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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1997

The Goal of a University Not Easily Captured by PIs

Canada's social and economic well-being depends on a broadly accessible system of higher education. Canadians have therefore shown a strong historic commitment to a well-funded system of public higher education. Universities must be accountable for the use of public funds. Accountability, we say, requires that public universities and community colleges, like any public institution, should be able to say what their goals and mission are, and whether or not their funding and staff are adequate to fulfil those goals and that mission. Accountability thus requires judgements -- judgements that no statistic could replace.

The governance of universities should be sufficiently transparent that a member of the public can readily find out the university's means and ends. Given the academic character of universities, the academic Senate should be the place where that person would first look.

In limited respects, a university's progress in achieving its mission may be described statistically. For instance, a university seeking to increase the number of students from low-income families would use statistical measures, among other indicators, to decide whether it was attracting such students. To take another example, a university aiming to reduce administrative costs so far as possible, would certainly want to examine the proportion of operating funds devoted to administrative costs over some reasonable period. These are, arguably, appropriate uses of statistical "indicators" in education.

The goal of a university is, however, to offer the public the best possible teaching, research, and community service. This is a complicated objective not easily captured, even in part, by performance indicators (PIs).

Each university's mission and history are different. No uniform performance measure -- whether provincial or national -- could possibly show if a university is "doing its job." PIs have not always taken into account a university's historic mission. Instead, many PIs seek to measure "satisfaction" with post-secondary education (students' approval of levels of teaching, graduates' and employers' approval ratings of programs of study). This appeal to market principles, coupled with the advocacy of PIs by the accounting community, raises persistent doubts about the application of PIs to educational outcomes.

Performance Indicators are a form of statistical analysis. They are measurements -- of speed, power, efficiency, or productivity, particularly where productivity is a measure of input required for an output. Strictly speaking, the term "performance indicator" should be limited to statistical policy analysis of inputs vis-à-vis outputs. But in practice the term is also used to mean any statistical analysis of the work of universities or colleges.

Supporters of PIs insist that statistical measures of input, output, throughput, and efficiency are necessary for accountability. Proponents say universities should compete with one another for higher and higher scores, despite scant evidence that the search for higher and higher rankings necessarily improves university teaching, research, or community service. Accountability is far more than measurement.

Certain "indicators" of accessibility, of openness in governance, of size and cost of administration, and on new techniques of instruction might stimulate a continued, but responsible transformation of Canadian post-secondary education. The collection of statistical and administrative evidence might further encourage informed argument on curriculum, on teaching practice, on administrative practice and services, on university funding, and on the organization of disciplines and professions in the university.

However, there are indications that PIs are not primarily intended to encourage any such transformation. The growing popularity of PIs follows directly from cuts in public funding for universities and colleges since the 1980s. Performance Indicators are being used to decide how and when to cut, to force changes in curriculum and teaching throughout the post-secondary system, and to permit direct government management of the universities and colleges. In this sense, PIs are a certain road to mediocrity.