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Compacts take us into the metrics

By Richard James - posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008

In an international market hungry for information about tertiary education, fresh approaches to performance measurement are needed. Standards and performance measurements, in particular the quantification of performance, are critical issues, especially if the sector moves towards a mission-based compacts model. So it is timely to consider performance and standards in the midst of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing.

With most, but not all, the sports in the summer Olympics, the measurement of performance and standards is objective, transparent and immediate. Excellence leaps out. The rules and goals are absolutely clear. The metrics are well understood and fine-grained differences in performance can be measured. Plus, in the main part, athletic performance is beyond manipulation.

So, Olympic performances can be measured fairly unambiguously. What constitutes world class is generally clear-cut.


Let's compare this with higher education.

Obviously the outcomes are far less tangible and far less immediate.

Further, the goals and desired outcomes are contested. Excellence is less absolute, it is located within contexts and shifts over time. At least to some degree, quality in higher education is subjective and lies in the eye of the beholder.

It could be argued that in a mass or universal higher education system if excellence is to have meaning then it involves achieving a good fit between the needs of groups of students and the education that is provided.

The point here is a simple one: the measurement and comparison of institutional performance in higher education is imperfect and somewhat fraught. And thus the use of indicators for improving performance or for rewarding or providing an incentive for enhanced performance is an imperfect science.

Just how good are Australia's academic standards? It is difficult to know for sure, the elusiveness of standards has some interesting effects.


First, it allows us to get away with exaggerated claims. Every university can be a leader, for this claim can seldom be decisively rebutted (or defended).

We have become extremely successful in talking up the quality of Australian higher education. Expressions such as "world class" and "internationally recognised" are repeated mantra-like on university websites and in promotional literature.

Second, almost conversely, it allows academic standards to become a source of cheap polemic. We're all familiar with the headlines: "Standards in decline", "Standards being eroded". These claims are equally difficult to defend or rebut.

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First published in The Australian on August 13, 2008.

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About the Author

Richard James is director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

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