Why be excellent when you could be good?

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Excellence is ubiquitous; it is one of the buzzwords of the 21st century. The mission statement of the Dublin hotel in which I am writing this blog is ‘Distinctive hotels distinguished by excellence’.  A quick scan of the websites of half-a-dozen Dublin colleges, universities and other educational institutions (let’s call them colleges A-F), reveal the following statements:

College A: ‘The college is committed to excellence in both research and teaching’

College B:‘Excellence through lifelong learning’

College C: ‘… prides itself on delivering excellence across all of its activities’

College D: ‘Excellence through learning’

College E: ‘promoting excellence in teaching and learning’

College F: Growth and excellence are the cornerstones of our strategy’

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which was until recently the measure of the research achievements of university departments in the UK, has now been replaced with the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The Higher Education Academy (HEA), which is funded and supported by the four UK higher education funding bodies and which operates a highly prestigious National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, claims to champion excellence in learning and teaching. Furthermore, the three criteria for the award of a National Teaching Fellowship are (i) individual excellence, (ii) raising the profile of excellence, and (iii) developing excellence.

The title of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which is the Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB) with responsibility for developing guidance and quality standards in social care in the UK, speaks for itself.

The philosopher and cultural theorist Bill Readings first observed this new rhetoric of excellence in the early 1990s, particularly in higher education, and coined the term ‘University of Excellence’. Readings warned, however, that ‘excellence’, at least in its modern usage, is not an indicator of quality but an ‘empty signifier’ employed by administrators in order to direct and manage the function and mission of the university. It was, he claimed, a decisive move in the shift of power and control over the mission of the university from academics to administrators.

In order to illustrate how the rhetoric of excellence can be employed as a managerial device, Readings offered the example of the estates department at CornellUniversity in the USA, which was given an award for ‘excellence in car parking’. As someone who has little choice but to drive to work, my idea of an excellent car parking service would be one that somehow managed to accommodate the various and diverse requirements of the academic community for safe, efficient, reliable and (relatively) cheap on-site parking facilities. However, these were not the criteria by which CornellUniversity judged excellence in parking. As Readings pointed out, the award was given for ‘a remarkable level of efficiency in restricting motor vehicle access’. Thus, the term ‘excellence’ can be used to refer equally to the attempts both to facilitate and restrict parking depending on the needs and requirements of whoever is making the award.

Indeed, excellence can be used to signify whatever our managers and administrators want it to signify. As such, the award of excellence does not signify value; it indicates the desires and goals of those with the power to assign it. To refer to a car parking service as excellent tells us less about the quality of the service and more about the extent to which it has fulfilled the goals and mission assigned to it by the administrating body. And if the goals and mission statement changes (as goals and mission statements periodically do) the estates department might well find itself suddenly stripped of its status of excellence, despite continuing to provide what was previously judged to be an excellent service.

And the same applies to the academy. For example, ‘impact’ has only recently been introduced into the Research Excellence Framework (REF) as a criterion against which research is assessed, and so most HEIs in the UK now include ‘impactfulness’ in their definitions of research excellence. And if the next REF exercise employs different criteria and measures, we can be sure that universities across the UK will revise and reconfigure their definitions of research excellence accordingly.

To repeat, the modern usage of the term ‘excellence’ is not an indicator of quality but an award for doing as you are told, for pursuing whichever goals and outcomes that managers, administrators, funding agencies and government bodies currently best meet their agendas. Excellence is an empty signifier whose meaning can change overnight. Today, excellent car parking practice might entail keeping as many cars off campus as possible. Tomorrow, following a change in management policy, it might be to accommodate as many cars as possible. Five years ago, excellent research had little concern with wider impact, today impact is a key component of ‘research excellence’. And neither of these changes have been driven by the so-called experts themselves. The expert parking attendants had no say in what their expertise comprised, and neither did the expert academics, particularly those theoretical researchers whose ‘blue skies’ speculative work took a sudden huge hit in its perceived value on the morning when the new criteria for REF 2014 were announced.

The warning that Readings alerted us to in the 1990s has now largely been realised. The views of academics, who have traditionally determined what constitutes best practice in research and education, have been trumped by an excellence agenda set by politicians, managers and administrators. Regardless of my own criteria for what constitutes excellent research, if I wish to make my research more ‘excellent’ in the eyes of my university, my attempts will be directed towards publishing in journals with higher impact factors, winning grants from prestigious funding bodies and ensuring that my research findings are applied outside of the academy. These criteria may or may not reflect anything that expert researchers and academics consider to constitute excellent research, but the most important points are firstly that I have little or no say as an experienced academic in what counts as excellent practice, and secondly that the criteria which I now have to satisfy are subject to change at very short notice.

So what is the alternative? What can I aspire to in place of excellence? My answer, which is prefigured in the title of this blog entry, is that whilst I have no interest in being an excellent teacher or researcher, I nevertheless want to be good at what I do.

At first sight, this shift in terminology might appear to be merely rhetorical, but it is not. Admittedly, each is an empty concept, a signifier without a fixed signified. On the face of it, to say that I am a good researcher tells you little more than to say that I am an excellent researcher, since the precise meaning of ‘good’ is equally undefined. However, whilst the empty concept of excellence is filled by outside agencies, is subject to the whim of politicians and is informed by politics, the concept of goodness is filled by the individual and is informed by values. Excellence is utilitarian and instrumental. It is defined and driven by ends. Goodness is values-based and concerned with means. As the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch tells us, “The Good has nothing to do with purpose, indeed it excludes the idea of purpose… The only genuine way to be good is to be good for nothing”.

I want to be good for nothing, but my aspiration contradicts the goals of the university of excellence, which measures my performance in terms of my research ‘inputs’ (grants) and ‘outputs’ (publications), with little concern or interest in what happens between the two. The ‘means’ of teaching and research which is the location of the values which define it as good (or otherwise), cannot be measured and are unproductive. As Readings points out, it “is non-productive labor, and hence does not show up on balance sheets except as waste”.

That is not to say that it is impossible to be good in the university of excellence, only that it is extremely difficult and goes largely unrecognised and unrewarded by the managers and administrators. If I am to be good in the sense of pursuing my own values and my own agenda, then I must also be good in the performative sense. That is to say, if I want to do good I must do it very well; if I aim to be good for nothing (that is, if my work does not show up on the balance sheet), then there must be some tangible effect or impact from the process that is of value to my university; if I am not concerned with meeting the ends that my university expects me to, then the means by which I achieve my own ends must be in some way notable.

In a nutshell, I must be good at doing good.