I recently attended a workshop in which a government official – not from Scotland – offered some comments on ‘the new world of higher education’. So what do you think we heard about? Pedagogy? Scholarship? Demography? Research? Innovation? Digitisation? For heaven’s sake, maybe even the dreaded ‘learning outcomes’ (one of the most useless educational concepts ever to have been devised)? No, none of that. I actually took a note of what the gentleman said in opening his talk: the new world of higher education, he asserted, is characterised by a much more thorough and ‘deep’ (whatever that means) approach to accountability and risk management.
Really? Well actually, yes. He was probably right. And it dawned on me right then that in the preceding week I had been involved in far more discussions about ‘accountability’ issues than about anything I might consider relevant in the strict sense to education. In fact, towards the end of my term of office as President of Dublin City University I once did a quick calculation of what the cost was of maintaining various ‘compliance’ functions made necessary by statutory or administrative requirements; suffice it to say that the cost was significantly higher than we would spend on an average size academic department.
And now, I have just been invited to attend a conference organised by the US-based Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics on ‘higher education compliance’. There are 22 topics the conference organisers intend to discuss, including audit, risk management, abuse of trust, fraud, data protection, ethics, and so forth. It is easy to look at the list and say, sure, these are matters we need to address. And indeed they are. But compliance has become an industry that doesn’t particularly seek out best practice, but rather looks at ways in which potential problems can be contained: the management of risk. It is about protecting the institution. And once you’re on that track, you are talking big time bureaucracy.
Education itself has also been bureaucratised, often for very worthy reasons, but not particularly to good effect; ‘learning outcomes’ are an example of that. But around the educational mission we are now spinning a web of ‘accountability’ that has little to do with explaining or justifying our activities, and much to do with obscuring our responsibility through the creation of elaborate processes. The focus in all of this on risk management leaves us with, as you would expect, a very risk-averse system, in which real innovation will find it hard to flourish because it is too risky.
It’s all part of the spirit of the age, in which innovation is often equated with recklessness and in which regulation is seen as the guarantor of good practice. The onward march of bureaucratisation continues, and nobody is really shouting ‘stop’. It is time to look again at what we think we need to control and contain. We do of course want to show integrity, fairness, inclusiveness and probity; but these are some of the methods, not the aims, of education. We need to wrestle back the scholarly and pedagogical and community leadership agenda from those who think a good higher education system is one that has the most elaborate and fool-proof procedures and the most aggressive methods of ensuring compliance with them.