November 2022: Letter against the Tennessee model in The Brandon Sun

Nov 15, 2022 | News

The following was published in the Brandon Sun, as a letter to the editor, and is available here:

LETTER: Performance measures recipe for societal tragedy

There seems to be an inherent truth in having organizations implement a performance measurement and performance management system, which makes the Manitoba government’s intended use of performance measures with respect to universities in determining provincial funding levels of a university appear reasoned and valid.

However, reasonableness and validity of performance measures lie in the relevance they have with respect to the role, function and purpose of the organization. This means that the essential determinant in selecting performance measures is to define the purpose of the organization.

The Manitoba government in its statements is defining the purpose of a university in economic terms. More narrowly, the role of the university is to “align” itself with the labour market. The intent is to fund Manitoba universities on the basis of preparing and producing graduates for the labour market.

Using performance measures designed and defined by the government, the government will decide how well the universities are fulfilling this mandate and determine consequent funding levels.

This is a narrow, shallow perspective on the role of universities. One of the primary roles of a university is to transfer knowledge, skills and experience to students in preparation for their role in society as adults and graduates. That role relates to societal skills in all dimensions — cultural, social, political, legal, health, economic and personal.

As someone has described it, universities prepare students to be responsible heirs and members of our culture. This includes not just expanding a student’s knowledge but to learn critical and creative thinking skills, analytical skills, communication skills and civic skills as applied to every dimension of society and every role in society.

The second primary role of a university is to develop knowledge, societal models and understanding through research guided primarily by curiosity — the consuming desire to learn and to share.

The Manitoba government’s proposal borders on being a tactless disregard for the role of universities with respect to having a functional society and a community of informed, knowledgeable, engaged citizens in whatever role they play.

Performance measures establish an inherent bias with respect to the organization being measured. To survive, the organization will adapt, adjust its operations, its management and its personnel to accord with these measures which are used to define its success.

The Manitoba government’s proposal to measure a university’s performance in economic terms — more precisely, its alignment with the labour market — is problematic. This proposal defines many programs, courses and research as extraneous at best and necessarily disposable at worst because of the difficulty and impracticality of defining an immediate, identifiable linkage to the needs of the labour market.

Nor can performance measures be designed that demonstrate a university’s role of being “aligned with the labour market.” There are too many variables beyond the control of the university.

As to measuring the performance of a university with respect to its broader role in preparing students for their respective responsible roles in society, we are left with one primary performance measure. Not a measure of universities, but a measure of us. Do we as governments or citizens respect and support the role conscientiously played and fulfilled by our universities?

It will be a societal tragedy if the Manitoba government continues with its intentions to make universities an extension of the labour market or to find ways and means to place universities in financial jeopardy by reducing government funding.