Policy-based Evidence-making

Like many of my colleagues across the UK, I’ve been in a state of shock for the past few weeks, reeling from the proposals in the Browne report for the massive restructuring of academia, which includes shifting education from being funded as public good, with benefits accruing to society as a whole, to being funded as a market, where students act as rational consumers and “competition drives quality.”

Beyond the fact that this strategy is weak and technocentric, as John Naughton suggests, it is also problematic in another way.  We KNOW that public goods do not accrue using the logic of the market.  We KNOW that students don’t act as rational consumers.  Thus, this is a proposal made entirely on ideology, not on evidence.

This means that instead of making evidence-based policy, we are going to start seeing policy-based evidence.  In a mad rush to make reality conform to narrow assumptions, it’s quite likely that the actual benefits of public education will stop being measured.  Society won’t just be weaker and thinner, we won’t necessarily even know about it.

History provides numerous lessons about how tenacious policy-based evidence-making can be.  For example, Marilyn Waring has proven that economic success (even of developed nations) has depended on unpaid labour, often done by women.  She calls the systematic lack of measurement of this labour the “patriarchal economic paradigm.”

Canada’s census will stop measuring unpaid labour, under new rules made by its Conservative government.  In a Toronto Star article, Waring comments on this decision:

“I see this mirrored in so many conservative governments in the post-recession period,’’ says Waring. “They want to rule according to ideology not according to evidence. So one of the most important things they can do is to obliterate evidence so they can operate on the basis of propaganda.’’

From higher education to labour force statistics, the public is going to have to start paying attention.  All governments would like to make decisions based only on their ideologies.  But responsible ones use evidence to check that ideology and prevent it from having too much influence.  Beware of policy-based evidence-making.