Is the pursuit of excellence harmless?

If you take a look at any university website you will find one thing: excellence. Not excellence itself, of course – most university websites fall well short of that mark – but the profession of, or pursuit of, ‘excellence’.

What does that word mean? Excellence is an abstract concept – both aspirational and ill-defined. I think the most we can say about it is that it implies some degree of measurement: this thing is better than most other things like it – it is excellent. Yet the concept of excellence is pervasive in academia. Almost every academic institution, society or funding body uses the word in a motto or slogan, the Royal Society of Chemistry included. It feels like a cliche to point out that if we are all excellent, then none of us are. Perhaps then the quest for excellence is meaningless.

But is the pursuit of excellence harmless? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. While most will consider the concept inoffensive rhetoric, there’s a growing group of voices pointing out that it is much more harmful than we realise, particularly for education.

Academic research is perhaps the field most steeped in the aspiration to excellence. Here, it is widely used to define researchers, institutions, programmes, collaborations and research itself. In a scathing article, ‘“Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence’, published last year, Cameron Neylon and his colleagues outlined the insidious results of the drive for excellence in research. It comes down to measurement of output, all research needs to stand out. As a result, academic science has produced a ‘publish or perish’ culture where only positive results are publishable and the pressures to fabricate results are too great for many to resist.

Excellence does not permit failure, but good science requires it

Excellence does not permit failure, but good science requires it. The authors argue that the pursuit of excellence is anti-scientific.

What does this mean for education? In the higher education (HE) sector in the UK we are preparing for the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the twin of the Research Excellence Framework that has been so key in pushing the need for excellence in university research.

While the TEF will be a watershed for teaching at HE, competition for students is certainly not a new development at universities. Market forces have driven how universities approach teaching for a long time, where students are customers and their education is a product paid for with tuition fees. And this isn’t isolated to the UK – it’s a global trend.

We are creating a world where education is measured by value to a customer rather than what good it does for society. Is this what we want?

This question becomes even starker when we consider the marketisation of secondary education in the UK – in England, in particular. Of course, secondary teachers are well acquainted with the pursuit of excellence and the pernicious effects it can have on school culture and student and staff morale. Ofsted inspections and exam targets are cited as the biggest pressures on school teachers, where as much as 55% of the workforce says their work has detrimentally affected their mental health.

Add to this the introduction of academisation and the current government’s plans for selective education – it’s easy to see how the fetishisation of excellence is changing how our society educates students. But when we can’t even measure what we mean by the term, is the cost worth it?