Metricated Charity


Mr Dupont was wont to tell his business colleagues that he knew that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted, but he did not know which half. It is the same with money spent on universities, looked at from a purely utilitarian point of view. Universities are economic assets, and countries thrive if their universities are adequately funded. But a lot of academic research comes to nothing, and is in monetary terms an unprofitable expenditure of public funds.

Professor McLean wants to improve on Mr Dupont, and devise means for distinguishing between profitable and unprofitable expenditure on academics. After all, we do make assessments of academic merit; they depend on the considered judgement, arrived at over the years, sometimes over centuries, of other academics: and these can be distilled, he argues, year by contemporary year, into valid metrics. But contemporary judgements are not ones considered over the long term, and distillation typically distorts. As we tick the bureaucratic boxes we dis-attend to the indications of wayward talent. In reading scripts for admissions or finals one sometimes picks up a sense of there being, in spite of the obvious spelling mistakes or misremembered dates, some genuine spark; and sometimes a tutor's backed hunch or an examiner's insistence on a long viva pays off, and real talent is revealed. When it comes to appointing dons, we need to adopt what in the Theory of Games would be called a maximax strategy, rather than the maximin strategy that is appropriate in medicine, the Royal Navy and many walks of public life, where the most important thing is to avoid the bad. But Oxford's good name is little damaged by my failure to score metric points; the money spent on me and many other mes may have been wasted: the world will still be grateful to Oxford for having nurtured Charles Dodgson, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, even though they all were ill thought of by their peers, and the work for which they are famous would have scored a metricated zero.

Metrics value quantity above quality, and are blinkered when it comes to spotting talent. They also have pernicious effects. Apart from adding to the burden of government-induced waste in forms having to be filled in and, presumably, read, they undermine, as I have argued earlier in the Oxford Magazine, the confidence and willingness to take risks of the young academic. A particularly pernicious effect was pointed out by Donald Gillies in the Oxford Magazine of Second Week, where he showed how Bertrand Russell's abandonment of Hegelian physics would have resulted in his being denied funding for writing Principia Mathematica. Professor McLean's riposte to Gillies missed the point. Russell's subsequent troubles were not due to his having abandoned Hegelian physics, and were meted out by different authorities. In this imperfect world geniuses along with other fallible mortals have fallen out with various authorities, and suffered, sometimes unjustly, in times past---but not at the hands of an almighty HEFC for having changed their minds.

Professor McLean argues that whether we like them or not we are bound to have metrics because that is what the Government, in tune with the spirit of the age, demands. Just as dons cannot be trusted to run their own affairs, but need bankers and businessmen to do it for them, so accountants' methodologies are the right ones to adopt in academic assessments. This will be forced on us by the Charity Commissioners which now have a supervisory role over our affairs. And, indeed, it is sadly true that the Charity Commissioners are showing bureaucratic tendencies which will strangle original research as well as much other voluntary endeavour---so much so that our local charity for doing good in Africa avoids registration, because the red tape would cost more than the tax benefits of charitable status. And not only in Somerset: some years ago the Treasurer of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science was getting each month an inch-thick wodge of bumph telling him all the things he must and must not do. Last year the Royal Institute of Philosophy, whose accounts had always been audited and above suspicion, had to waste many man hours, which might have been spent on philosophy, on changing the accounts to a pattern more pleasing to the bureaucratic mind.

One item on the agenda of the next Parliament should be to repeal the last two Charity Acts. Charities are by their nature likely to be idiosyncratic and peculiar, often not seeking to forward the social agenda of the powers-that-be. This, and the fact that many charities depend on voluntary labour, which is easily put off by needless form-filling, should shape the legal framework. And although it is largely for utilitarian reasons that the Government finances universities, the support of learning and the disinterested pursuit of truth is also a reason, and undeniably a charitable one.