About the Author

Avatar photo

Dr. Ron Smith

The Tyranny of Fadism: PBRF and other stories

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

Many years ago when I first joined the staff of a teacher’s college, education practice in the primary sector was dominated by the notion of ‘open-plan’. No more single-cell classrooms. Instead, there would be large, well-resourced, open spaces with several teachers offering their different expertise to a much larger, broadly structured group of students. At a Board of Studies meeting, early in my time at the college, someone (not me) asked ‘what were the supposed benefits of the model’, since there were some obvious disadvantages in terms of order and the quality of the learning environment. A couple of senior colleagues undertook to do the research. They reported at a subsequent meeting that there was little evidence that open-plan was better and (as the questioners had supposed) substantial evidence of disadvantage. This outcome (and the fact that the research could have been done anywhere in the country) did not alter the onward trajectory of open-plan, with education ‘leaders’ continuing to advocate it and schools continuing to be built to facilitate it.

Of course, it is all over now but it is instructive to ask why such nonsense should have persisted for so long, and why so much money was wasted on it. This is particularly so since the explanation in this case may help us to understand what is happening in other cases, such as the totally closed-minded official response to accumulating doubt about anthropogenic climate change (about which I commented on this site a few weeks ago). The same sort of inertial factors help us to understand the continuing waste of hundreds of millions of dollars of tertiary education money on the ill-conceived performance based research funding (PBRF), which since 2003 has attempted to assess the intrinsic value of individual research in universities and allocate funds accordingly. It is all substantially a matter of human behaviour.

The key here is to understand that education leaders are no more inclined than politicians to confess that they were wrong. On the other hand, their followers are keen to mouth what they perceive to be the accepted wisdom and engage in enthusiastic ‘staff work’. This is the way recognition and advancement come. It is only when the new data becomes irresistible and many of the original promoters have left the stage, that doubt starts to be recognised at the top. At this point ‘followers’ are liberated. They will then typically begin to find the all the ‘evidence’ that might have been found before to show that the new policy is, indeed, right and that what was being done before was seriously mistaken. Of course, this will still be a matter of careful timing. Coming out too strongly or too soon risks a sudden fall from the greasy pole. On the other hand, tardy conversion finds the ‘pole’ already over-occupied with noisy converts.

In the case of PBRF we are regrettably still in the first phase. There are few critics and many within the system perceive themselves to be advantaged by the outcomes that PBRF generates, even if they are irritated by the process. There is also a pronounced reluctance in contemporary universities generally to question the authorities who control promotion, leave and money; itself a sad commentary on the extent to which academics might discharge their obligation to society to act as ‘critic and conscience’. As far as PBRF itself is concerned, the process is still set to go on until at least 2012 at an enormous price in terms of wasted resources and lost opportunities. It will continue to exact a heavy price in terms of good research and teaching and the progressive growth of heavy-handed managerialism. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, it will also produce no benefit to the reputation of New Zealand universities, either collectively or individually.

There is an urgent need for a re-evaluation of the PBRF process in all its aspects. In the absence of any sign of doubt at the top, it is up to members of the academic community to apply the critical skills they utilise within their own disciplines, to the theory and practice of performance based research assessment. Like my colleagues of thirty years ago, they will find that there are many studies from both New Zealand and abroad which cast real doubt on the wisdom and the efficacy of the process.

What they will find is that Performance Based Research Funding fails on all counts. It fails to adequately or equitably evaluate performance and it produces no (net) funding. In part it fails to achieve its objectives because it is conceptually flawed and badly administered. Research in New Zealand universities embraces a wide range of activities, with an equally wide range of criteria by which the value of these might be assessed. There is thus an enormous problem in making valid judgements of relative worth. To attempt to do this is, inevitably, to misjudge the effort of the individual and to do a disservice to scholarship, as work which may be seen to be of great value at some point in the future, is disregarded at the moment it is first reported. More generally, the lack in many areas of study of a single universally accepted conceptual framework on which judgements of worth may be made inevitably privileges the conformist and the fellow-traveller.

The pressure to report something (anything) that rings the PBRF bell is certainly producing an increasing number of publications of the prescribed kind but if studies from overseas are to be believed, fewer and fewer people are actually reading these papers and more and more academics are recycling their ideas time and time again. It is called self-plagiarism. What is not favoured by the system is long-term or speculative work: the sort of ‘research’ that is particularly associated with the traditional university. In these financially straightened times there may be a question as to what proportion of an academic’s time is devoted to research but there should be no question about who should set the agenda. The history of scholarship and its link to human progress is quite clear on the point.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about PBRF is that, despite all the anguish of staff and the continuing corruption of the academic institution, it produces no financial benefit, when the ‘transaction costs’ are taken into account. The first round in 2003 cost $28 million. The second substantive round will probably cost at least that much and, perhaps, more if the cost of internal practice (‘formative’) processes, are taken into account.

I think the ‘King’ has got no clothes. Would anybody like to join me in looking again at the procession?