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The impact of performance indicators on the work of university academics: a study of four Australian universities

Taylor, Jeannette (1999) The impact of performance indicators on the work of university academics: a study of four Australian universities. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In 1988, the Australian Federal Government released the document Higher Education: A Policy Statement which was intended to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the higher education sector. This paved the way for the application of performance indicators (Pls) across higher education, most notably the creation of a link between Pls (called the Composite Index) and the research component of the annual government funding to universities. Although PIS for teaching became popular, funding for the teaching component was not directly attached to PIS and remained largely based on student enrolments.

The purpose of this study is to examine the perceptions of university academics in Australia on the effects of research and teaching as a result of the introduction of funding based on research Pls. The academic literature suggests that Pls can bring about desirable effects but it also warns that their imposition, particularly by the government on universities, may lead to unintended and undesirable effects, such as goal displacement and strategic manipulation, which may be designed to enhance apparent research performance. To guide the investigation, it was hypothesised that the government's Pls which focus on research will be integrated into the universities' internal policies; will encourage universities to place a high priority on the research activities funded by the Pls; will lead to significantly more paperwork; will contribute to a significant change in the approach to research but not to teaching; and will result in academics adopting negative attitudes towards Pls.

Two basic sources of information were obtained to evaluate these hypotheses. First, the administrations of selected universities were consulted, and staff interviewed, to gauge the degree of change that had been implemented by the universities. Second, a questionnaire was constructed in order to assess academics' attitude towards Pls, and their perceptions of an association between Pls and their institutional reward system. The questionnaire also assessed changes in research, teaching and paperwork activities.

The universities selected characterised the different kinds of universities found in the Unified National System of the Australian higher education system. One hundred and fifty-two academics from these universities were surveyed by the questionnaire. Thirty percent of these academics participated in a structured interview. The disciplines from which the academics were selected for participation included arts/humanities, science, and professional studies which included a natural science based profession and a social science based profession. In addition, a case study of one of these universities was carried out.

The institutions were found to have reorganised their internal policies to incorporate and focus on the Pls in the government's Composite Index. The academics surveyed were generally found to have negative attitude towards their institutional Pls, although staff of higher rank had relatively more positive views. Reasons for their dissatisfaction included the inability of Pls to capture the various dimensions of academic work and privileging research over teaching. For a majority of the academics, the introduction of Pls was associated with a rise in paperwork load and a change in the approach to research in terms of focusing on publications and external research grant applications, particularly those counted in their institutional PI-based funding schemes. The time devoted to these activities, as well as the number of publications and grants for which they were expected to apply, have significantly increased. It was found that staff did use various strategies to maximise their PI scores, such as writing shorter papers in order to increase the quantity of publications. The proportion who changed their approach to teaching was also sizeable; most of them were concerned about getting students through their courses with minimum fuss by having lower ambitions for students and pandering to their superficial needs. However, the proportion who changed their teaching was significantly less than those who changed their research. One possible reason could be the lack of special incentives to increase their emphasis on teaching.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Politics and International Studies
Supervisor(s): Scott, Ian and Andrich, David
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