Beyond metrics: An open letter to Sir Michael Barber

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Dear Sir Michael,

Congratulations on your role as the Chair of the Office for Students, higher education’s new regulatory body. You have been appointed to oversee a number of developments in the sector expected to result from the Higher Education and Research Bill. Your commitment to accessible, low cost, innovative education, and to whole system reform precedes you, as does your reputation for deliverology.

If your track record predicts your approach and priorities in future, we expect higher education will increasingly be held accountable to performance measures and targets. Metrics and targets are valuable for highlighting performance inconsistencies, showing where improvement is needed and what is achievable, and for providing early indications of effectiveness.  Reviewing London South Bank’s undergraduate provision through the lens of our TEF metrics this year was fascinating. Drilling into our own data was an opportunity to strengthen a shared, evidence-informed university narrative of what we do well and where we can do better.

But you’ll also be aware of what goes wrong when metrics and targets are used to the exclusion of other leadership and change management tools. You’ll be aware of the Wells Fargo banking scandal, caused by employees fraudulently opening two million bank accounts to meet sales targets. Maybe you’re a fan of Barack Obama’s favourite TV show, the Wire, which dramatised the unintended consequences of pressure to improve crime statistics (reductions in crime figures were achieved, hooray, by containing drug use to zones where the police agreed to ignore it, aka legalised drugs. Oops).

Ways and means

I’m hoping that you’ve read The Fourth Way, by Alan Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, which name checks you, of course. It’s primarily concerned with schools, but is relevant to higher education too. The book analyses the components of reforms that, it argues, under-delivered and others that led to successful sustainable change.

As the helpfully direct title suggests, the book lays out four ‘ways’ to deliver complex large national systems like education and argues that only the fourth can be fully effective. The first way, identified mainly with the period after World War II and up to the mid 1970s, is characterised by high financial support from the state and by professional autonomy. It was an age of high professional trust and respect, and low levels of scrutiny and accountability; it was staff-centred, not student–centred, and supported both innovation and great inconsistency. Such an absence of professionalism and accountability is no longer acceptable in higher education, or any other public or quasi-public service.

The second way, linked to the launch of prescriptive national curricula in schools in the UK in the late 1980s, is characterised by market competition (e.g. published ranked test results), standardisation, and loss of professional autonomy for staff. Some “welcomed the new commitment to gathering comprehensive data on student achievement, anticipating that more precise information would lead to greater assistance for struggling students…”. However, the unintended consequences were declines in professional motivation, teacher retention, and children reading for pleasure, while school dropouts increased.

“Despite undeniable benefits of clearer focus, greater consistency, and attention to all students with a stronger sense of urgency, the downsides of the Second Way reforms were enormous. Achievements gains often occurred for a year or two in most cases but soon reached a plateau.”

Less punitive than the second way, from the mid 1990s the third way attempted to balance top-down and bottom-up initiatives, and to create the conditions for partnerships between public, private and voluntary sectors. Tony Blair, Anthony Giddens, and of course yourself, Sir Michael, were famous proponents of this approach. You sought a path between the market and the state, and to balance professional autonomy with accountability, using the publication of performance data combined with greater expectations of professional development. Hargreaves and Shirley argue that the third way promised much but was undermined by leaders’ rigidity of direction, obsessions with data and spreadsheets, and fascination with the glitter and promise of quick wins. Consequently, short-sighted and superficial planning prevented deeper transformations: “swift solutions and instant highs give an effervescent lift to hurried professionals”.

Putting down the spreadsheets

So Hargreaves and Shirley advocate a fourth way, one which combines the strengths of the other three, uniting a sense of purpose and professional principles in a coherent strategic framework. The necessary six features are an inspiring and inclusive vision, public engagement, investment, corporate educational responsibility, students as partners in change, and mindful learning and teaching.

Additionally, four ‘catalysts’ are required: “sustainable leadership, integrating networks, responsibility ahead of accountability, and differentiation and diversity.” Crucially, data and metrics are most significant when they are locally owned by those responsible for sustainable improvements in provision. Public accountability is achieved through sampling, not testing and publishing everything, which is perceived to lead to distortions in behaviour as everyone swiftly learns to game the system. A sequel, The Global Fourth Way, provides evidence of success in case studies from Finland, Singapore, Alberta, California, Ontario, and one home grown example, Grange Secondary school in Oldham, England.

I hope you enjoy your OfS role, Sir Michael. I hope we are at the start of an era in which more and better information, owned and valued locally, drives strategic and sustainable improvements in higher education. I also hope we will look back and say that in this period qualities were nurtured which can’t all be directly captured in metrics, such as purpose and responsibility amongst higher education providers, and creativity and commitment amongst staff.

I also hope yourself, and the sector as a whole, will act on the advice of Hargreaves and Shirley: “it’s time to put down the spreadsheets and look at each other”.

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