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Why don’t we talk about work when discussing academic assessment?

Lorena Pilloni

Early this year Thomas Allmer (2018: 49) stated in an article that, we academics, tend to see universities more as an intellectual space rather than our workplace. Perhaps that explains in part why when discussing academic assessment we hardly mention our working relationships or conditions. At best, we leave these topics in second place when debating. We omit them in no lesser degrees, however, and this is the moment to reconsider them. Here my thoughts:

1. Nobody brings the need for evaluation into question, yet more and more voices stand up against the use of certain criteria to assess scientists, publications and institutions. Indeed, the latest debates on assessment are centred on this. Particularly, it is debated whether these criteria are solely quantitative or that only meet the commercial interests of big publishing firms rather than furthering scientific knowledge or the logic itself of scholarly communities in each disciplinary tradition. It is also questioned whether they are based on indicators that were not intended for evaluating (Barsky, 2014).

Specifically, when assessing academics it is usual to criticise incentive systems that give points depending on academic productivity—the more academics publish, the better their assessment. Consequently, there’s an ongoing pressure to publish at all costs, despite the (and at the expense of) quality of works or the contribution made to knowledge. Publish or perish, publishing for publishing’s sake. We’re not downplaying the importance of discussing assessment criteria and we’re aware that it’s important it should keep its way, but what draws our attention is that we focus only on criteria and indicators, and yet, hardly question the goals and sense of assessment in the context of academics’ work, their working conditions and rights.

2. In other words, when did we forget that the famous “pointitis” emerged in the 80s so that academics would compete individually to gain incentives, established as grants, to complement their wages, which was declining? Several authors that study academic assessment, when doing historic survey or rebuilding about this practice, clearly recognised that it resulted from a critical moment when funding higher education and research. In other words, due the detriment of researchers’ and professors’ pay. It is acknowledged that the root of the problem was the poor working conditions of academics, transformation proposals are centred on suggesting how to modify assessment notwithstanding. Almost nothing is said about the pressing need to change such conditions(Buendía et al., 2017; Bensusan and Valenti, 2018).

The incentive systems emerged as a transitory measure to alleviate the work problem, but over time they stayed and became established as assessment itself gained more legitimacy as a tool to encourage quality and as a mechanism for accountability. Such legitimation took place in the administrative and government circle, but also in the academic world, finding support on the idea of quality and merit. Mainly, as regards these aspects, academic assessment doesn’t loose appropriateness and relevance but there is no reason to transform it into a fetish, let alone, to forget the nitty-gritty, especially when its solution it’s still far away—precarious academic working conditions.

3. We may still discuss, improve and enhance assessment criteria to give incentives to academics, but at the end, that won’t change the fact that such incentives don’t result in worker rights, and in practice, they conceal the not-yet-improved low wages issue. For instance, many researchers are reluctant to retire since retirement it’s calculated only from the base pay. If for years their income has consisted of base pay plus incentives, why should they want to retire if their income will be dramatically decreased? A consequence of this, is the progressive ageing of academics. The new generations of academics, therefore, have fewer options to have decent vacancies as researchers. In this scenario, Conacyt has provided a new palliative: Conacyt lectures, which don’t generate much rights either since not even a working relationship is established between the beneficiary research centre and hired researchers. The latter only obtain temporally the position of “public servants that are part of CONACyT’s workforce” (Conacyt, 2014: 3). In other words, they become trustworthy members of the Council, which restricts their worker rights.

4. Recent national and international studies document the poor working conditions of the academic world and the resulting stress, burnout, anxiety and work insecurity among researchers and professors (Loveday: 2018; Phillips and Heywood-Roos: 2015; Olaskoaga-Larrauri, 2015: 112; Rojas et al., 2014: 111-113). Why are these problems so often omitted or downplayed when discussing academic assessment? How long will we still address assessment as if it had nothing to do with the academics’ working rights, relationships and conditions? The processes of scientific production, its assessment and the requirements both meet or should meet (according to the current criteria or those established in the future) don’t take place anywhere—they take place at institutions and at the core of working relationships that limit or widen the scope of the researcher’s activity, the quality of their work and even their physical and mental well-being.

We academics are intellectuals, and universities or research centres are intellectual spaces that require freedom, diversity, reasonable dialogue and openness, and as such we must defend them over bureaucracy and productivity demands. We cannot, however, avert or downplay the fact that intellectual activity and its assessment are anchored in social relationships, in a material substratum that conditions them. We academics are, perhaps, above all, workers with rights too. Of course, it does make sense to keep discussing criteria, modalities and the characteristics of scholarly assessment as it has been done thus far. But it is necessary that it be done with complete awareness that nothing of that can be exactly understood unless the conditions, rights and working relationships of academic workers are considered as problems.

REFERENCESAllmer, T, (2018). “Theroising and Analysing Academic Labour”. TripleC16(1), 49-77. Retrieved from

Barsky, O, (2014). La evaluación de la calidad académica en debate. Volume 1.  Los rankings internacionales de las universidades y el rol de las revistas científicas. Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Editorial Teseo.

Bensusán, Graciela and Giovanna Valenti (coords.) (2018), La evaluación de los académicos. Instituciones y Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, aciertos y controversias, Mexico City, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

Buendía, A., García, S., Grediaga, R., Landesman, M., Rodríguez-Gómez, R., Rondero, N., Rueda, M., & Vera, H. (2017). Queríamos evaluar y terminamos contando: alternativas para la evaluación del trabajo académico. Sociológica32(92), 309-326.

Conacyt (2014). Lineamientos para la Administración de las Cátedras CONACyT, Mexico City, Mexico. Conacyt. Retrieved from

Loveday, V. (2018). The neurotic academic: how anxiety fuels casualised academic work. LSE Impact Blog, April 17th, 2018. Retrieved from

Olaskoaga-Larrauri, J., González-Laskibar, X., Marúm-Espinosa, E., & Onaindia-Gerrikabeitia, E. (2015). Reformas organizativas en las instituciones de educación superior, condiciones laborales y reacciones de los académicos. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación Superior16(17), 102-118. Retrieved from

Pérez, R., & Nairdof, J. (2015). Las actuales condiciones de producción intelectual de los académicos. Sinéctica. Revista Electrónica de Educación, (44), 1-16.  Retrieved from

Siobhan, P., & Heywood-Roos, R. (2015). “Job security for early career researchers is a significant factor in helping research make an impact”. LSE Impact Blog, June 30th, 2015. Retrieved from

Rojas, S., Sánchez, M., & Topete, C. (2014). Modelos de evaluación del desempeño de las actividades científicas: casos Colombia y México, Bogotá, Colombia. Politécnico Grancolombiano.