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Pathways-ED: Good, better, best, goodness me

Stuart Middleton
12 May 2011

 About a year ago there was quite a lot of chatter about accountability in tertiary education. There had been introduced into New Zealand the Education Performance Indicators which were a simple list of performance indicators that scored New Zealand’s Polytechnics and Institutes of Technology on five different areas. And, shock upon horror, they would be published in the newspaper.

Just like some earthquake predictions the dreaded day arrived and little happened, that evening the sun set and the next morning the sun rose and I swear I heard a bird burst into song just a day after the EPI’s revealed that some institutions were excellent, some were poor and some were more of a curate’s egg. Those who were good found ways of alluding to the results in a modest show of whatever they thought was the opposite of boasting. Those who were poor simply carried on doing what they were doing which is largely why they were in the position they were on the league tables.

It comes of a disappointment probably to those who would promote such schemes, but the impact and usefulness of such approaches have little impact outside of the institutions. Issues of whether the “results” are used responsibly are misused recklessly or are trunked into league tables is, therefore, largely a matter that is over to the institutions themselves. It is not, in such circumstances, why it is done to us but rather what we do to ourselves.

So the university sector in Australia might well relax over the impending introduction of the My University web site which will report the performance of tertiary institutions in Australia (or at least some of them). I predicted this development about 2 years ago; once the My School website had got underway in Australia it was only a matter of time before the universities received similar treatment.

A spirited but reasoned discussion in HERDSA News[1] from Marcia Devlin saw both good and bad in the development. The site would provide some measure of accountability for public funding, student performance was of interest to the punters, it would dispel some of the mystery of universities and it would encourage the institutions to better explain what they do to the wider community. Well, some of that might well be true but certainly the criticism are well founded – the comparing oranges with cucumbers argument, the summarising of generalisations of statistical overviews reductio ad absurdum, comparisons with other attempts such as NAPLAN and presumably My School.

We know all this so I ask the following questions:

Who cares? Answer: We do.

Who is most likely to misuse the site and other such ranking exercises? Answer: us.

Who will throw themselves into the league table game? Answer: We will!  Of course the rather crude attempts to disguise this will take the form of press releases in which institutional leaders will reluctantly accept that they are the best institution. Where research is weak, teaching will be claimed as the special interest. Where student performance is poor there will be a dignified silence.

For the fact is that the real league tables are in the hearts and minds of those in the profession not in the newspapers. Parity of esteem is in tatters because of the behaviour of those in the profession not because some journalist (both print and web) uncritically accepts a pile of statistics that are probably dubious and certainly not the whole picture and tries to produce a shock horror story.

All developments such as those public reporting web sites, newspaper tables and league tables should all be given the respect they deserve.

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Marcia Devlin, “Recent Policy Developments in Australian Higher Education” in HERDSA News, Volume 33 No. 1, April 2011

Published inEducation

One Comment

  1. Stuart, MIT wasn’t all that bashful about its results, wiht a media release headed: “Manukau Institute of Technology Delivers Best Overall Results in New TEC Performance Reports”

    That said, I agree that the results haven’t been used much publicly, but they have had an impact between TEOs and TEC/NZQA and I’d expect public usage might build as the results become more reliable.

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