Academic autonomy and accountability
I suppose I should take back one criticism I voiced about Tom Garvin’s article in last Saturday’s Irish Times, i.e. that his tone would not stimulate debate. At any rate on this blog site the debate on his comments has been exceptionally lively, and moreover it has prompted me to reflect on one aspect of the topic, or at least I think it’s an aspect.
In 1997 Mary Henkel of Brunel University in the UK published an article entitled ‘Teaching Quality Assessments: Public Accountability and Academic Autonomy in Higher Education’, in which she suggested that a key issue was ‘whether public accountability and academic autonomy can be reconciled and if they can, on whose terms.’ The article contains a very interesting analysis of the development of quality assurance in teaching and learning, but running through this analysis is the author’s feeling that a key problem was the development of a political policy priority to secure much higher levels of participation in universities, the ‘massification’ of higher education. This massification was not being fully funded, or at least not funded to allow universities to continue to use the ‘old’ teaching methods successfully to much larger groups. Furthermore, it was being accompanied by public scrutiny using criteria that were in many respects an affront to the academic community’s view of their own autonomy in devising, running and assessing their teaching.
Much the same point could be made about the development and monitoring of high value research, with big money being allocated to high value projects in return for much more onerous criteria of accountability. In fact in an article a few years earlier (in 1990) in the journal Studies in Higher Education, Robert Berdahl of the University of Maryland in the US had warned that accountability for academic research would become a problem for academics once it moved from monitoring process to assessing substance (‘Academic freedom, autonomy and accountability in British universities’).
If we look at the history of higher education over the past half-century or so, we can see a certain inevitability of what was really bound to happen: that as universities no longer served just an elite, took on more public money and became more directly embroiled in public policy issues as seen by government, both the expectations of them and controls imposed on them would change dramatically, and would do so rapidly. If you are using a lot of taxpayers’ money and what you are doing has a huge impact on government performance indicators (skill levels, employment, R&D, and so forth), you are not going to get easy acceptance of autonomy, which some politicians and public commentators will simply see as a claim to the right to use money without accountability, a claim that has been discredited for everyone else.
In all this universities, themselves in an uneasy relationship with their own academics over these pressures, are left fighting defensive rearguard actions both internally and externally, managing to annoy faculty while simultaneously disappointing government, the media and other stakeholders.
But this is a game that cannot be played like this any more, as the stresses have become too great and there is a risk that it will all fall apart. It is time to have a new social contract between higher education and its stakeholders, where universities and their members recognise that they operate in a public policy environment that they must address, while government and other stakeholders recognise the value of intellectual independence. It is not an easy balance to strike, but we had better get on with finding it.