29 April 2012

Universities cut their noses to spite their faces

National's convention centre deal may have taken the cake as scandal du jour, but our esteemed universities were outed last week too. Radio NZ's John Gerritsen inquired into the anomalous statistics about eligibility of staff at the universities for the Tertiary Education Commission's research assessment (the Performance-Based Research Fund, PBRF) being undertaken this year. (Listen here and here.)
The PBRF is highly competitive partly due to the share of funding it delivers, but also due to the quality evaluation that it produces for institutions, creating a league-table. One way to get higher up the league-table is to rule out of eligibility for the assessment as many staff who have not produced research in the last 6 years as possible. So, rankings have almost as much to do with how effectively a university can manipulate the system, by (among other things) manipulating staff employment agreements, as they do with the production of actual research.
But this has produced some perverse outcomes. In its desperate bid to remain at the top of the league-table, Otago University is claiming (according to a study carried out for the TEC by KPMG) that nearly one third of its staff contribute to teaching or research only 'under strict supervision' by a properly qualified member of academic staff. No doubt they would bleat about the numbers of clinical staff who both practice and teach in medicine and dentistry. But, really, what kind of high-quality university has a third of its staff unable to do research and to teach at degree level independently? The alternative interpretation of the figures, of course, is that there has been some cheating going on, but Brutus, of course, was an honorable man.
Turning our attention to Victoria University, blogger David Farrar recently highlighted their unethical uses of employment agreements which are meant to ensure that research-inactive staff would not be counted in the TEC's census of staff in June 2012. It's hard to believe, but, according to KPMG's initial preparedness survey, Victoria University is claiming that 60% of its academic staff are not eligible for the PBRF assessment. That is, Vic 'admits' that most of their staff are not full-time and fully-qualified academics. And yet they still want us to believe that they are a university!
The deep irony is that, in their efforts to improve their reputations on the PBRF quality-score league-table for research, some institutions are jeopardising their own reputations as credible universities by saying that so many of their staff are incapable of the basic duties of academic life!
 If you have teenagers planning on university study, would you send them to an institution that declares that it has such high proportions of staff not engaged in research and not even able to teach degree-level courses without supervision? Or, shall we just assume that this is the result of unethical manipulation of the government's assessment?


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