Obsessive Numerology Disorder


Obsessive Numerology Disorder (OND) is spreading through university management. OND is the magic thinking that maintains a mystical connection between a number and some real world event. I suggest we add this to the ever-growing list of disorders included in the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM, now in its fifth edition, describes over 150 disorders. The 1977 version listed only 25.

Every week (yes, every week!), somebody somewhere in the university puts an extraordinary amount of work into producing thirty pages of tables and graphs, plus more pages for each faculty. These are sent to faculty directors, marketing heads, education deans, programme directors. Numbers of students – accepted, paid, admissible – are classified into seven categories, by country and region. I have met senior administrators who do not understand all the categories, and yet major decisions are made on the basis of these data (as when the Executive Board abolished matching after seeing a dip in some category).

The numbers are presented with spurious accuracy. What should I do when I see that the number of ‘conditionally approved’ students is down 150 per cent, when all it really means is that we have two students, compared to five this time last year? If my programme has too many red numbers, will I be asked to wear a t-shirt with ‘ask me about studying at UM’ across the front while traveling to work? I’m reluctant to joke, as this might seem like a good idea to someone.

Despite this obsessive production and interpretation of numbers, two days before teaching started, I was told to expect between 65 and 103 students for our BA –  an uncertainty of more than two PBL groups, making planning very difficult. We ended up with 76.

The number of students arriving for the new academic year is important. Teaching is central to the life of a university, both as a key activity and as a major source of income. But this monitoring of numbers throughout the year borders on the obsessive and making policy on the basis of such dubious numbers reflects an irrational belief in numerology. An effective cure for OND is sorely needed.

Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures and programme director Digital Society

Obsessive Numerology Disorder