding is a problem.

      That said, I do believe there remains a danger – for even the best intentioned person in a support role – to cross over the line into one of the above archetypes.


  3. Pingback: Skepticlawyer » What does ‘online learning’ really mean?

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