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.

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18 Comments on “Academic autonomy and accountability”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Reading the comments in the IT on Gavin’s article. There seems a split between those with a feeling of being gypped and those that seem happy enough. However this split matches to those with only an undergrad experience and those who took an M.

  2. John Says:

    John: It’s perfectly possible to be autonomous and accountable.

  3. Sally Says:

    Sally: Of course it is. Provided the accountant lets you. Did you spot “a certain inevitability of what was probably bound to happen”?

    • jon Says:

      @kennydenny; you surprise me, and I don’t want to get into some foolish discussion of what should be clear cut.

      The Roma themselves have rejected the term Gipsy: it is historically used pejoratively and is based on a misunderstanding of their historic origin and the use of an ethnic designation as slang for cheat is obviously offensive.

      I think we would all find the expression “a bit Irish” offensive if used casual by someone who wasn’t Irish.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Calling me “kenny” is based on a misunderstanding of what my name is but I don’t get offended because its a trivial, if occasionally irritating, mistake. Since your reasoning is sloppy I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that your writing is too. In any event, many Irish people routinely use the phrase “a bit Irish”.
        I didn’t actually know the etymology of “gypped”. I suspect most people don’t so that they cannot be reasonably accused racist.

  4. jon Says:

    Let me be clear, I wasn’t accusing anyone of being racist, I was pointing out a racist usage which could inadvertently give offense. The term is offensive and, yes, lots of people don’t know its etymology: this is probably a symptom of the marginalization of the Roma.

    As for your name, don’t be so silly; sorry I got it wrong, but really, to equate that to using a pejorative slang based on an already offense term for a marginalization group is a bit over the top.

    Anyway, like I said this is the sort of discussion that leads to people saying upsetting things, my only aim was to point out that “gyp” is offensive, not to enter a discussion, so no more from me.

  5. Sally Says:

    I don’t think being offended by words is ‘the thing’ anymore Jon.

  6. Jimmy Magee Says:

    First off the substantial economic benefits of publicly funded basic research are reviewed here: http://in3.dem.ist.utl.pt/master/03econ/lecture_6.pdf

    and here: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.25.2107&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    It is generally accepted that the long term social return from basic research is higher than that of applied research because the spillovers from basic research are much greater.

    The rationale for the State investing in basic research for the benefit of enterprise is that advancing the basic sciences takes along time and needs a lot of investment and no company on their own could fund, therefore there is a market failure and the State must step in and intervene. Advances in the basic sciences lead to the emergence of “platform technologies” such as emerged from the US State sector: computers, internet, electronics, biotechnology, nanotechnology. These new technologies form the basis for a new wave of commerical products. This is in effect a massive subsidy by the tax payer to private companies. Companies invest money in applied research to transform new knowledge coming out of universities into commercial products. There is no market failure when it comes to applied research because the companies stand to benefit from it and if they can expect to get a return they should pay the cost.

    The problem arises when companies are allowed dictate policy in the universities to such an extent that the role of university as a place where the “free exercise of trained curiousity by independent-minded and well educated people” takes place – to quote Professor Garvin – gets eroded and instead universities become developmental labs for private companies – the scope of intellectual inquiry is severly narrowed – and you end up with what Prof Garvin called “derivativeness” i.e. using existing knowledge for new applications. Any new applications that are developed are handed over to private companies for profit – so that the State (or the public) pays the costs and takes the risks and private companies get the return.

    It should be obvious that universities can deliver most for the economy and society through basic research and free enquiry and the erosion of this role is seriously detrimental.

    What is most worrying is the loss of the culture of free enquiry, the whole free thinking student tradition and the idea that knowledge is an end in itself. The social democratic function of the university as a free space where every orthodoxy, authority and oppression could be questioned and challenged and where students could develop the ability to question and think for themselves and prepare for life as citizens participating in a democratic society has been almost completely lost in at least some of the universities in Ireland.

    Students go through secondary school learning off material, practicing exam papers, regurgitating answers, etc, to get as many points as they can and then go through much the same thing in university. Dominant ideologies are never questioned.

    The battle for minds, the battle for a vibrant knowledge culture (which leaps over the old university walls and gates into all segments of our society, especially the disadvantaged) has failed. We have an anti-knowledge, anti-truth society, with little activity in our coffee shops, homes, offices and Dail, that is why economic, financial and political crises come as a shock to the populace because they were never given a context to begin with by those ‘who should know’.

    We can see the results of anti-intellectualism everywhere in Ireland today. Its time some shouted stop. Well done Prof Garvin.


  7. Let’s do a little thought experiment.

    Adam Smith was a professor in Scotland at the time when his university received little or no funding from the state. Before getting his chair of moral philosophy around 1751, Smith personally gathered the tuition from his students at the beginning of term, and gave a percentage to the university for the use of the rooms of the college.

    So there was clearly oversight in Smith’s day: the University needed to get its cut. Smith was free thereafter to use his time as he saw fit, and he wrote the Theory of Moral Sentiments, amongst other classics, under this regime.

    Notice first that the pre-chair Smith is in almost the exact opposite situation to every academic in Ireland. Before 1751, Smith had no permanent job, and he got his fees directly from the public whom he served with his lecturing. He was also completely free to direct his ‘leisure’ as he saw fit, and he worked at producing new ideas, books, and papers, in that ‘leisure’ time when he was not actually lecturing. He also had no one looking over his shoulder, because that wouldn’t have made sense.

    Now let’s look again at Smith, but let’s bring him into today’s Irish/British/UK university. For a start, those books are out the window. It took Smith from 1751 to 1759 to write the Theory of Moral Sentiments, probably his finest book. I’m loathe to compare myself to Adam Smith, but if any young academic like myself asked his/her HOD for 8 years grace to produce a book, I’m fairly sure what the answer would be. Why is that? Because that means 1 line on a faculty report in 8 years. The book may or may not be of long-term significance (if I’m writing the book, it’ll most likely fall into the latter category), you just can’t tell before writing it and sending it out. If Smith knows the rules in 2010, he’d be mad to try and produce the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yet, under a different set of rules, that’s exactly what he did. Smith went onto develop the first modern approach to economics, though this time under a sinecure.

    Ferdinand is right to point out that when taxpayers are footing the bill, they need and deserve accountability. No one has a problem with that. The issue comes when what matters is only what’s measured: if crass managerialism without any of the subtlety Kevin Denny (or is it Kenny?) talked about in a previous thread when assessing funding requests gets shot through the system, things get rather complicated. Balance is key here, but different incentives will change behaviour, and, as I think I’ve said in another thread, we won’t even know what we’ve lost. Smith doesn’t write his masterwork. Turing doesn’t write his famous paper.

    One simple, constructive way around this is to forgo bibliometrics in favour of simply sitting and reading someone’s work and deciding whether that is worth a job or funding, or not. No work, notice, no job. Smith didn’t get his chair in moral philosophy by being a nice guy. He produced, and someone read his work, and offered him a chair for it. For that you need an expert, or a few of them, and you’d need to place a certain amount of trust in that expert to do their job with a certain level of probity. It’s that trust that one doesn’t need to have in a more managerial system, that perhaps we need to think about looking for.


    • Stephen, I do agree that this is the heart of the problem – whether the modern academic environment can accommodate the Adam, Smiths. When I was a head, if someone came to me and sad they had a magnum opus on the go and would need four (or whatever) years, I always let them do it on condition that they also wrote at least one short article per year. This should never be too much ofd a problem, you can usually get something from the book material cast-offs.

  8. Jimmy Magee Says:

    Good letters in today’s Irish Times on this subject. The debate is hotting up!

  9. belfield Says:

    Very interesting comment from Stephen Kinsella, and an equally interesting response from our host.
    Two thought came to me after reading the exchange. First, a kind of horror that Stephen may be right – that in time those who work in higher ed may indeed not realise what’s been lost. Though I can’t help thinking he seems a bit too unconcerned about this… but perhaps that’s just me mapping my prejudices onto his realities. And second, I’d be less worried about the Adam Smiths of the modern higher education world than about the ‘Jo Smiths’; those of us who will most probably never write a work of staggering genius, but who do our best – increasingly in the teeth of the disparagements & discouragements of a poisoned system that is obsessed with having us publish (in high impact journals) our every though – to live up to the challenge of doing the real work of a university… teaching.


  10. @belfield,

    I’m really concerned about it-taking time out of a busy day to write, comment, speak, and engage on the issue when it is of no direct benefit to me (and may turn out to be costly) is a sure sign I care a lot about this issue. The great thing about this blog (as opposed to my own, or Irish Economy) is that the person moderating the debate is the person who makes these strategic decisions–a university president. That’s a great thing, and fair play to Ferdinand for hosting such a discussion.

    Regarding teaching being the main mission of a university, I disagree. I honestly think that the better a researcher you are, the better a teacher you’ll be. There are some exceptions of course, but the notion of a pointy-headed nerd who can’t speak to others but who is a brilliant researcher is a myth (outside of a mathematics department, where it is nearly always true :))

    I got into university life to do research, and that research informs my teaching at all times. For example, I teach International Monetary Economics using the latest books and journal articles rather than the standard textbook, because I’m really into that area at the moment. I spend a lot of my time thinking about teaching, and I really enjoy it, as you can see from my blog, but I don’t think the ‘real’ work of a university is teaching. The real thing we do, at root, is get paid to have ideas, to read, and think, and write those ideas down, and tell people about them. The best example I can think of is someone like Morgan Kelly, a distinguished academic who used his ability to help prick the property bubble. There’s a lot of hidden value in universities that might be lost, and that really concerns me.

    A great book you might think about picking up is ‘Enemies of Promise’ by Lindsay Waters. Ernie Ball, a commenter here, recommended it to me, I read it last night. It’s a very thought-provoking polemic. http://www.amazon.com/Enemies-Promise-Publishing-Perishing-Scholarship/dp/0972819657


    • ‘… person moderating the debate is the person who makes these strategic decisions–a university president. That’s a great thing, and fair play to Ferdinand for hosting such a discussion.’

      I’m happy to do that – but time is catching up on me, and from July 14th I shall no longer be President of DCU, and indeed will absolutely be a has-been… I’ll still be continuing this, however.


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