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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5 Comments on “The search for accountability in higher education”

  1. jfryar Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. But, since it’s early, I thought I’d share an anecdote in the hope of making people smile.

    A number of years ago, a colleague of mine ended up conducting very fundamental research for a rather prestigious European physics institution. They had just introduced a staff ‘appraisals’ form that was also being used by the organisation to generate statistics for PR purposes.

    One of the questions on the form, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, was ‘How does your research contribute to society and the economic needs of the country?’.

    After struggling for a few days with how best to answer that question, my colleague decided to answer with the following: ‘I conduct basic research. The economic or social impact is largely unknown. However, by doing this I earn a salary on which I’m taxed. That salary allows me to buy goods and services, as well as feed a family of four’.

    He produced the same answer for five years without it ever being commented on!

  2. Eugene Gath Says:

    Spot on. In many cases when bureaucrats mention accountability at third level, read “control” -as you alude to in your last sentence.

  3. Al Says:

    It seems to be the nature of Irish bureaucracy that it keeps digging.
    I wonder if it all is code for seeking a return to its investment in terms of failing students, with pressure on pass them or intervene in the lives of failing students.
    Consistency would dictate that students be equally accountable…

  4. PG Says:

    Check out this link, for example, and see if the salaries are justifiable, in this day and age

    Should such salaries be underpinned by taxing the parents of college students?

    Should a College have to account for such salaries? I think they should, Some of them are extraordinary and difficult to comprehend.

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