maandag 6 april 2015


The time that students rode through town in carriages is over, fortunately. True, in those days there always were a few of them that used the very same pool of money and time for thorough study of their subjects, in breadth and depth. Then quality could just spontaneously emerge: Bildung we can only dream of.

Because of the affluence on which that Bildung mostly rested, the latter had a decidedly elitist and exclusive character. I’m not sorry to see it gone, and I welcome the fact that large groups of other people now share in academic education.

So I also understand that a lot of public money goes to the universities. And that one wants to have some control over it. And that directors and managers should monitor that. And that inevitably some form of counting and measuring is always involved.

In the debate about the return on investment at the universities, I therefore disagree with the proposition that there is nothing to measure. Because immeasurability would make large-scale universities unmanageable. Then intellectual and cultural formation would again be accessible only to those of whom also the means are immeasurable.

In addition, there is another, more fundamental reason why I do not agree with the inmeasurability thesis. I think that measurability dóes exist in this field. However: not in the form of the brute performance indicators that managers and financials invent and apply nowadays. As if it were thém who provide the added value of education and research.

As to measurability in a realistic form, I rather think of the kind Ben Tiggelaar recently referred to in his NRC-column. People with serious ambitions, he wrote, also on the field of arts and sciences, often put themselves all sorts of standards – as countable and even rigid as imaginable. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright for example got up every day at four o’clock to work three hours in quiet. “Like the bureaucratic habit of many writers to count the number of words they daily produce and to impose themselves quotas. Hemingway: 500 words per day, Stephen King: 2000”.

The difference: these professionals know exactly what is needed for fruitful results. Tiggelaar’s advice to managers and financials would therefore be: go talk to the professionals and do not decide for thém what standards they must meet, but let them decide themselves. Let a professor describe his personal ideals and benchmark her own performance.

Because professors (and students) are no less keen on return than managers. But they have more sense of it.

Also see Grief