The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.

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3 Comments on “The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    This whole argument is about more than accountability, it’s also about striking a balance between the needs/aims of the education system of a country and the needs/aims of the individual institutions. If universities are completely autonomous, the ‘system’ may become bloated and inefficient and may even suffer from serious quality issues. (The Institute of Technology sector, in particular, has serious issues with attracting students of sufficient calibre yet it continues to expand its course portfolio while seeking TU status.)

    You could argue that the Irish system, with over 800 honours degree programmes in the CAO system (a consequence of autonomy), is sub-optimal to say the least. It is clear that new programmes are being developed all the time, programmes that might be good for the institution, but when viewed from the perspective of the ‘system, are actually quite wasteful.

  2. Vince Says:

    If by your pay and pensions you place yourself in the power of administrative civil servants you cannot be all that shocked if they administer by making you but a function of their decisions.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s in no one interest that you get any cash from the exchequer without you sending in an invoice before hand. I truly think it’s profoundly dangerous for like during the late insanity, the squeals of economic necessity from employers no longer in existence doomed thousands to the dole or the emigrant plane. If each university had to model the economic projection for each and any course their decisions would be different.
    As to your responsibility to wider society. You are in it, ergo, you are of it. Anything you do is a good. It isn’t your business to be the answer to social policy, not is it your business to be a mudguard for political incompetence.
    I now fundamentally think you need to negotiate a gigantic fund for your pensions and then place distance between yourselves and the administration of whatever country.


  3. The article raised a very important but less debated area of effectiveness in higher education in the UK as well as a few other developing nations I have and understanding of.

    The term autonomy – has always been emphasized and taken as a course when questions on accountability comes up. I feel that the intentions to balance the autonomy with accountability should be reflected right from the code of practice / terms of reference.

    The priorities of governors, their involvement and time, the appointment procedures and over and above their alliance to specific internal groups etc have all a very significant role to play in the process or reviews and strategic oversight. These factors become more serious when the governors are unpaid volunteers who might be involved in the process on a very few occasions. It is not just the public money requiring an accountability but equally important are the valid expectations of ‘STUDENTS’ as the key stakeholders and the impact of such decisions on their future. This responsibility is beyond the ratings and scales of excellence of higher educational institutions.


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