The search for accountability in higher education
The report on Ireland’s National Strategy for Higher Education ( the ‘Hunt report’), in one of its key statements, argues that the key to an excellent system of higher education is the alignment of ‘performance, autonomy and accountability.’ In fact, the report makes 36 references to accountability, and indeed at the heart of its recommendations is what it calls an ‘accountability framework’. This would see institutions being ‘accountable’ for meeting targets that have been set for them; there would be a flow of accountability from the institutions to the Higher Education Authority, and from the HEA to the Minister for Education and Skills. Inside each university, staff would be accountable to institutional leaders. And all will be ‘fully accountable for the quality and efficiency of outcomes.’
The key passage of the Hunt report is the following.
‘There is a balance between autonomy and accountability. At the heart of this strategy is the recognition that a diverse range of strong, autonomous institutions is essential if the overall system is to respond effectively to evolving and unpredictable societal needs. Funding and operational autonomy must, however, be matched by a corresponding level of accountability for performance against clearly articulated expectations. This requires well-developed structures to enable national priorities to be identified and communicated, as well as strong mechanisms for ongoing review and evaluation of performance at system and institutional levels.The latter requires the introduction of a strategic dialogue between institutions and the State.’
If you think that this kind of talk is peculiar to Ireland, think again. Earlier this week the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, in his State of the State address emphasised the need for higher education to become more accountable – the only part of the state’s agenda to which the need for accountability applied, apparently. What exactly is meant by accountability is not always clear, but in the Irish case it seems to mean the obligation of universities to apply government policies and priorities.
Arguing against accountability has about the same social standing these days as encouraging organised crime, but before we all get completely carried away by the modern accountability rhetoric it is important to be much more precise about what it means. Of course universities need to account for the money they have received from the taxpayer, and they need to be able to demonstrate the fairness and appropriateness of what they do to students and in the wider community. And they need to communicate this effectively.
But true accountability is being transparent and operating openly and in a responsive manner. When the state or its agencies call for accountability, it generally means that some bizarre restrictive practice is about to be forced on the system, with a highly bureaucratic method of monitoring and enforcement.
We live in an age in which accountability is seen as the cornerstone of public service. Universities will not be able to evade this. But they must be more successful at persuading the public that accountability is not necessarily enhanced by new and higher levels of bureaucracy. In the end, national success is secured more effectively by liberating the universities, and not at all by controlling them.
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