As we enter May and begin to feel summer approach, academics around the UK are gearing up for a season of marking student exams, essays and coursework. This year, however, we are also nervously awaiting some results of our own: May 12 marks the date on which the results of the latest Research Excellence Framework rankings will be published. This national survey of university research quality – which normally takes place every half-decade or so – distils the vast quantities of research ‘outputs’ (papers, books, creative works, and other more intangible products) produced by each department during this period into a single number, which is then used to rank that department alongside its peers in other universities. Reductive though the process may be, it has very real significance: the rankings have an impact on the research funding which universities can access, and also play into calculations for the all-important ‘league tables’ that applicants use to decide where to study.
The end of April also marked the closing date for another data-collection exercise which likewise leaves many academics trembling – the NSS, or ‘National Student Survey’, wherein students are asked to rank numerous aspects of their course for their quality, and to comment anonymously on their overall student experience. Again, the results from this feeds directly into league tables, regardless of statistical concerns such as low completion rates or difficulties in gauging how representative samples might be within an anonymous and self-selecting group. As a result, responses are often a major driver for student-facing policy changes within university departments, even though they are often based on the views of a tiny subset of the student body (and the numerical nature of much of the data makes it difficult to know how to respond constructively to it).
You may register a note of cynicism in the above – and certainly it’s fair to say that many academics are scathing about both of these information-gathering exercises, even as they do their utmost to make sure that their departments ‘perform’ as well as they can in them. There’s certainly a sense for many that these kinds of assessments belong to a pre-Covid age, that the ravages of the past two years (which have wrought havoc on the university sector as they have upon most others) ought to have earned us at least the right to a period of grace and recovery, where we can work on rebuilding our sense of community within our universities without the constant fear of external judgement.
Yet as I’ve been reflecting on this situation, it has been a powerful and timely reminder of how important it is for me to keep my sense of identity rooted in God’s actions towards me, rather than in my own accomplishments or the way I am seen by others. Much of the acrimony surrounding these assessments stems from fear: the fear that our efforts won’t be recognised, or (worse) recognised and judged insufficient; the fear that we’ll look bad by comparison with others; the fear that our students or our peers will say that we’re not doing a good job. Underneath all of this are the very human desires for recognition, for affirmation, for approval, which we understand to be conditional on our performance. Yet this isn’t the logic of God’s kingdom: the reality is that as children of God we’re chosen before we deserve it, we’re made holy even while we are still guilty, we are given approval on the basis of Jesus’ character rather than our own.
If I can really grasp these truths, they set me free from the need to be validated by the judgement of others, and allow me to see external assessments from a more neutral perspective. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t problematic – we still need to make sure we are assessing the right things, and challenging thoughtless analysis of the results – but it does help me to remember: in God’s kingdom, my primary calling is not to be successful, but to be faithful; to focus on the development of my character, not my accomplishments. That doesn’t mean that my actions aren’t important – as Christians we are called to give our best to the things we do, as we seek to steward the gifts God gives us – and metrics like the REF or the NSS can (perhaps) give us some helpful data in trying to achieve this, if used with care. Ultimately, though, I feel it’s important for me to make a distinction between my goals as a servant of Christ and the metrics of ‘success’ that I see around me, recognising where these might align and where they might not, and being clear about what my priorities are in those circumstances. What might this mean for you in your daily work and study?