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“Meritocracy, evaluation, excellence: The case of universities and research”

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“Meritocracy, evaluation, excellence: The case of universities and research”

Invited talk at the conference “The Economy of Francesco” Assisi September 2022

Title “Meritocracy, evaluation, excellence: The case of universities and research”

Abstract “According to the current paradigm, meritocracy in education would have a dual role: on the one hand, that of representing the fundamental criterion through which the most efficient technicians needed for society and its economy are selected; on the other hand, that of providing the moral justification for the inequalities in the distribution of income from work that necessarily arise. It seems, therefore, that behind the word meritocracy lies the instrument used to justify the growth of inequalities. We will examine how meritocracy, preconceived as a dystopia by the English sociologist Michael Young, is declined in a modern key through what we will call techno-evaluation: we will discuss how it is implemented in practice, particularly with regard to research and universities, under the illusory motivation that the centralization of resources on a few educational and scientific excellences reduces waste and improves quality.”

References Francesco Sylos Labini, “Science and the Economic Crisis, Impact on Science Lessons from Science”, Springer 2016.

Invited talk at the conference “The Economy of Francesco” Assisi September 2022

Title “Meritocracy, evaluation, excellence: The case of universities and research”

Abstract “According to the current paradigm, meritocracy in education would have a dual role: on the one hand, that of representing the fundamental criterion through which the most efficient technicians needed for society and its economy are selected; on the other hand, that of providing the moral justification for the inequalities in the distribution of income from work that necessarily arise. It seems, therefore, that behind the word meritocracy lies the instrument used to justify the growth of inequalities. We will examine how meritocracy, preconceived as a dystopia by the English sociologist Michael Young, is declined in a modern key through what we will call techno-evaluation: we will discuss how it is implemented in practice, particularly with regard to research and universities, under the illusory motivation that the centralization of resources on a few educational and scientific excellences reduces waste and improves quality.”

References Francesco Sylos Labini, “Science and the Economic Crisis, Impact on Science Lessons from Science”, Springer 2016.

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“Meritocracy, evaluation, excellence: The case of universities and research”

  1. 1. MERITOCRACY, EVALUATION, EXCELLENCE: THE CASE OF UNIVERSITIES AND RESEARCH Francesco Sylos Labini
  2. 2. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  3. 3. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  4. 4. GINI INDEX G=0 minimum concentration: all receive the same income. G=1 maximum concentration: a single person perceives the whole country’s income while everyone else has zero income.
  5. 5. GINI INDEX • In 2014 the 60 richest people on the planet own in total the same wealth of the poorest 50% of the world • In 2010 they were 388 persons
  6. 6. THE ERA OF INEQUALITIES A Chief Executive Officer of a large US company listed on the Stock Exchange earns an average of about $11.4 million, which is about 343 times more than the salary of one of his employees. Despite the crisis, his earnings between 2009 and 2010 increased by 23 %.
  7. 7. The unspoken corollary The poor and families at risk of hardship deserve to be poor and at risk of hardship because they are not «good» enough.
  8. 8. WHY IS THIS EXTRAORDINARY INEQUALITY IN WEALTH ACCEPTABLE TODAY? THE MERITOCRACY: THE IDEOLOGY AT THE ROOTS OF INEQUALITIES
  9. 9. THE AGE OF INEQUALITIES «The rich and the poor were always there. But compared to the rest of the population today, riches are more numerous than at any other time we have memory»
  10. 10. THE DYNAMCIS UNDERLYING THE FORMATION OF INEQUALTIES
  11. 11. THE DYNAMCIS UNDERLYING THE FORMATION OF INEQUALTIES “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” Matthew 25:29
  12. 12. TRICKLE DOWN ECONOMICS: THEORY • Trickle-down effect of wealth dripping from top to bottom, by reaching the poorest segments of the population. • The profits derived from productive investments would be reinvested to create jobs and growth, by precisely the effect of top-down dripping.
  13. 13. TRICKLE DOWN ECONOMICS: PRACTICE
  14. 14. THE DYSTOPIC SOCIETY • The absurdity of a society where wealth and power are distributed in accordance with school performance or Intelligence Quotients • The caste that would derive bases its legitimacy on intelligence tests and would be even more closed and impermeable than old castes which it replaces. • In this society the market and competition values would have permeated every aspect of social life, starting right from elementary education.
  15. 15. THE DYSTOPIC SOCIETY • The selection focuses on a few measures of educational excellence, increasing the selection of those who do not conform to the standards of intelligence defined as “smarts”. • Meritocracy in education would thus have a dual role: on the one hand to represent the basic criterion to select the most efficient technicians needed for the society and its economy, and on the other to provide the moral justification for the inequalities in the distribution of income that necessarily are created.
  16. 16. The Rise of the Meritocracy Merit – Equal opportunities Privilege
  17. 17. The Rise of the Meritocracy Merit – Equal opportunities Privilege “There is nothing as unfair as making equal parts among unequals” Don Milani
  18. 18. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  19. 19. THE CASE OF EDUCATION AND RESEARCH • The same symptoms, that is, concentration of resources in a few hands and drastic reduction of the possibility of improvement for many, can be found in the apex of the educational system, academia and scientific research. • These are the basis of the crisis of contemporary science because they contribute to the stifling of scientific and cultural diversification, the heart of innovation and economic development.
  20. 20. Measuring «Merit» • Tests and rankings of all kinds in order to measure the merit of both individuals (students, teachers, researchers, etc.) and organizations (schools, universities, etc.) have been introduced • The basic idea of meritocracy is that it is possible to establish a perfect rating of the quality of individuals /organizations that leads to better use of their skills and thus to greater efficiency of the individual and of the system. • However the “assessment of merit” is much more complex than one might naively think…..
  21. 21. • The problem of quality assessing and measuring has strong analogies with the problem of measuring intelligence. • As palaeontologist Stephen J. Gould highlighted, IQ does not measure intelligence but only the ability to quickly solve a number of problems of a particular type. To measure intelligence reliably, one should first define it unequivocally, but it is highly questionable whether there is only one way to do it. • The same reasoning can be applied to measuring the quality in education and research in its various meanings among students, teachers, researchers, institutions, etc.
  22. 22. Measuring quantities and not qualities • The problem of quality assessing and measuring has strong analogies with the problem of measuring intelligence. • As palaeontologist Stephen J. Gould highlighted, IQ does not measure intelligence but only the ability to quickly solve a number of problems of a particular type. To measure intelligence reliably, one should first define it unequivocally, but it is highly questionable whether there is only one way to do it. • The same reasoning can be applied to measuring the quality in education and research in its various meanings among students, teachers, researchers, institutions, etc.
  23. 23. Quantitative evaluation and big data • The advent of big data has allowed us to measure a series of quantities, in different contexts, supposedly related with the merit, and that therefore can be used to evaluate and manage various educational systems, distribute the funds, determine careers, etc. • Quantitative evaluation is thus born and now grows thanks to the availability of big data
  24. 24. The end of theory ? The underlying philosophy by the computer guru Chris Anderson This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool…. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.
  25. 25. Evaluation: a pseudo-science • The availability of big data has given rise to the emergence of a true pseudo-science that, through the use of quality rankings, is transforming education and research systems all over the world. • Its role is to reduce a complex problem, essentially political in nature, concerning how to organize schools, higher education and research systems of a country, to a technical one. • A problem can be solved by finding the optimal distribution of resources based on the value of a particular set of quantitative indicators invoked, arbitrarily, by some ad hoc organizations. • Same as in “pseudo-economics” ….
  26. 26. The ‘Harvard Here’ Model  “Worldclass university as the panacea for ensuring success in the global economy.  Continuous evaluation of global capacity and potential  To conform to indicators set by global rankings: • governments and institutions make profound changes to their higher education systems, • alter their education programmes, • privilege some disciplines and fields.
  27. 27. The excellence dogma Evaluation Meritocracy Competition
  28. 28. Rankings of world universities
  29. 29. RANKINGS OF THE CHAMPION LEAGUE
  30. 30. THAT’S THE TRICK
  31. 31. Rankings of world universities BUDGET ! !
  32. 32. OPERATING EXPENSES Operating expenses Harvard+Yale = 66 italian universities Billions of Euros Ordinary State budget
  33. 33. THE ERA OF INEQUALITIES
  34. 34. WHAT YOU SPEND IS WHAT YOU GET
  35. 35. WHAT YOU SPEND IS WHAT YOU GET
  36. 36. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  37. 37. EC research funding  About 10% of National funding  Imitation at the National level of the EC “best practices”  Top-down research lines  Curiosity driven programs: ERC / Marie Curie fellowships Are these really “best practices” for science?
  38. 38. Follow the money …. Budget of the 7° Framework program of the EC (2007-2013) Millions of Euros Given Obtained
  39. 39. FOLLOW THE MONEY ….
  40. 40. The international crisis in scientific research Increasing number of scientific articles but more rapid increasing number of retractions Increasing role of tecno-evaluation Large number of PhD and Postdoc with low salaries and little possibility of obtaining a permanent position Small number of élite researchers
  41. 41. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  42. 42. EVALUATING EVALUATION • How to reward good and promising research ? • Which kind of selection? • Which criteria?
  43. 43. LESSONS FROM HISTORY
  44. 44. “REINFORCE EXCELLENCE, DYNAMISM AND CREATIVITY OF EUROPEAN RESEARCH" Rewarding what is today recognised as excellence is trivial !
  45. 45. “ERC funds excellent researchers”
  46. 46. Two competing strategies STRATEGY 1: REWARD EXCELLENCE STRATEGY 2: ROOM FOR FLUCTUATIONS
  47. 47. Some recent discoveries Outsiders Non mainstream labs Surprising results
  48. 48. High-temperature superconductivity Nobel Prize in Physics 1987
  49. 49. SCANNING TUNNELING MICROSCOPE NOBEL PRIZE PHYSICS 1985
  50. 50. GIANT MAGNETO RESISTANCE NOBEL PRIZE PHYSICS 2007
  51. 51. GIANT MAGNETO RESISTANCE NOBEL PRIZE PHYSICS 2007
  52. 52. GRAPHENE NOBEL PRIZE PHYSICS 2010
  53. 53. REALITY AND IDEOLOGY
  54. 54. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  55. 55. RESEARCH IS RISKY !
  56. 56. How can fluctuations emerge?
  57. 57. COMPETITION OF IDEAS vs COMPETITION OF RESEARCHERS «The history of science has been and must be a history of competing research programmes ... the earlier the competition begins, the better it is for progress» Imre Lakatos (1970)
  58. 58. RESEARCH IS RISKY ! "We conclude that scientific impact (as reflected by publications) is only weakly limited by funding. We suggest that funding strategies that target diversity, rather than “excellence”, are likely to prove to be more productive.”
  59. 59. Investment in Education and Research The key role of the visible hand is to build the infrastructures that are necessary (but not sufficient) for the economic development
  60. 60. OUTLINE • Inequalities and the meritocracy • The case of higher education: the «Harvard here» model • The excellence dogma and its effect on research • Excellence and reality • Research is risky • Diversification and innovation
  61. 61. THE ERA OF INEQUALITIES: consequences on education Education, that in principle should play the main role to enable more efficient social mobility, seems to have lost its remediate power as a result of increasingly insurmountable inequality, signifying a crisis of the whole education system.
  62. 62. THE ERA OF INEQUALITIES: consequences on education Parallel to the growth of inequalities, there has been a breakdown in intergenerational mobility: young people in the countries with major imbalance in the distribution of wealth have little chance of improving their situation.
  63. 63. The Scientific Competitiveness of Nations • Beyond having the largest production of scientific papers and the largest number of citations, do not specialize in few scientific domains. Rather, they diversify as much as possible their research system • Diversification is the key element that correlates with scientific and technological competitiveness
  64. 64. Diversification and competitiveness • Diversification correlates with competitiveness • As in biological systems, diversification achieves long-term stability and competitiveness in a changing environment such as the present globalised world
  65. 65. The exponential growth
  66. 66. THE INVISIBLE HAND IS VISIBLE AND WORKING HARD !
  67. 67. “Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other direction can insure our health, prosperity and security as a nation in the modern world”. Science The Endless Frontier A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush July 1945
  68. 68. Risk in research and innovation • Diversification • Adaptability • Cooperation • Long times
  69. 69. Discussion
  70. 70. The rise of the cultural hegemony of the meritocracy
  71. 71. “There is a class struggle going on, it is true, but it is my class, the rich class, that is waging the war, and we are winning.” Warren Buffett
  72. 72. The illusion from the 1980s «For thirty years we have turned the pursuit of material self-interest into a virtue... Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities between rich and poor… And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies all this: the uncritical admiration for free markets, the contempt for the public sector, the illusion of endless growth» Tony Judt
  73. 73. THE ROOTS OF THE HEGEMONY
  74. 74. Culture Media Politics THE ROOTS OF THE HEGEMONY
  75. 75. The cultural hegemony Neoclassical economic theory: economics is conceived as a science that studies the alternative choices of scarce resources, and the market is the place of optimal allocation of resources, guaranteed by rational agents able to use all the available information conveyed by prices, which measure the scarcity of such resources.
  76. 76. The market would “naturally” find an equilibrium that is the meeting point between supply and demand, according to a process that is exclusively logical- deductive and therefore totally independent from the diversities among economies in time and space. The cultural hegemony
  77. 77. Politics is subject to markets, acting at most in a technocratic form in order to facilitate their functioning. The cultural hegemony
  78. 78. The classical economics Economics as a scientific reflection on the society, aimed at examining the characteristics that ensure the conditions of development on the basis of division of labour, in a social, institutional and regulatory context that constrains the role and actions of the various parties in time and space.
  79. 79. Beyond the different versions and insights the vision of political economy remains anchored to a representation of the economic system in which the size of the social classes and the diversity of interests determine a basically unstable structure The cultural hegemony
  80. 80. Natural science and social science • Laws of Nature: universal and immutable • Laws of Economics: changeable and mutable
  81. 81. NEOCLASSICAL ECONOMICS IS A PSEUDOSCIENCE
  82. 82. We need a cultural (and a political) revolution….

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