Accountability, compliance and bureaucratisation in higher education

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.

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15 Comments on “Accountability, compliance and bureaucratisation in higher education”

  1. MunchkinMan Says:

    Academic staff in the best (and the not so good) universities do all they can to protect the notion of ‘academic freedom’ and will put structures in place to ensure this notion and their pre-eminence. It is reasonable therefore that this notion is placed under scrutiny and is subject to accountability. Academics have the knowldge and learning to teach their students in all the major professions which are themselves accountable to society, but these same academic institutions baulk at the very same demand for their own accountability.
    Universities are not just places of study and research where academics can roll around doing what they please to students who may have little or no influence over their (sometimes) overbearing behaviour. Universities are workplaces to lots of staff members who are not academics. These persons are entitled to a regulated and safe place of work and as such these places must be accountable to regulations and legislation that demands accountability from those who run the university.

  2. matthiasfeist Says:

    Reblogged this on What I've learnt recently….

  3. foleyg Says:

    Enjoyed that one! I agree and disagree. Delighted to hear you are as scathing of Learning Outcomes as me. Not only is the administration associated with these a waste of time (students don’t read them!), but for me, the very concept is at odds with the true philosophy of third level education. Learning outcomes narrow the student’s vision to one of jumping through hoops.

    I disagree about innovation. I think innovation has actually become an end in itself and is actively encouraged, at least in DCU. Indeed, in the application form for promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer, there is a section on ‘T&L innovation’ and another (separate) one on ‘T&L quality’. I would have thought that innovation is only relevant if it enhances quality. (Although, I suppose it does suggest a certain work ethic.) I think there is a real problem with academics trying to be seen to be innovating, leading to a lot of pseudo-scientific education research in particular. (“The method was well received by the students” as a conclusion!)

    As a ‘footsoldier’ lecturer, I actually don’t see that much bureaucracy – maybe that’s to DCU’s credit. I’m basically left to my own devices and trusted to do my job – and I do. But I do think that the accountability issue needs to be addressed if only out of a sense of fairness to the hardest workers. The easiest way to do this is to have people in management (e.g. Heads of School) who can actually manage! I’m in DCU for yonks and I can’t remember a single person I have come across who I would reckon to be a good manager of people. Well, maybe one and he gave up the job after six months because …………he just didn’t feel like doing it!

  4. Eddie Says:

    While bloggers and academics are busily discussing higher education-meaning university level education, a kind of navel-gazing exercise in futility, a news item in a recent edition of Der Spiegel ( has this title:
    “Help Wanted: Will Dearth of Experts Starve German Economy?
    Reading through this, one notices this: “”By 2025, we will need roughly 1.5 million experts from abroad,” the new president of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Eric Schweitzer, insisted in an interview with the mass-circulation Bild newspaper in early April. “That means roughly 10,000 every month.”
    These experts are not those with a Masters or PhD degrees, but more like technicians. Already they are recruiting large numbers from Spain, and still they want more , thousands more. Well, whilst arguments are raging in blogs like this about higher education and related nuances ,thousands of graduates are queuing up in job centres looking for any jobs.

    • Al Says:

      Well said!

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      While bloggers and critics of bloggers are commenting on this thread, the Germans (Bayern Munich) are thrashing the Spanish (Barca) 4 – nil! Win – Win for Germany, I’d say…

    • foleyg Says:

      Eddie, That’s perhaps a bit unfair. Bloggers and academcis do indeed discuss higher education but all professions do likewise – plus the way the education system functions is an important topic.
      I agree totally with you about the need to create huge numbers of jobs and the role that education has to play (or not) in the process. Many of us in third level talk constantly of the disconnect between the rhetoric of that abomination of a concept, the ‘knowledge economy’ and the fact that two hundred thousand (or whatever) construction jobs have gone. (Shameless plug: read my blog at
      What we have in Ireland is an obsession with third level education – honours degrees in particular – because everybody has bought into the idea that to surviuve in ta 21st century. Groupthink has set in big time. We really need a social and cultural shift and the education system is only part of that..

      • foleyg Says:

        Oops, wrote that in a hurry. Apologies for incoherence!

      • Eddie Says:

        Bloggers and academics often do not want to see the real world. It is not Ireland alone there is obsession with with third level education, British universities and particularly their senior management (for their own survival of course) have been hyping up the importance of university education when thousands of graduates are already without jobs. The German example is just one example.

        • Anna Notaro Says:

          Bashing university education is completely unjustified in light of this report
          the need is for a better use of qualifications and effective links with the world of business.
          As for the general issues of accountability and burocratization raised by the post, what really concerns me is the concept of ‘(corporate) compliance’ , this is not a concept that reflects the sort of academia I’m passionate about. I can shout stop to the ‘onward march of burocratization’ but I fear that my voice cannot reach the ‘Alto’ range in the chorus, this is for the leading voices to achieve

          • Eddie Says:

            BBC? That says a lot. Only academics want to preserve the HE as it is- perhaps a self-serving attitude, as they cannot get jobs elsewhere in the real wold.

        • MunchkinMan Says:

          Eddie, being a blogger yourself, how does the world appear to you, then? By deduction, your following comment above is not an accurate appraisal of the real world…or is it?

          • Eddie Says:

            I am not living plastic bubble, like academics, and hence the real world for me is full of realism- no job security, no raise in salary etc..
            The large army of graduate unemployed shows what is wrong in every one going to universities, and at the same time countries like Germany and even the UK wanting immigrants with skills that create wealth ( I posted the link above), and not more hot air. Well, when the unemployed numbers start swelling more and more, the folly of every one going to university will hit hard.

  5. Jacco Says:

    Hear, hear!

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