And then everything turned to beige… The quantified academic in an age of academic precarity

Wonderland_Walker_5[It almost feels obscene not to reflect on the events in #Beirut #Paris #Yemen (the list is endless). I am, however, permanently nauseous, speechless and saturated with claims and counter-claims and the increasing evidence that the events of the last few days, weeks, months and years are becoming the new normal. So forgive me if I don’t share my reflections at this stage. I.Just.Can’t.]

It is that time of the year again where I must report back on not necessarily what I have done or the quality of what I have done, but how much I have done… How many articles? How many chapters? How many single-authored or co-authored articles? How much money did I earn in the form of external research grants? How much am I worth? How many citations? How much did my h-index increase since I last looked and reported on? How many? How much?

My value contribution as a scholar and a researcher is being diluted to a single score on a template.

I have become a score, a number, and a single digit. Nothing more. But so much less.

And then everything turns into beige. I become a zombie. A member of the living dead.

Please understand that I don’t yearn for a romanticized past of academic freedom that (most probably) never was. As I meandered from being an administrator, to a professional to an academic to being a research professor (a journey of 20 years) I heard stories of ‘how good things were’, and ‘how things changed.’ As a fairly recent addition to the ever smaller number of faculty carrying increasingly bigger administrative tasks, workloads and participating in the dance of life and death as researcher, I can only reflect on the ‘now.’

Let me bore you with some detail.

In the beginning of the year I contract with my supervisor to deliver on a number of deliverables. As a research professor there is not much to negotiate. For example, I have four I four key performance namely – academic leadership (10%), research (70%), community engagement (15%) and academic citizenship (5%). The four performance areas are fixed, and though the percentages are negotiable (within a certain range depending on your job title); they are relatively bizarre and of very little consequence – except to play a role in the weighting of your single digit percentage in your final rating.

Let me illustrate the point: The key performance area of ‘academic citizenship’ includes my participation in academic and institutional committees, task teams, etc. This year I was the Scientific Chair for a major international conference and the amount of time I spent in meetings, reviews, and planning was much, much more than 5%. I could have increased it to 10% (the maximum) but then I would have had to steal 5% from another key performance area. Which one? And does it really matter? You only have so many hours (a point to which I will return)…

Except for the percentages allocated to each key performance area, there is also the ‘content’ of each of these key areas that are increasingly hard-coded – meaning that the definitions and criteria are predetermined, fixed and scores automatically calculated. Of my four key performance areas, two are hard-coded – academic leadership and research.

Academic leadership has the following criteria:

  • Contributions to innovative and cutting edge practices in research (carrying a 15% weighting of the allocated weight of 10%). Except for the highly problematic issues of defining ‘innovation’ and ‘cutting edge practices’ left out of the picture, is the fact that what may be innovative or cutting edge in one disciplinary field may not be appropriate in another field. How does one allocate a score to innovative and cutting edge? How innovative and cutting edge can you really be if your research application survived the horrendous ethical review process, journal editorial policies and reviewers who may have very different ideas regarding innovation and cutting-edge…
  • Successful submission of research plans of mentees to the Chair of Department (15% weighting). Score. No indication of how detailed these plans should be. No indication that a mentorship relationship is complex, layered and embedded in power.
  • Mentorship (70% weighting). Very interesting is the fact that your score is determined not only by the number of mentees, but specifically whether you can provide proof that you assisted them in applications for external funding or rating by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The quality of the mentorship is impoverished to assistance for external funding or ratings.

That’s it. That is ‘academic leadership.’ Hard-coded. Scored. Tick. Transfer score to template. Done.

Research as key performance area consists of three criteria:

  • Research outputs and successful completion of postgraduate students (80% weighting). Outputs are clearly defined, there is no doubt regarding what is regarded as an output – if it is on an approved list, tick. If you co-authored the article, half a tick. If your postgraduate student has not successfully completed his or her qualification in the period of reporting, no tick…, despite the immense amount of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears the supervisory process meant for both the supervisor and student.

It helps that you are required to report on the last 3 or 5 years as this allows for the time and different iterations involved in the publication process. What are not considered at all are your scholarly contributions in other formats, many of them increasingly peer-reviewed and public.

  • Grant applications for external funding (10% weighting). If you have evidence that you applied for external funding, you get a score of 2. If your grant was successful, you are average, a 3. If you have been successful with more than one external grant application, you get a 4 and you attain a full score if the total amount of grant money allocated to your research is in excess of 2 million ZAR.

Money talks. Money makes the world (of research) go round.

  • The third criterion is being rated by the National Research Foundation (NRF) (weighting of 10%). If the NRF rated you’re the gravitas of your research as being acknowledged on a national level (a rating of C3 on a scale of C1-3), you are allocated a score of 3

And at the end, the Excel spreadsheet tallies the scores and who I am, the quality and gravitas of my scholarly contribution becomes a number. Nothing more, so much less.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind being evaluated. I don’t mind presenting evidence of what I think I am ‘worth’ as a researcher. A lot of the evidence of my standing in the field is anyway, and increasingly, public, out there already, such as comments on my blogs, remarks on Twitter, and references by other scholars. Performing my scholarship in public is an immensely risky, but also very rewarding exercise.

So how do I make sense of this? How do I manage to dance to the beat that is not of my making?

I do understand that in the context of increased internationalisation and competition, higher education increasingly sells education as a privatised and mostly costly commodity, with an emphasis on a return on investments, just-in-time products delivered by just-in-time labor aiming to get the products (aka students) off the shelves in the shortest possible time.

I do understand that the efficiency of higher education is increasingly monitored and evaluated by auditing and control processes harvesting and analysing data and evidence as/in ‘rituals of verification’ (Power, 1999, 2004). Higher education increasingly resembles “Auditland” (Murphie, 2014:10) where these ‘rituals of verification” and auditing processes beget more auditing processes in never-ending cycles that affects all learning, teaching and research (Murphie, 2014). Higher education as “Auditland” where we all spy on one another, compete for scarce resources, trying to outdo the other with providing more evidence, getting those grants, getting the invitations as keynotes, getting ahead.

I do understand that since the 1990s higher education has become increasingly a fast food factory or outlet characterised by the mantra of efficiency, quantification, calculability, predictability and control (Hartley, 1995). I do understand that changes in funding regimes resulted in the directive that “funding … follows performance rather than precedes it” (Hartley, 1995: 418). I do understand that the dominant narrative in higher education is that of a positivist, quantification fetish (Prinsloo, 2014), informed by a “neoliberal lexicon of numbers” (Cooper, 2014: par. 5), the “tyranny of numbers” and “measurement mania” (Birnbaum, 2001:197).

Despite ‘understanding’, I also see these pervasive auditing and verification rituals as mediated and mediating tools in service of evidence-based decision making that creates technical systems that simultaneously serve as prosthetics and as parasitic supplementing and replacing authentic learning and frantically monitoring “little fragments of time and nervous energy” (Murphie, 2014:19).

And amidst all of this I have become colonised as a single digit score and I become a spectator to my own drama of losing myself. And then life turns a lighter shade of beige (see the wonderful post by Kate Bowles, and Frank, 1995).

What are my options? I wish I could shout with Kate Bowles that “you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.” I know that time is irreplaceable. I know that my luck will run out, possibly sooner than later. (See the thought-provoking post by Adele Horin).

I know I cannot sustain the frantic activity, the restlessness, the panic, the dread of the next performance appraisal. I will have to make a plan.

And of course I do. I work longer. I work harder. Weekends are a non-event. The only difference between office hours on a weekend and during the week is the fact that I am (most probably) the only one in the building.

But why, you would ask? Why? Don’t I have a life?

I am 56 years old, white academic in a post apartheid South Africa where my options for finding employment outside of academia or in international higher education is zero. Don’t get me wrong. This is not about ignoring the many privileges I had and still have as a white male. I don’t subscribe to the notion of victimhood and suffering that is prevalent in the much of the current white, Afrikaner discourse. There is a vast difference between recognising the “historic burden of whiteness” and self-abasement or lame apologies (O’Hehir, 2014). My race and gender, and the socioeconomic circumstances of my family allowed me to play on a field while many others were excluded from playing. (Also see Bowler, 2014; Crosley-Corcoran, 2014; Gedye, 2014).

So I cancel a doctor’s appointment. I fit in a physiotherapist appointment in during my lunch hours (lunch?) for the unbearable pain in my neck.

Let me make it very clear that I love writing. I absolutely love doing research. I love the excitement of living on the edge of publishing, of awaiting feedback from editors on the submission of your last article. I am an adrenaline junkie. Forgive me mother for I have sinned. I say my three Hail Josephs and accept the invitation to write a chapter for a book. Imagine. They identified me as a worthy scholar and they would be honored if I would accept their invitation to contribute a chapter. Of course I would. The honor is mine. As a white African on the outside of the hallowed spaces of North Atlantic knowledge production, I am just so honored. How can I refuse? As a white male I am a neutered stray dog with no teeth in my home institution. So when I get invited to participate in an international publication, how can I refuse? Anyway, it is a sole authored chapter and, as such, worth so many points in the template during the end-of-the-year assessment.

So I graciously accept. “I would be honored.”

So I cancel breakfast on Saturday morning to be earlier in the office. The color beige is not bad at all.

Image credit:


Birnbaum, R. (2001). Management fads in higher education. Where they come from, what they do, why they fail. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bowler, D. (2014, August 27). Defined by your ‘blackness.’ [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Bowles, K. (2013, November 24). Irreplaceable time. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Bowles, K. (2014, March 5). Walking and learning. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Cooper, D. (2014, December 5). Taking pleasure in small numbers: How intimately are social media stats governing us? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Crosley-Corcoran, G. (2014, August 5). Explaining white privilege to a broke white person. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Frank, A.W. (1995). The wounded storyteller. Body, illness, and ethics. London, UK: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.

Gedye, L. (2014, October 13). Jou past se poes. The Con. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Hartley, D. (1995). The ‘McDonaldisation’of higher education: food for thought? Oxford Review of Education, 21(4), 409-423.

Horin, A. (2015, November 16). Dear reader, my luck has run out. The Age. Retrieved from

Murphie, A. (2014). Auditland. PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 11(2). Retrieved from

O’Hehir, A. (2014, August 30). Why acknowledging white privileged is not surrendering to ‘white guilt.’ [Web log post]. Retried from

Power, M. (1999).The audit society: Rituals of verification. 2nd edition. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Power, M. (2004). Counting, control and calculation: Reflections on measuring and management. Human Relations, 57(6), 765-783.

Prinsloo, P. (2014, October 22). Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: researcher identity and performance. Inaugural lecture at the University of South Africa. Retrieved from


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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6 Responses to And then everything turned to beige… The quantified academic in an age of academic precarity

  1. sharonslade says:

    As ever, you offer depth and insight in aspects of (academic) life which we must surely all experience in some capacity. As always I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with you (albeit adding to the enforced beigeness of many weekends…)

  2. Don’t you also find, while going through this evaluation process, that your initial self-evaluation is often questioned and or debated? You see, a lot of reflection goes into self-evaluation, and sometimes that just gets ignored when your efforts get reduced to a single number

    • Marius, I am really very happy with my current supervisor who actually leaves me to my own devices and plans. Except for the intense frustration with the criteria, the hard-coding of some aspects, the total lack of appreciation of the richness of research and academic leadership, the performance evaluation is for me a non-event. Due to the fact that much of my scholarship is in public spaces, my current supervisor mostly appreciates what I do (the quality and quantity). My current supervisor is, however, leaving and who knows how the game will change. Due to the fact that I don’t compete in the grant landscape (for a number of reasons) I have to work so much harder on the other aspects and I cannot leave anything to chance or to misinterpretation. Of course this results in manic insecurity and ever increasing pressure – and the deepening of the col0ur beige.

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Thank you Paul Prinsloo @14prinsp

  4. Maxi says:

    Your blogs are insightful and inspirational especially to the novice researchers who feel out of depth. So, thank you.

  5. Pingback: On the fourth day of Christmas | Wading through Treacle

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