Borrowing an Objective

Maybe it’s because I’m relaxed as it’s the Easter break, but when I received an email with ‘Borrowing an Objective‘ as its subject this week, my mind went into overdrive. I assumed someone was short of a goal, an aspiration or a target hypothesis for their grant – or even for their departmental mission statement. Much more boringly in fact it was because someone in the group wanted to borrow an actual optical component (viz. an objective) for a light microscope.

Nevertheless, my mind in meandering mode, I mentally developed the theme a bit further by wasting time reading objectives provided by different universities up and down the country. Many, I’m pleased to say, did not have them at university level (although they may well have had mission statements or equivalent). Frequently they had objectives which appeared under the Equality section; this is something I can understand and I’ll come back to this at the end. And of course, individual PI’s and larger collaborations often listed them but mainly in the context of their grant applications; also something that is perfectly logical. After all, this is typically required by funders when the application is put together.

What worried me was what I found under headline information about university structures and aims. If I give some examples (anonymised) maybe you’ll see why I found the statements so disconcerting.

  • Objectives for the ‘student experience’ (in itself that phrase sounds like a visit to a theme park, but let’s ignore that).
  1. Enhanced our student experience, working in partnership with our students;
  2. Reformed and developed our already high quality research-led and practice-driven teaching and curriculum;
  3. Increased the proportion of our graduates who get a first or upper second class degree;
  4. Increased the proportion of our graduates in graduate employment;
  5. Further enhanced participation and outcomes for students from low participation backgrounds.

I find it interesting these are all written in the past tense: have they already achieved all these objectives? However this bunch of ‘objectives’ is sadly lacking in useful content. They equate variously to motherhood statements, indicate what might come across as a desire to dumb down quite consciously (e.g. point 3) or need so many verbal contortions to put across the idea that, however wonderful things are already they are somehow going to get even more spectacularly wonderful (point 2). However point 5 does look like a genuinely worthwhile and, one would like to think, achievable aspiration.

A statement, this time from a Russell Group university, is at least as meaningless (because so obviously this is what a university should be aspiring to) as a set of objectives:

XXX’s Research and Innovation’s objectives are to support the University in achieving two of its strategic goals: excellence in research and excellence in commercialisation and knowledge exchange. Our particular focus is on engaging with our wider community, building strategic partnerships and collaborations, and advancing internationalisation.

I suppose one could argue that some institutions might not be quite so positive about commercialisation (excellent or otherwise), but given the current drivers within HE, notably REF, impact and so on, these sentences look completely self-evident. Another Russell Group institution has a very similar framework for its primary objective:

To deliver research in every discipline that addresses questions and issues with the potential to make significant impact on knowledge, people or the economy, or to enhance or change society for the better.

This is perhaps a little less-obviously money-grabbing than the earlier example and using ‘impact’ as no doubt research funders would like us to use it. Whereas another (non-Russell group) institution is more succinct and prefers the use of bullet points:

  • Creating a better future … going beyond.
  • Growing in stature and reputation.
  • Competing on quality through innovation.
  • Ensuring sustainability.

although what is beyond the future I am not entirely sure! (To infinity and beyond springs to mind).

I am quite sure these organisations could, as in my title, borrow each other’s objectives and practically no one would notice the difference. Enough. I’ve made my point although I pulled out many more similar examples of meaningless blather. And having done so I realise I am really reprising a previous blogpost by Philip Moriarty on the vacuity of excellence written a year or so ago. His take is very much the same as mine here, that many of the statements that universities so proudly proclaim on their websites are pretty meaningless. Either just about everyone would subscribe to the views expressed or they have very little genuine useful content. What makes this slightly ironic is that over at Physics Focus where Phil’s ‘excellence’ post was, he and I have recently been disagreeing about the importance of ‘leadership’ in universities. He says:

I didn’t become an academic in order to be led. Nor did I become an academic to lead others. I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom.

Which is fair enough as far as it goes, but his tirade was specifically written after he had attended the meeting in Cambridge following on from the University’s book The Meaning of Success. I wrote about the aim of the meeting in advance of the actual day itself. Phil writes after the event, fretting there were too many vapid presentations (I didn’t notice them but we didn’t attend the same parallel sessions; perhaps I struck lucky). But, whereas I am content to let Phil rant about leadership from above not being needed to get your research heading off in a healthy direction I am not convinced by his arguments when it comes to progressing the equalities agenda.

Why? Because too many people have too many bad habits – as all the evidence shows, men and women alike are prone to unconscious (aka implicit) bias – which we need our faces rubbed in pretty often. We need those with the power to put cash on the table or change the criteria we use when recruiting and promoting to take the lead and do so. We need those leaders to lead by example (maybe we’ll see – male – VCs starting to share parental leave?). This isn’t the same thing as imposing targets, rules or payscales without regard to the views of others. I am all in favour of debate and challenge to make sure any ‘solutions’ proposed by the leadership genuinely solve the underlying problem. If you want to see my full reply to Phil it is also over at Physics Focus here. But, I do believe leadership matters when it comes to equality and diversity and setting some objectives in this domain really is a good, if not necessary, thing to do. Here are a couple of possible objectives to illustrate the kinds of statements I mean:

  • we will increase the number of women in senior leadership positions to XX%;
  • we will require all recruitment panels for faculty positions to demonstrate they have actively sought out a diverse field.

With examples like these, as long as the objectives are both concrete and challenging yet achievable, I’d be happy for some institution to borrow them.


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One Response to Borrowing an Objective

  1. Ian Gent says:

    I’ve always thought that Strathclyde’s “A place of useful learning” is excellent, and it’s unchanged from 1796 to now.

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