The demise of May Fest: has the measurable defeated the important?

For the past 7 years, the University of Nottingham has run a fabulous event called May Fest. May Fest was the University’s main community engagement activity. Hundreds of staff and students ran interactive activities, events and stands, aimed at people of all ages. Thousands of people would attend – mainly families, and others too. The highlights for our own family have been the amazing engineering room with interactive dam-building, the bucky balls in the chemistry stand, and the opportunity for our girls to see real women scientists talking excitedly about science.

For the last two years I was involved in our own stands: two years ago I arranged for a glow-in-the-dark bacteria activity, with children entering a black out tent to see them. And last year an antimicrobial resistance in slurry activity: read about it here. Both events went down really well.

This year, sadly, there is no May Fest.

I do not know why this decision was made, and I very much hope that it will run in 2017. My hypothesis: in a society and sector obsessed with the measurable, important and exciting activities, such as May Fest, that do not meet measurable outcomes, are devalued and potentially lost.

I am led to this hypothesis is what I hear about REF and Workload Planning. In the last REF, one of our departments received a clean sweep of 4* Impact Case Studies. It turns out that as part of their (highly succesful) process, a potential impact case study that focussed on a May Fest activity was excluded as not submissible: despite considerable public engagement, there was no clearly measurable ‘impact’ as defined by REF. The implication was clear: if contributing to May Fest does not count as potentially REF-able activity, why would individual academics or heads of schools support such contribution? But surely there must be some latitute to do important and exciting activities that are not REF-able?

Enter Workload Planning. Friends at many British universities have told me about the workload planning models (WLPs) that have been brought in.The problem is, of course, that only some activities count towards it, and how they count is usually impossible to capture in any fair way. The result? Academic staff start only doing activities that count and stop doing activities that don’t count. I have now experienced several occasions where people have said “I’m not doing that: it’s not on the WLP model”. Is contributing to May Fest on the WLP model? Of course not – and it shouldn’t be – staff should not be pressurized into giving up their Saturdays for university activity.

So what happens? May Fest does not fit into any measurement model. Because you cannot really measure the delight of a small child as they fish a cuddly fluorescent green bacterium out of a ball pit “slurry tank”. In our measurement-obsessessed management models, academic staff and middle management are disincentivised from supporting May Fest. The activities are devalued. Perhaps this is why it was cancelled.

I very much hope that May Fest will run in 2017. It showcases the best of the University of Nottingham: the intelligence, ingenuity, energy and passion of its staff and students, which is shared freely and willingly with the wider community in Nottingham and beyond.

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One thought on “The demise of May Fest: has the measurable defeated the important?

  1. For what it’s worth Dov, I think that the demise of Mayfest was also to do with the fact that the event had lost its original aims of being a open day *for the local community*, when it was combined with Alumni (ie schmoozing for cash) activities. It became yet another Corporate event, and with that came spiralling costs which the University, as you say, couldn’t stomach. There’s a few of us scicomm types who are working with Widening Participation to run activities at Universty Park on Saturday (on a much, much smaller scale) for young families invited via local WP schools. So, proper engagement with the types of audience we should be striving to interact with. On a scale we can do it well.

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