The vacuity of ‘excellence’

This post has been simmering and in gestation for quite a while. This week, however, a number of documents arrived in my inbox to finally catalyse me into putting pen to paper. (Literally. I wrote this out long-hand before editing while typing it up. If you think that it’s vitriolic and ranty now, you should have seen the first scribbled draft…)

The source of my irritation? Well, take a look at the five statements below, each culled from the website of a leading UK university. (The names of the institutions have been omitted to protect the guilty).

“Through research of international excellence, to increase significantly the range of human knowledge and understanding…”

“We seek the highest distinction in research and scholarship and are committed to excellence in all aspects of education and transmission of knowledge.”

“By bold innovation and excellence in all that we do, we make both knowledge and discoveries matter. “

“.. we want to rise further and be amongst the very few premier global universities. We will achieve this through the excellence of our research and teaching…”

“The University …. combines academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research…”

Do you see a common theme here? Yep, it’s that word – “excellence”. (Those are just five examples out of countless others. Go to any university website and type in “excellence” into the search box – you’ll be swamped by links.)

It’s not only the marketing blurb for universities that is riddled with references to excellence. The tagline for Research Councils UK is “Excellence with Impact”; UK academics have just been subjected to the rigours of data collection for HEFCE’s Research Excellence Framework (and the associated game-playing over just who is “excellent” and who isn’t); OFSTED has its “excellence gateway”; the NHS is “energised for excellence”, and even the British Parking Association celebrates parking excellence.

But what does “committed to excellence” actually mean?

Here’s what it means: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s nothing more than the worst form of tedious, clichéd, vacuous, buttock-clenchingly awful marketing hyperbole.

What else is a university, or any type of organisation, going to do than try to be excellent? Strive for mediocrity? Pursue adequate performance? Try to be a little better than the rest, but not aim too high?

Ugh.

Seventeen years ago, in The University in Ruins, Bill Readings described the many problems resulting from academia’s reliance on the nebulous concept of excellence. (Thanks to my colleague at Nottingham, John Holmwood, for making me aware of Readings’ excellent book). Here’s one particularly insightful argument:

“The point is not that no-one knows what excellence is, but that everyone has his or her own idea of what it is. And once excellence has been accepted as an organizing principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions… if a particular department’s kind of excellence fails to conform, then that department can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system.”

(In this context, changing the name of the UK’s national research assessment exercise to the Research Excellence Framework makes a great deal of sense.)

Readings goes on to discuss what he describes as the “empty notion of excellence”. There’s an important concept in semiotics which captures this vacuity: the empty (or floating) signifier. An empty signifier is literally meaningless – it doesn’t represent any particular object or meaning which is universally agreed. “Excellence” is as good an example of an empty signifier as one could hope to find.

It takes a particularly insidious form of hypocrisy for UK universities to argue that they will develop the critical thinking skills of their students while at the same time they proclaim a commitment to excellence in everything they do. Laurie Taylor’s wonderful spoof University of Poppleton, with its commitment to being “fair to middling at everything”, at least has the advantage of a clear and original mission statement.

 

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. His research interests lie in what has occasionally been described as “extreme nanotech” in that he works alongside a talented bunch of nanoscientists to prod, poke, push, pick, and pull individual atoms and molecules in order to explore forces and interactions down to the single chemical bond limit. Moriarty also has a keen and long-standing interest in science communication and public engagement. He is a member of the Sixty Symbols team that was awarded the Institute of Physics Kelvin prize in 2016 for “innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics”. While he doesn't share his infamous namesake's fascination with the binomial theorem, Moriarty enjoys exploring the maths-music-physics interface including, in particular, the deep and fundamental links that exist between quantum mechanics and heavy metal music (a theme discussed at length in his book, “When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11”). He blogs at https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com.
Philip Moriarty
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