Performance and Science - A Polemic
An economist (a macroeconomist in particular) would hardly avoid premature death because of laughing when asked to judge the performance of a system based on input, the same way a car salesman would hardly advertise the particularly high quality of a car by stressing its high fuel consumption. Instead the economist would look at the realized output, and the salesman would stress the mileage of his car. Both would consider the input (fuel spent or money poured into) when estimating specific performance (the number of miles per gallon of fuel or the number of alumni for a given number of teachers) Even this type of quantitative treatment is subject of heated debate ( e.g. when reported as gross domestic product this is elsewhere seriously doubted: (The Atlantic Monthly, November 2009).
These concerns do not impress ministers of finance, science and education in our part of the world - they continue to measure "quality" (whatever this might be) or efficiency (ditto) of universities and their institutions preferably and with disturbing obstinacy by measuring the input - the amount of spent funds (research grants and sponsoring money) and the number of freshly registered students. The tools applied when counting (and which funds are actually counted) are mostly arbitrary and usually mysterious, questions or transparency are not welcome.
Any at least distantly reasonable consideration of "Output" remains absent, in particular in recent years. Only sometimes - when documents submitted by applicants for professorships are inspected - a view at the scientific work may occur - when it cannot be avoided somehow. With already operating institutions (faculties, research units etc.) the consideration and evaluation - something previously considered academic transition in its best sense - has turned into something utterly irrelevant, the number of students graduated with an academic degree is not even researched and published. Instead permanent ogling at the number of freshmen persists - and even this number is forgotten after just one year.
Whereas measuring the "input" of freshly registered new students is a relatively easy task counting money seems to be more challenging. It proceeds behind closed doors, the numbers finally deduced take mysterious roads and develop a life of their own, and after being copied once they are assumed to be true and beyond any critical reasoning. Why this strange interest, this almost religious admiration?
Despite all manifest disinterest a glance at parameters and data used at another time as indicators of academic-scientific performance may be permitted. This easily yields the reason of this unholy-superficial interest in the current counting-mania: Quite recently (the time span can still be measured in months and a few years) several trends culminated in the public and political debate: Compared with other OECD-countries the fraction of academically educated persons in Germany was considered to be too low. A loud call for more people passing university-admission exams (like e.g. the Abitur or equivalents) and a higher fraction of those eligible actually entering university. At the same time the discussion about alternative routes to the university (bypassing the Abitur) heated up (without any measurable result and success). Some comfort was provided by educational scientists stressing the rather diffuse meaning (or definition, if there is any) of the term "academically educated", apparently the counting of those proceeds more generously in other countries. On a collision course with respect to this development demographics are moving.
Everywhere the number of born children was (and still is) taken (in our case most generously without inspecting the actual, officially published numbers of the "Statistische Bundesamt“) happily as a sign of a major decrease in the number of young persons, and thus the number of those applying at universities in the near future is assumed to drop also - the absence of applicants is almost around the corner. Not a single thought is wasted on the question, whether the fraction of those formally entitled to enter the university will change or whether the level of education will cause a change - these differences are too fine to merit attention. Superimposed on these trends are foreseeable effects of the reduction of the number of years spent at highschool from thirteen to twelve years (Gymnasium) resulting in a temporary increase (almost a doubling) in the number of pupils leaving school and entitled to study. The apparent idea of enlarging already present universities (in many cases first a remodeling of buildings where almost no maintenance has been performed since the seventies seems to be urgently necessary) collides now with the empty public coffers. Now regional differences in demographic developments are a gift from heaven - politicians believe huge amounts of money can be saved by guiding (or perhaps better seducing) students from western regions with many pupils "(kinderreich)" into predominantly eastern regions with few pupils only ("kinderarm").
Besides the consequently ignored fact, that even in centralistic planning economy this would hardly work - why should a young girl leave Stuttgart for studying in Chemnitz or Freiberg? Presumably the amount of extra muros-funding a professor in Chemnitz shall attract her. Only someone very funny will think again of the loughing and almost dying economist. But seriously: Some thoughts should be spend on reasons which can convince the young pupil to change places. Rumors not yet confirmed indicate, that the internet is a popular source of information - and thus a look at the internet presentation of a university - e.g. Technische Universität Chemnitz - should be instructive. Actually the visitor goes away firmly convinced, that those responsible have definitely no interest in convincing any prospective student to move here. This impression is no surprise, any effort and time spend on improvements does not count toward performance measurements (money counting) of anybody still trying improvements, thus they are mostly considered a nuisance.
In order to survive the expected rising demand for places to study the German federal countries agreed to limit the actually required reduction in number of places for studying in those federal countries with small numbers of prospective students (whatever the method and calculation obviously needed to determine these numbers); instead these places should be kept available. As a compensation financial subsidy from the federal government is offered to the affected states. The actually provided amounts are related to preset numbers of first-semester students (otherwise a complete and utter disinhibition of the money-collecting offices at the universities is highly likely). Now every October administrators are leering at the numbers of freshman. When targets are met a general sigh of relief can be heard - the observation is taken as confirmation of the belief: We made everything correctly - and do not need to change or improve everything. This might go so far, but already now rather strange methods and attempts to blow up and artificially increase numbers are observed.
Against all adversities a view at the apparently faded criteria of academic performance may be allowed: Beyond the number of students leaving the university successfully with good grades and degrees sometimes normalized with respect to working groups or professors the number of PhD-students and alumni otherwise graded and qualified leaving the university their actual employment after leaving the university was considered important. A distinction was made between those stuck in temporary employment or in jobs far from their qualification and those promoted to teachers, i.e. professors, themselves. Today someone should be happy to notice, when linguistically differentiation is possible between „alumni" and „former group member“.
A further criterion is he scientific output. There is no serious science without communication, i.e. communication and discussion of results. A first and mostly decisive impression is provided by a glimpse into pertinent data banks (e.g. Web of Science) yielding the following data on our Institut für Chemie on abstracted publications:
Interesting and particularly helpful for judging performance is a glance at the resources (financial and persona input). This is simply done by dividing the relevant numbers: The number of publications divided by the number of scientists working in the group where the output is generated. Although comparative advertisements are allowed even to some extent in Germany comparisons should not damage privacy rights - and thus this calculation is not presented above. Of course anybody interested can do the calculation easily himself with numbers publicly available - and with stunning results.
The obviously complete disregard and low estimate of this obligation owed to the public (once again a view apparently based on a view going backward) has resulted during the last Saxonian rating of universities (or was it a ranking, things get confused recently) in simply forgetting this commitment. The cry foul from Leipzig University (the only Saxonian university with a deep, rich and long-standing tradition in humanities) was as loud as useless. Authors of books are strange, and actually they are not needed any more. Because books can easily been downloaded from the web (something similar has been stated by Mark Twain already: It is idiotic to spend seven or eight months on writing a novel when you can buy it for two dollars in every bookstore), the remaining knowledge is available at Wikipedia and book authors are not really needed anymore.
Because science needs communication (for this purpose books are apparently not really necessary anymore) and makes progress only in scientific discourse a long and rich list of scientific visitors as well as numerous scientists staying in a university for extended periods of time was once considered as an honor and a sign of appreciation. Those pursuing boring or indescript research will hardly attract visitors. But on the other hand: Being a host implies additional work (even and in particular at a place where official and officially supported hospitality is practically absent), and the flow of money generated by the associated stipends etc will not count as external funds (because it escapes the administrative bean counters mostly). Simple conclusion: Get rid of this tradition, the interested visitor can inspect the <results>[http://www.tu-chemnitz.de/chemie/elchem/seiten/verart.php]
And why has counting of grant money moved into foreground and center? Money can be counted easily by science and finance politicians. Nobody will dispute the fact, that one Euro equals 100 Cent, but already cursory inspection (actually questions are not welcome, discussion of even worse correction are sacrilegious) shows gross arbitraryness: Allegedly only funds passing the universities cash box are counted. What a charming ignorance. In a second try it is claimed, that high flux of grants is an indicator of good research. This implies the fascinating conclusion, that a researcher is a good one in the year of the acquisition of an expensive instrument, whereas in the following years – when using the instrument (only) – he is a bad one. Commercial depreciation is considered too complicated. Conclusion: No serious argument beyond the simplicity of money counting remains.
And finally: One can race after current trends and – quite in the opportunistic style of the time – throw everything which might cause extra work or may be related to presumably dispensable academic traditions overboard. Or: One can keep a critical eye on current fashions without becoming their victim – and keep an eye equally fixed on everything hat has been good and correct – and still is.
(Kurt Tucholsky: Nichts ist schwieriger und nichts erfordert mehr Charakter, als sich im offenen Gegensatz zu seiner Zeit zu befinden und laut zu sagen: Nein!) [Nothing is more difficult and requires more character than being in open contradiction to his times and to say loudly: No]
©Rudolf Holze 2016
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