Academic Performance Evaluation and the Organisation of Knowledge in the Research-Intensive University

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

T Tniversities are widely acknowledged to play a key role in the LJ development of advanced 'knowledge economies'1 and, as such, it is unsurprising that their structures and practices are coming under increasing public scrutiny. In his address to the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU) conference on 'Irish Universities: The case for Reform' at University College Cork in November 2004, Michael Shattock, the rapporteur of the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland, argued that the system currently 'stands at a crossroads: unless reform is initiated now, higher education risks being marginalised by economic and knowledge-based drivers from the wider international society'. Of the recommendations listed in the OECD Review (2004), Shattock placed particular emphasis on the development of a research culture and internal institutional reform of Irish universities.

The OECD are not the first to argue for the need for reform (see, for example, Skilbeck, 2001), and the recently changed programmes at UCD, Trinity, UCC and NUIG illustrate the extent of the appetite for change within the Department of Education and amongst senior university administrators. In this paper, while we do not question the view that Irish universities may be urgently in need of reform, we do raise a number of concerns about the rationale underpinning key features of the change discourse and the substantive nature of some of the reforms being introduced. In particular, we focus on one aspect of these changes, namely the notion of academic performance evaluation. Drawing on a field study of the implementation of a new Senior Lecturer promotion system at UCD, we argue that while the system is, in many ways, a welcome alternative to that which preceded it, the rationale underpinning it is based on a dangerously superficial view of the nature of knowledge production in a university environment. As such, it risks indirectly promoting perverse forms of behaviour amongst academics seeking promotion. Consequently, we argue for the importance of taking recent epistemological shifts in management/organisation studies seriously (see also Kelly, 2005), by endeavouring to speak about 'knowledge' and its 'production' in more sophisticated ways. In short, we need to Open up the black box' (Latour, 1999) of academic knowledge production to explore its complexity and diversity.

The paper is structured as follows. In section 2, we draw on recent 'praxiological' perspectives on learning/knowing, and on Foucault's (1980) ideas on power/knowledge, to offer a brief critique of traditional, abstract and disembodied conceptions of knowledge and to argue that a diversity of different knowledge production practices co-exist in universities. We then move on, in sections 3 and 4, to describe an exploratory piece of interpretive field research on the introduction of a new academic performance evaluation system in UCD. Finally, we briefly discuss key elements of this case and their implications for the management and organisation of academic knowledge production.

KNOWLEDGE, PRACTICE AND POWER - A PRAXIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE RESEARCH-INTENSIVE UNIVERSITY

In recent years, the development of theories of situated practice/learning (c.f. Suchman, 1987; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Chaiklin and Lave, 1996; Wenger, 1998) have problematised the notion of knowledge as an abstract, disembodied entity. Instead, writers in this tradition argue for a much more holistic, embodied and situated approach to understanding human learning that would reject dualisms between mind/body and theory/practice. From this perspective, all knowledge and learning is based on an active and ongoing participation in communal social practices, thus problematising the notion of explicit, objective, de-contextualised information/ knowledge. Writers in this tradition reject 'cognitivist'2 conceptualisations of human learning, and argue for a much more holistic, embodied and situated or contingent approach to understanding this process (see the introductory chapter in Chaiklin and Lave, 1996). …