Posted tagged ‘accountability’

Accountability, compliance and bureaucratisation in higher education

April 22, 2013

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.

University managerialism: another narrative

October 21, 2011

One of the most common critiques these days of university life as presented by academics is that of ‘managerialism’. As far back as 2001 an article in Times Higher Education described it as follows:

‘”New managerialism” usually refers to practices commonplace in the private sector, particularly the imposition of a powerful management body that overrides professional skills and knowledge. It keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency, external accountability and monitoring, and an emphasis on standards.’

A frequent complaint amongst academics is that a new managerial class has taken control of the levers of decision-making in universities and is introducing private sector methods that disregard academic traditions and collegiality and which prioritise financial outturns over intellectual excellence and integrity. In addition this class of managers is said too have bureaucratised academic life, while avoiding accountability for these actions.

There can be little doubt that universities are today more bureaucratic places than they once were, and that a process of ‘management’ has emerged that would have seemed alien not so long ago. Rosemary Deem, who first produced an academic analysis of the phenomenon, wrote in 1998:

‘Until quite recently, the notion that the activities and cultures of universities either required managing or were, in any meaningful sense, ‘managed’, would have been regarded as heretical. Universities were perceived as communities of scholars researching and teaching together in collegial ways; those running universities were regarded as academic leaders rather than as managers or chief executives. However, as the higher education sector in the United Kingdom has grown in extent, it is also increasingly being required to justify the expenditure of public funds and to demonstrate ‘value for money’. Those who run universities are expected to ensure that such value is provided and their role as academic leaders is being subsumed by a greater concern with the overt management of sites, finance, staff, students, teaching and research.’

While the charge of managerialism may have some truth in it, the suggestion (if it were made) that this is the doing of a new managerial class intent on subverting the original academic mission is not really fair. Management systems in universities are not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a much wider movement that has included quality assurance systems, research assessment and greater financial accountability of universities. Some of these developments were entirely desirable, or at least can be justified easily enough. The problem is that they have taken what was or should have been the academic mission of finding and disseminating knowledge – i.e. content – and downgraded it, now taking second place to process. It is all to do with the desire to inject more accountability into higher education, a move made difficult by the fact that what higher education does intellectually is not easily measured. So other things were found that were capable of measurement, and in this way the system bureaucratised. And then of course the bureaucracy had to be managed.

Resolving all this is not at all easy. It is not possible, realistically, to roll back the last decade or two, and to be fair it probably isn’t desirable either. Universities back then were on the whole educators of the elite, with little inclination to justify what they were doing to anyone else. That’s no longer acceptable in today’s society. But rather than come up with ways of explaining and accounting for its actions and practices, the academy let external stakeholders lay down the rules, and this turned into what we have now got.

Not all of it is bad. Universities are much more cost effective than they used to be, have more professional support services, provide more serious back-up for students, manage their facilities more efficiently, engage more purposefully with the community. Where it is not so good is in the bureaucratisation of scholarship, and the inadequacy of inclusive decision-making. This is what we now need to get right. So to those academics who seem intent on suggesting that it’s all the fault of a managerial class, I would argue that the time is right to work with university leaderships to see how the academy can make its case effectively to a general public that wants more accountability, while preserving the best of the academic tradition. It shouldn’t be beyond us to achieve this.

The search for accountability in higher education

February 10, 2011

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.

In search of political accountability

October 11, 2010

The first political election campaign that I observed and can remember took place in Germany in 1969. It came at an interesting time, politically. In 1966 the then governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats (Liberals) had fallen apart due to disagreement about budget cuts, at a time when West Germany had experienced its first major recession. In order to avoid an election, the Christian Democrats entered into a coalition with the Social Democrats, creating the so-called ‘Große Koalition‘ (‘grand coalition’). This lasted quite successfully up to the next scheduled elections in 1969. During the election campaign, the opposition Free Democrats produced a number of election broadcasts in which the main criticism of coalition ministers was that they hadn’t resigned when some mistake or other had happened under their watch. ‘Was macht die Große Koalition?’ they asked (‘what does the grand coalition do?’). And they answered: ‘Einfach weiterregieren’ (‘just continue governing’).

I was 15 years old at the time, and this particular political idea struck me as odd. It suggested that if something in government went wrong, the honourable thing to do would be to resign. The examples the liberals gave were not of ministerial wrong-doing, but really of events: things that went wrong, because in life things do go wrong. This seemed to me to be not about political honour, but almost a form of superstition, that when things go badly we must appease the gods with a sacrifice. I’ve never seen the sense in that.

It’s not that I don’t believe in accountability, and indeed I agree that in Ireland we need to remind ourselves more often about it. But what does that mean?

A fairly typical assessment of accountability in politics was outlined in Saturday’s Irish Times by strategy consultant Eddie Molloy, in which he voices disquiet (and more) at the fact that in the wake of our economic emergency those who presided over the political decision-making in the years running up to it are still in power. I should stress that I have the highest regard for Eddie, whom I know well and whose advice I have used in the past. But I am highly sceptical about at least part of his message here. Perhaps I might quote what for me is the key passage in the article:

‘In the spheres of morality, the legal system, corporate governance and performance management accountability without consequences is meaningless. The Taoiseach clearly appreciates this fundamental principle of any functioning institution since he repeatedly cites the clear-out of irresponsible bankers as evidence of his determination to hold people to account. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan reassures us that we can expect lots more resignations, adding grimly that not only should such people be fired, they should be investigated by the Garda and jailed if they are found guilty of wrongdoing. They are asserting the principle that accountability must carry consequences. We all agree, and Brian Dobson asks the question on everyone’s lips: “What are the consequences for calamitous political failure, the failure of Ministers and senior public servants?”’

At one level Eddie Molloy seems to me to be forgetting, or deliberately overlooking, the key principle of democratic accountability: that judgement is passed by the electorate at the ballot box. Every politician is accountable at that level, without exception, and sentence is often passed ruthlessly. Ask Gordon Brown. But Eddie seems to be suggesting that this doesn’t matter, or isn’t enough. The moment that something goes wrong a politician should be ‘accountable’ in the sense of turning himself in on the spot, or maybe stepping out from Leinster House to be lynched by the mob. It is the rule of instant gratification for the commentariat, and to me at least – even if I am the only one in Ireland to think so – it is bizarre. Governments are elected to govern, not to resign, and every few years the electorate is invited to pass judgement. That’s how it works. It’s a different matter of course if the issue is unlawful or corrupt behaviour – that requires a more urgent response. But political misjudgement is not in that category, not least because it’s not always something that lends itself to instant judgement.

In the meantime, this kind of thinking has infected public discourse, and has had a direct impact on the level of confidence with which we are seen or perceived abroad. Take the health service, for example. Every time some consultant misdiagnoses cancer, or some hospital computer goes wrong, or a hospital trolley is mislaid, someone will pop up on radio or television and demand that the Minister for Health should resign. Really? Why? How would that help anyone? What it would mean is that every Minister will have caution as their watchword, and will spend all their time ensuring that no reform is contemplated, never mind implemented, because attempting it will create problems that will produce at least one disaster somewhere, and before you can say ‘consultants’ salary’ the Minister’s head will be on the block. So far better never to attempt anything. And in any case, the Archangel Gabriel with unlimited powers would be unable to run the health service without constant disasters, because no health service can run successfully until the costs are properly carried through health insurance; that’s the reality.

Honest to God, as a people we need to grow up. We claim to want to be entrepreneurial, and yet we set the dogs on anyone who tries something and fails. Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending the decisions that were taken over the past decade or so, some of them were crazy. But they were part of the spirit of the age, and to some extent most of us were complicit. We had to wake up. It’s a painful business, but absolutely none of it gets any better because we have stuck a knife into people we now dislike because they have shown up how stupid we got as a country.

So, picking up Eddie Molloy’s theme, what are the consequences of political failure? The answer is, we move on. We learn from what went wrong. And if we think we have made an appropriate judgement about the capacity of politicians to deal with this, we can express that at the ballot box at the next election.

Academic autonomy and accountability

May 4, 2010

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.

University accountability – here we go again

March 25, 2009

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, the Minister for Education and Science Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, in addressing the Higher Education authority, declared that universities needed to demonstrate ‘greater value and accountability for money’. He went on to muse that the universities’ institutional autonomy had been beneficial at one level but had also raised concerns about value for money.

No sensible university President will want to argue against accountability and transparency; but in the avalanche of bureaucratic reporting requirements that have flowed over us in recent years I doubt very much that we are lacking in accountability. And as for value for money, we educate students in Ireland to a high quality at half the cost of a similar education in the United Kingdom, and a fraction of the cost in the United States. I cannot help wondering why on earth the Minister keeps raising this doubt, without ever spelling out on what basis he feels it. I suspect there isn’t a university sector in the developed world that produces better value for money; comments of this kind merely fuel prejudices about higher education, and this is not helpful at all as we make huge efforts to help this country escape from the recession. Every review of universities and university finances commissioned by anyone, including the government, over recent years has told the same story: that Irish universities achieve much on inadequate resources.

I believe that universities are eager to work with the government to enhance the quality of education and stimulate innovation and discovery which will help fuel indigenous enterprise and foreign investment. I also accept we need to be open, co-operative and transparent, and of course accountable. But people really should stop constantly querying the universities’ credentials in relation to value for money, unless that is there are specific issues that are raised and that need to be addressed.