NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The Measurement Game

“If we cannot measure what is valuable, we will come to value what is measurable, so that passion for measurement can distort organizational efforts by prizing and overproducing what can be measured and neglecting what cannot.”

As a former university research administrator, one of my favourite books is Management Fads in Higher Education: Where they come from, What they Do, Why they fail[1] by US writer Robert Birnbaum. At the same time that Australian universities were enthusiastically adopting new management practices, Birmbaum’s book was clearly documenting their failure in the US. For me, he always seemed to accurately sum up the frustrations in academia.  On the evaluation ‘management fad’ he said: 

“If we cannot measure what is valuable, we will come to value what is measurable, so that passion for measurement can distort organizational efforts by prizing and overproducing what can be measured and neglecting what cannot.”[2]  

In Australia, we increasingly see the intrinsic benefits of creative research, for society, communities and individuals, being sidelined for the more easily counted dollar values and audience numbers. 

Julian Meyrick observes the result of this measurement obsession:

“For the past 30 years, Australian governments have conflated the nation’s cultural creativity with its economic prosperity. This has promoted a mood of metrical madness – the measuring of anything and everything in a way that is methodologically suspect, morally insidious and not a little daft.” [3]

In this edition of NiTRO, which features a welcome by DDCA’s new Vice President, Professor Cat Hope, we focus on issues inherent in our “daft” system of evaluating research performance. As our contributors demonstrate, there is still much to be done to address the misfit between creative arts research and its values, and the government’s system of measuring and rewarding performance.   

Clive Barstow (ECU) in an interview with Literature Professor Jill Durey (ECU) finds similarities in creative arts and literature research and solutions that could benefit both;

Simon Biggs (UniSA) unpacks the Impact and Engagement guidelines to pinpoint the challenge for capturing the intrinsic value of creative arts offering a glimmer of hope for the future;

Jen Webb (Canberra) and Ross Gibson (Canberra) analyse and compare different FORs and suggest reasons for ‘lacklustre’ performance of creative arts in ERA;

Larissa Hjorth (RMIT) points out how the Engagement and Impact (E&I) agenda pushes universities to support the research process itself and highlights the work of creative arts disciplines;

Craig Batty (UTS) considers the role of craft in research and whether the longstanding art v craft dichotomy should be finally resolved;

Brydie-Leigh Bartleet (Griffith) challenges creative arts researchers to take hold of the agenda and develop a more holistic way of understanding impact;

Marie Sierra (UNSW) delves into the murky world of FOR re-coding and argues the case for ambiguity;

Former (and founding) DDCA President Su Baker, reflects on the changes in tertiary arts education which have accompanied her career.

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

[2] ibid p198.

[3]  Meyrick, J (2017).Are We Counting Culture to Death? The Conversation June 2017


More from this issue

More from this issue

Impact is something that cuts across the lives of artists both outside and inside the academy. Considerations of impact have always been core to creative artists as they have activated the power of the arts to influence people, places, practices, and politics across many diverse cultural contexts and time periods. What is far newer is a bureaucratic turn towards measuring these impacts for the sake of accountability and measuring return on public investment.

Thirty years, conventionally, represents a working life, and if that is still true, then that has been mine, so far. It also coincides with the journey of shape shifting in our current higher arts education sector that a number of us have witnessed, been subjected to and perhaps have produced, through a common ambition we have for the positive impact that arts education can deliver.

Now that the Federal election is over, we can likely expect the next ERA to be 2021, instead of some later year. While it’s an enormous amount of work for what some deem a “beauty pageant”, more infrequent ERA exercises mean having to manage a larger, more unwieldy data set. And it’s all about the data. What has been particularly exercising minds at time of writing is the opportunity to suggest changes to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC) Field of Research (FoR) Codes for the next ERA.

When NISA released their innovation report that led to the ARC developing the Engagement and Impact (E&I) framework, people were palpably nervous. Not yet another framework which already over-worked academics had to consider in their research trajectory. And yet, the roll out of E&I … suggests that the framework can actually help to articulate, capture and mobilise all the complex ways the academy is valuable to society. Especially multifaceted areas like social impact. It made visible some of the invisible work academics do.

In organisational and governmental debates about the primary value of the creative arts, instrumental and extrinsic criteria, including economic, social and industrial factors, are routinely employed. … However, it is necessarily the case that the most important value inherent in creative arts research is something intrinsic to that practice: that the value of creative practice research is that it is a creative practice.

While the sector has a pretty broad understanding what creative practice research is - and how its outcomes align with the ARC’s definition of research … there are still conflicting views about where the new knowledge resides, even from those doing the work … I want to explore the idea of craft - specifically as opposed to art - and problematise why people often shy away from it in a research context.

In 2017 the Deans of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences agreed to survey decision makers in creative arts disciplines about the perception that “While every other FoR has increased its average score in each of the ERA rounds … FoR19 is the only code in which the average score across the sector has decreased in each ERA round” … We turned to the ERA Outcomes data to test this, and to review how FoR19 (Studies in Creative Arts and Writing) stacks up not only against closely related disciplines but also against the very different (scientific) disciplines selected for

Within the broad definition of practice-led research, how has contemporary literature fared in terms of its categorisation, measurement and funding compared with the visual and performing arts? I interview Professor Jill Durey, previous head of English at ECU and now retired, and who has lived through the various incarnations of ERA.