The freedom of academia: strategised, KPI’d, and quality assured away

@sthcrft has reflected and expanded upon this article from The Australian on research graduates wanting a career in academia. In particular, the point is made that increasingly academics are payed a comparative pittance, have little or no job security, and being sent mixed messages about the relative importance of research and teaching (see the last paragraph of The Australian article). I’d like to add my 2c worth.

Just over a year ago I made a conscious decision to take the opportunity offered by a redundancy to get the hell out of academia. Dominant amongst a range of reasons for leaving was the increasing destruction of the freedom/autonomy typically enjoyed by an academic position. Freedom in the sense of Dan Pink’s Drive mantra about autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The freedom to apply the knowledge and insight gained through research to doing good things in both teaching and research. A freedom that has been significantly reduced through at least three factors

  1. Strategy.
    In response to a tightening higher education funding environment universities are increasingly strategy led. A strategy developed by the senior management and which must be implemented. If you aren’t helping achieve the strategy you will be frowned upon. A little bit of autonomy lost.
  2. KPIs.
    Strategies lead to KPIs, which lead to task corruption. Where the bigger picture gets lost in the narrowed focus on a particular outcome. e.g. the KPI to have high response rates on course evaluations (even though there are significant questions about their value). A focus that creates a slippery slope of silly ideas to ensure the response rate is high, rather than the quality of the response. The focus becomes meeting the KPI, rather than exploring.
  3. Quality assured.
    The problem with QA is that it assumes that consistency is quality. This is entirely problematic given something as diverse as teaching at a university. The checklists and templates of QA reduce the majority of teaching to the lowest common denominator and doesn’t even ensure quality as box ticking becomes an important teaching skill. To do something different than the checklist or the minimum standard is seen as wasteful, a little more freedom lost.

This is not to suggest that unbridled academic autonomy is the solution. That approach has its own set of enormous flaws that have plagued academia. It is to argue that some institutions are going to far the other way. Academia is becoming overly constrained and consequently destroying the freedom to innovate and explore that made academia attractive to me. Being reduced to an implementor of bad strategies seemed to be the time to get out.

2 thoughts on “The freedom of academia: strategised, KPI’d, and quality assured away

  1. beerc

    G’day David

    While I do not disagree with the gist of what your saying about strategy, I don’t believe that University’s and their senior management are entirely (or even mostly) to blame. Aside from being drastically reduced, government funding models have changed considerably over the past 20 years and funding levels are now directly linked with how the institution conforms to government set KPIs. So if an organisation’s financial survival is linked with a set of government imposed KPIs, how else can they act but to be seen to comply?

    The main factor in all of this (I think) is a misinterpretation of what sort of system learning and teaching is. The assumption, at all levels is that L&T is a causal system whereby doing x leads to y and we can accurately measure x. In that sort of system KPIs work well. However in a complex system KPIs don’t work because of Goodhart’s law and perhaps the law of unintended consequences. So the approach doesn’t match the system and here we are.


    1. G’day Col,

      You’re right that senior management aren’t entirely to blame. The need to assign blame to particular individuals or groups is, I think, a symptom of the problem. That said, there are some folk who just plain wrong for the positions they hold (see previous posts).

      As you’ve probably heard, many of the non-academic support staff (and some of the senior management) have a “blame the academic” perspective which directly contributes to the strategies, KPIs and QA’d points I make above. Just as “blame the academic” is limited, so is “blame the senior management”.


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