The Tyranny of Metrics in Higher Education Racialisation of Critique

Book Review

The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller (2018) Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 320 pages.

‘Metric Fixation’ is the organising concept of Jerry Z. Muller’s critique of the contemporary audit culture in public institutions.  This concept captures well the way many working in public sector institutions see the obsessions and caprices of managers and leaders, and the growth of reporting that appears to dominate professional life.  The book is centred on a series of case studies through which metric fixation is explained and explicated – Colleges and Universities, Schools, Medicine, Policing, The Military, Business and Financing, Philanthropy and Foreign Aid.  It is this personal experience of being made ‘accountable’ through various systems of performance management that led this Professor of History to write a critique of a substantial area of public policy and governance.  In part, being a non-specialist enables him to traverse across different disciplinary fields.  The weakness of this, I feel, is that the scope of the enterprise is too broad.  There are too many professional fields that he seeks to explore through the prism of metric fixation resulting in a very uneven book.  Some fields, such as higher education and medicine, receive a fulsome review, whilst others, such as policing and philanthropy attract much less attention.  The primary geographical focus of the book, and hence the case studies is America, though there are references to the UK as a leading proponent of metric fixation as a tool of public policy and governance.  The book is a review rather than a new piece of empirical inquiry.  However, it serves the purpose of clarifying how metric fixation has been deployed as an aspect of neoliberal politics across a wide range of professional fields.  Although the review is critical in that the author highlights the way metric fixation distorts professional practice and priorities, often at the expense of professional authenticity and the detriment, sometimes harm, to the public, it is not a critique in the sense of questioning the very idea of the university as a public institution involved in the constitution of subjectivities (citizens for instance) and public goods.  In this sense, the review and perspective are conservative in that it seeks to conserve certain ways of being and practising.  For me, there was a troubling tone to some of the commentary.  When reviewing Colleges and Universities and Schools the author deployed a cultural conservative interpretation of the position of African American students and communities.  Again, this reveals the underlying conservative nature of the analysis and intent.

The central organising concept of the book is that of ‘metric fixation’, the political and organisational focus on systems and processes of performance measurement that is assumed to lead to improvements in public sector bodies.  This enables Muller to investigate systems and discourses of accountability in interesting ways.  It allows him to open discourses of accountability and shift our understanding away from the political rhetoric of making public bodies democratically accountable to the government and the population at large, to an appreciation that this translates into accountability as making one´s professional practice amenable to systems of accountancy.  Of course, this insight and its epistemological and ontological consequences have been examined elsewhere.  Notably, such accounting or auditing undermines the whole idea of professional judgement, replacing it with output indices that are more easily counted and comparable.  Additionally, metrics are linked to rewards and punishments of different kinds (performance related pay, productivity targets, performance reviews, etc.).  Of note is that metrics rely on outputs of particular kinds, those that can be measured, and definitely not inputs that might require qualitative judgement.  Important to Muller’s argument is that while methods of measuring performance might well be beneficial to improved service (he draws on service improvements in health care for this mostly) he highlights how auditing systems encourage those who are measured to game the system.  A particularly troubling example he provides is of surgeons who select low-risk cases in order to meet the performance metrics, a practice that can lead to more high-risk patients not being attended to and potentially dying.   These metrics then, become a proxy for ‘quality’ without ever really explicating what that means. Technical issues (which variable or metric to use) disguise the value systems at play.  Metrics, in this regard, become systems of moral regulation.

The main body of the book consists of a series of case studies: Colleges and Universities; Schools; Medicine; Policing; The Military; Business and Finance; Philanthropy and Foreign Aid.  I will concentrate on Colleges and Universities.

Higher education systems globally have been under pressure to increase participation and completion rates on the one hand and to increase prestige through research funding and research outputs.  I have discussed this dual rationality elsewhere.  Muller refers to the ways higher education has been subject to processes and discourses of marketisation and commercialisation.  He draws attention to how this is related to the hegemony of human capital formation theory in higher education policy, the presumption that increased participation and completion will lead to an increase in the national stock of human capital, and thereby increase a country’s economic capacity and competitiveness.  Despite plenty of research to counter this theory and assumption, the policy endures. This, Muller argues, results in various forms of expansion of administration, cheating or gaming the system.  Governments, keen to achieve ‘value for money’ establish bureaucracies (auditing and accountability agencies of different kinds). The prestige economy of higher education is organised in relation to global university rankings.  Faced by this bureaucracy institutions invest in marketing and quality assurance functions, which can often be at the expense of the university’s core educational role.  It is as if the primary purpose of institutions becomes that of meeting the requirements of auditing.  Those of us in higher education and who study it are familiar with this evidence and these arguments.  Muller does not add substantively to the current knowledge base, other than linking these particular processes to similar ones across the public sector.

Muller’s argument, I propose, is a conservative one in that the implicit narrative is for a conserving of the status quo.  For instance, he points to the issue of grade inflation.  This is something that Pierre Bourdieu analysed.  Although Muller rightly points out that increasing participation and completion rates in higher education actually undermines this measurement as a proxy for human capital, he reverts to a more conservative understanding of this problem.   In the absence of a concept such as homology, as deployed by Bourdieu, Muller does not see how the restructuring of the economy, and therefore nuanced changes in class formation, is reflected in the restructuring of higher education.  Formal qualifications, such as the BA, act as proxies for skill and knowledge in order to facilitate the passage of what would formerly have been manual labour into white collar jobs.  This is not because we have all become middle class but that the structures of class and education have been re-worked.  Education continues to function as a system of social reproduction.  Muller misses this point when he refers to the problem of students entering higher education ill-prepared for higher studies.  There is an apparent assumption that there is something in the individuals themselves that means they require what Muller calls remedial education.  There is nothing in his analysis that suggests that because of the socially reproductive nature of education and the homologous structures across economy and education, the business of elite schools has always been to ‘prepare’ their students for entry to college, to learn the cultural performances required for successful participation.  There is silence in his analysis of the social and cultural strangeness of higher education (and pedagogy) to many young people now, which is why he uses the language of ‘remedial’.

Muller’s cultural conservative analysis continues in the chapter on schools where it becomes highly racialised.  He spends much of the chapter considering the failure of measures to close the attainment gap in American schools, especially in relation to black and Hispanic pupils.  He does refer to the classic argument that schools by themselves cannot compensate for society.  However, he smuggles in the culturalist idea that there is something in the culture of the working class, or blacks, or Hispanics that means that they do not achieve educationally.

“Good schools” tend to be those populated by pupils who are brighter, more curious, and more self-controlled; and tend to be the offspring of people who are themselves relatively bright, curious, and self-disciplined. (98)

Social and racial reproduction through education, therefore, has no connection to class or white privilege according to Muller.  While he seeks to counter and question the paradigm of metric fixation, he does so to preserve and conserve the social order.  But, this should not lead us to think that Muller’s conservative argument against metrics is in some way an outlier in the crisis of higher education discourse.  Far from it.  There is much in the pushback against metric fixation that is blind to the normatively discriminatory practices of higher education.  If we want to think higher education otherwise we need more radical critiques.