The numbers game

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 1995, 12:00am

AS access to higher education has grown, so has the pressure on administrators to be absorbed by the dictatorship of numbers. Coping with the quantity of students attending university carries a risk that quality can take second place. This is especially so if funding depends too much on the numbers of students studying different courses. Elite faculties will always fill their classes but in others the temptation is to reduce entry or pass standards to maintain numbers - and, therefore, funding.

So the move by a number of universities to make staff performance, in teaching and research, a more important factor in deciding funding represents a reassertion of the importance of quality. It may also improve efficiency, which opens up the opportunity to use funds more effectively.

Funding of faculties will still largely be governed by student numbers and other indicators of need. But at the Chinese, City and Hong Kong universities, performance will also count. Faculties with the best and most hard-working teachers and highest quality research will receive more money than others. This shift in funding practice is in line with a broader shift in resource allocation by the University Grants Committee.

Critics will be quick to point to the difficulty of assessing the quality of teaching and research, and such criticism is not without merit. Such factors as the mere popularity of certain teachers, or the sheer quantity of output of some researchers, may not be very relevant to the quality of their performance. Some research may be very high level and very valuable but by its nature slow to produce clear results. The quality of the input and the information and insights gleaned from the research process are as important as the output. But peer review is a common practice in the academic world and has been adapted elsewhere into methods of assessing teaching and research performance as a basis for part of the funding allocation for universities and individual faculties.

Linking funding to performance brings an element of reward and punishment into university finances. Those who are lazy or sloppy in their work can expect to find their allocations shaved. Those who pursue excellence have an incentive beyond their own academic standards to continue to do so. The pursuit of excellence should be at the heart of the ideals of all universities and giving it tangible expression through funding should help keep it there.