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Managerialism, students and the language of failure

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Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels.  How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams?  Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case.  However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.

Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League.  If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability.  It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs.  Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally.  This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve.  And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled.  Make sense so far, I hope so?

If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students.  Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades.  We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts.  We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university.  We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades.   The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.

Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’?  These are a ‘1st and 2.1.  At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades.  The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’.  This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade.  Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’.  A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.

Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player.  Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League.  The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.

With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.

It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.

The same old rhetoric, just another place

2+2=5My sister phoned me the other day in great excitement.  She’d just met a former criminology student from the University of Northampton, and she had an awful lot to say about it.  She wasn’t in her hometown and had asked directions from a stranger to the river embankment.  Having visited the embankment, she returned to town only to bump into the stranger again who enquired whether she managed to find it. They ended up chatting, my sister can do a lot of that, and she found out that the stranger was a police officer.  My sister asked whether she knew me, why she would ask that I have no idea, it seems that she has formulated some notion in her head that all police officers must know each other or at least know of each other.  This is the bit that my sister got so animated about, yes, the stranger did know me, I’d taught her at the University, and she was now in a budding police career.  Apparently, I had done so much to help her.  Now I don’t know about being that helpful and I suspect that many of my colleagues played a part in her success story, but it reminded me about what it is that we do and aspire to do as lecturers.

Whilst waiting to play my part in talking to school children the other day I started to read a new edition of a seminal piece of work on policing, The Politics of the Police (Bowling et al., 2019).  The preface alone makes interesting reading and in ‘mentioning populist political reactions towards crime’, ‘zero tolerance of the marginalised and outsiders’ and ‘laissez-faire economics’ that promotes individual interests, my mind turned to the managerialist ideals that have dogged policing for over three decades.  Those ideals saw the introduction of performance indicators, targets and the inevitable policing by objectives (Hallam, 2000), that resulted in some quite appalling manipulation of data and a diminution of service rather than an improvement.  The problem was that the targets were never achievable and were simply put in place for managers to simplify the social world over which they had no control.  What didn’t get measured, because it never could be, were the myriad of tasks that police officers and staff undertake daily.  Dealing with people with mental illness, searching for missing persons and dealing with minor disturbances are an example of just a few such tasks.  Bowling et al. (op cit.) subscribe to the notion that the job of the police is to help maintain social order, an ideal that does not lend itself to measurement. Counting the number of crimes committed in an area or the number of detected crimes is only an indication of failure, not success.

How does that policing narrative fit in with my opening paragraph? The former student was not an ideal student from a managerialist viewpoint.  She didn’t attain so called ‘good grades’, I’m not even sure if she fully completed her studies.  In terms of performance measurement, she doesn’t even feature and yet she, like so many others we have seen in Criminology, has flourished.  Whilst concentrating on ‘retention and progression’ and ‘fails’ and ‘good grades’ we neglect the very reason we exist.  Just as in policing where the figures were pored over by managerialist who had not slightest notion of the reality of the social world, so too are we in danger of simply seeking pleasing statistics to keep the wolves from the door because explanations of real success and failure are too complex for managers to understand or manage.

Imagine a world where the police just helped maintain social order, where probation were not plagued by notions of payment by results, where patients were just seen in A&E in a reasonable time and where lecturers just opened the minds of students and allowed them to think for themselves.  Imagine the time and expense that could be saved and reinvested in providing real service and dare I say it ‘value for money’ if we stopped gathering meaningless data.  Imagine managers casting aside the shackles of neoliberalist ideals and managing people, not using numbers as an indication of failure and impending doom.  We can but dream, but my reality, as I’m sure is the reality of many of my colleagues, is the success stories that I occasionally hear and can reminisce about.  No amount of number crunching can take that away and nor will it ever provide evidence of success or failure.

Bowling, B. Reiner, R. and Sheptycki, J. (2019) The Politics of the Police. (5th ed.) Oxford: OUP.

Hallam, S. (2000) Effective and Efficient Policing: Some Problems with the Culture of Performance, in Marlow, A. and Loveday, B. (eds.) After MacPherson: Policing after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Lyme Regis: Russell House

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