By Brenda Austin-Smith
Why is it that bad ideas—like austerity budgeting, for example—seem immune to their own failures? Why do they keep coming back to life no matter how often they are put to the test, found wanting, and then discarded? The reanimation of performance indicators in post-secondary education is the most recent example of a bad idea come round again, tied in several provinces to something called “performance-based funding” for colleges and universities. About a decade ago, these were known as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). As the authors of the CAUT publication Counting Out the Scholars show, the rage for indicators, metrics, and outcomes of various kinds has been with us since at least in the mid-19th century, born from the efforts of governments to achieve maximum efficiency in a variety of public services, no matter how inappropriate and destructive those efforts might be.
While efficiency may be desirable, and its achievement even possible, in the production of standard items, or in the execution of routine tasks, it makes no sense in the provision of public services as creative and responsive as education. One critique of performance-based funding, published in 2016 by The Century Foundation, points out the complexity of the process of teaching and learning, which makes the application of measurements like rates of graduation, or numbers of grads per program, reductive and useless. “It may be easy to count the number of graduates,” writes author Nicholas Hillman, “but the process of creating a college graduate is anything but simple.”
Teaching students isn’t like folding pizza boxes. One set of actions doesn’t serve all purposes. Nor does limiting the range of courses in the name of system efficiency produce the kind of intellectual agility we expect and need from those who receive post-secondary education. No one thinks of mentorship, intellectual growth, the cultivation of curiosity, and the support of innovation in terms of routine practices and predictable outcomes. Anyone with experience knows this: teachers adapt to classroom dynamics, can spot students who need more attention, and can sense when a lesson needs to shift radically in order to address an unexpected question. Responsiveness to students with a wide range of needs, interests, and capacities, not efficiency at all costs, is the key to a high-quality public education. And of course, students bring their own imaginations and curiosity to the classroom. They have minds of their own, and are eager for discussion, challenge, and debate, not rote training.
Despite a history of failure, the mania for performance-based funding has come roaring back in Alberta, Ontario, and is likely to roll out in Manitoba, as well as other provinces. It’s not only that many of the measures imposed on institutions are outside their control, such as rates of degree completion. It’s also that they bear no relation to the qualitative experience of either teaching or learning. Funding colleges and universities on the basis of how much money their graduates earn, for example, is a shocking move. It suggests a truly ugly view of the world in which money determines the social value of everything. It’s a world in which institutions that form students for careers in public service, the non-profit sector, creative work, and—yes—education, are punished for doing so.
I’m pretty certain the governments summoning the zombie of performance-based funding back to life realize that their inappropriate measures can’t possibly make any college or university better at educating anyone. Rather, it’s a cynical move intended to set us up for failure, so that planned cuts can be cloaked as the result of “objective measures” that are actually loaded with ideology. The point is ultimately to control post-secondary institutions, and the work that takes place in them.
The suspicion and dislike of higher education embedded in performance-based funding is really directed at universities and colleges as places where knowledge, reflection, wonder, and fascination are unrestricted, and do not inevitably contribute to capital. The desire to control programs and curricula, to bring education and educators to heel, is a measure of the distrust and fear with which creative and critical thinking is regarded in some quarters.
But those of us dedicated to the work of education know that knowledge and the imagination are always unruly, and will always escape measurement. Wisdom, not efficiency, is our goal, and achieving that takes time.