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My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

Reality and the fairy tale world of policy and procedures

https://pixabay.com/photos/once-upon-a-time-writer-author-719174/

In the concept of managerialism, we see that both policy and procedures form part of the techniques employed to enhance productivity and cultural changes. These changes use a ‘calculative and rationalistic knowledge base’ which appears both ‘universalistic’, and [at first sight] ‘seems entirely good sense’ (Gilling, 2014:82).

However, this knowledge base is far from universalistic and to the ‘street level bureaucrat’ (Lipsky, 1980) often falls little short of complete naivety.  Lipsky (2010) provides a valuable insight into how individuals in public service adapt unworkable policies and procedures as the idealistic meets the reality of overstretched resources and ever demanding and needy consumers of services.

Whilst both working in and studying the police as an organisation subjected to and adopting managerialist policies, I witnessed the nonsensical notions of measuring activities and the subjugation of professionalism to management ideals (Hallam, 2009).  Perhaps, there could be no better example than the measurement of the length of time a call handler spent dealing with a call. This derived from the need to answer calls within a target time period. It all made sense until you begin to take into account reality – the lack of resources and the nature of calls which demanded that on some occasions operators ought to spend far longer on the phone to deal with more protracted matters, such as someone in crises who really needed help and a comforting voice whilst someone was on their way.  The result of the measurements was often counterproductive, officers being sent to incidents that amounted to little more than a waste of time, ‘My Jimmy is missing and I haven’t seen him for three days’ – when the officers turn up, Jimmy turns out to be a cat or, officers being sent to locations where information regarding the incident is scant because little time has been spent on the phone to get sufficient details.  In the clinical world of the policy maker, there are ideal call takers, those that have knowledge about every eventuality, and ideal call makers, those that are precise, unemotional and to the point.  Nothing of course could be further from reality.

Disappointingly, I find little solace in academia.  Policy and procedures abound. Teaching styles are based, not on the nuances of student types but on the ideal student.  The student that has the requisite skills to read and write and think critically. The student that is always engaged and always turns up and above all else, teaching is based on idealistic (see Morse and Lewis for tutorial sizes) small student classes.  Policies that are well meaning such as catering for additional needs, become unworkable in an environment where class sizes and teaching demands outstrip available resources.  Like the call handler, for the lecturer, it becomes impossible to cater for those that need more attention and time. And like the call handler, lecturers are subjected to managerialist idealistic measurements of success and failure.  I once heard of a manager that referred to academics as ‘slackademics’, I think is probably just an indication of how far removed from reality managers are. There are two worlds in organisations that provide a service to the public, one is based on reality the other, a fairy tale world of policies and procedures based on the ideal.

References

Gilling, D. (2014) Reforming police governance in England and Wales: managerialisation and the politics of organisational regime Change, Policing and Society, 24 (1): 81-101.

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Covid-Universities and what if

https://blackadderquotes.com/final-scene-blackadder-goes-forth

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

Imagine and what if…

https://unsplash.com/@mahnaz31

Imagine’, a simple word and one that evokes memories of a song written by John Lennon and released in 1971. In that song we are asked to think about ideas that would perhaps lead us into notions of utopia, if only the ideas were true. Though, often what we see as a simple solution proves to be far from simple and in each solution, lies a paradox that gives lie to the fact that our solution was a solution at all. If we imagine a solution or a scenario we should also ask ourselves ‘what if’. ‘What if’ that were true, what would it look like and what would the consequences be? I like the idea of ‘what if’. ‘What if’ allows me to jump ahead, ‘what if’ allows me to see whether a solution would work, ‘what if’ allows me to play out various scenarios in my mind and ‘what if’ causes me more trouble than imagine. In imagine I can dream, in ‘what if’, I tear those dreams apart, dissecting each bit into practical reality. A reality that has its basis in science and my limited knowledge of human nature. And so, I’d like to begin my journey of ‘imagine’ and ‘what if’.

I suppose my thinking behind this short piece was to set the scene for a number of other pieces without trying to explain the background and rationale of each piece.  ‘Imagine’ and ‘What if’ are the rationale.  Perhaps the idea might provide a spark for other bloggers, I hope so. And so, I begin….

Imagine a chain of nice restaurants (not the greasy spoon type but perhaps not the Michelin star type either), each restaurant with its own chef.  Imagine the work that goes into running a restaurant*, for those of you that watch MasterChef, ‘it isn’t hard to do’. Let’s start with the basics.

Well of course there is the food. Decent food, requires decent ingredients. So, sourcing the ingredients is important, a fair amount of research required to do this and then of course there is the logistics of purchasing the food at the right time in the right quantities and ensuring the quality at the same time.

Then there is the menu, what is put onto the menu is carefully planned around what ingredients are available, what the chef wants to produce and what the customer might want. If the theme of the restaurant is Vegetarian cuisine, there is little point in putting a chicken Balti on the menu. The actual menu needs to be produced, not some scrap of paper, it needs to be carefully planned, printed and delivered. The food then needs to be cooked and served. There is a lot of planning and careful consideration that goes into this. Dishes are tried and tried again until they are right and are aesthetically pleasing on the plate. The customers need to be looked after in the restaurant, shown to their tables, their orders taken, and drinks served.

Imagine how the restaurant is advertised, perhaps on Facebook, maybe its own website and imagine what the advertising would promise. Perhaps a congenial atmosphere, good food and fine service. Imagine you can book online. Imagine the amount of work that goes into building that website or Facebook page. Imagine the work that goes into servicing the bookings.  Imagine the organisation of running a restaurant. So, what if…

The chef was responsible for:

  • The design and implementation of the website or Facebook page
  • The planning, sourcing and cooking of the food
  • The design and printing of the menu
  • The taking of the orders and the delivery of the food to the customers
  • In fact, the chef was responsible for delivering just about everything.

What if…

The customers that came to the restaurant decided they don’t like Vegetarian cuisine and are more at home with burgers and chips, but somebody told them it was a good idea to try the restaurant, or maybe they didn’t have anything better to do on the day.

The restaurant chain managers decided that more customers were better for business and they crammed in as many as they could each day, whilst berating the chef for not servicing the website bookings in line with published timelines.

The restaurant managers decided that the chef could run it all on their own as it is better for the bottom line.

What if…

The feedback from customers is filled with complaints about the untimely service, the crammed conditions and the fact they don’t like Vegetarian food and couldn’t understand why burgers and chips weren’t on the menu as well.

The management scrutinise the restaurant Facebook page or website looking for inaccuracies or areas that don’t fit the restaurant chain’s USP and appear to have little interest in the food produced or the service given to customers.

The management introduce new policies to ‘ensure better customer service and a better customer experience’.  The policies increase the workload for the chef.

Just imagine you are that chef ….

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Scream.jpg

NB I apologise to all chefs out there. As with anything in life we have little idea of the amount of work something involves until we have to do it ourselves.

What is the value of your ‘yes’ when you never say ‘no’?

A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question.  It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’.  It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t.  There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations. 

My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers.  The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this.  If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now.  Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done.  Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.

Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan.  There is always an element of redundancy.  When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions.  More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.

As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?

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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