Accounting for the lost communities of scholars

Calling Academia to Account
April 21, 2000

Over the past decade, much has been said and written about accountability in higher education. Its achievement has been a constant aim of successive mechanisms for quality assurance in the United Kingdom, and was a central theme of the Dearing report. Typically, discussion of the subject has revolved around the question of how higher education could best be made more fully accountable to the wider society - "upwards" accountability.

In this book, Gillian Evans draws our attention to another - perhaps equally important - aspect: the need for the "downwards" accountability of academic authorities to rank-and-file academics and students. In the author's view the problem is serious, and becoming worse, because the traditional model of universities as communities of self-regulating scholars is being undermined by the impinging of external forces, the rise of academic managerialism and the related tendency to cover up administrative blunders.

Politicians' demands for value for money, for example, or Dearing's proposals on academic standards are presented as potential, if not actual, threats to the central purpose of the university because they involve "the academic interest being subordinate to something else". The rise of management in higher education, Evans contends, necessarily involves the subordination of the "community of scholarship". She acknowledges that management can also be portrayed as the community's custodian - but does not explore this possibility.

Evans's detailed consideration of legal cases concerning academic autonomy and her analysis of underlying legal principles enable one to relate them to wider questions of accountability and fairness. The discussion is made more vivid by references to the author's work for the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards and her attempts to reform promotions procedures in the University of Cambridge.

Nonetheless, her analysis of current developments is undermined, in my view, by her account of the past state of UK universities. When, if ever, were universities self-regulating communities of scholars unconstrained by external forces? It could be argued that the medieval university was quintessentially vocational in that it prepared its students for the church, law or medicine. If academic institutions are to preserve their most valuable characteristics, academics must seek to understand their own history, not imagine a lost Eden. Universities have typically grown and evolved by finding ways of managing creatively the tensions between their values and aspirations and the external forces bearing upon them. In so doing, they have succeeded in extending the range of subjects they offer, attracted new kinds of students and become major centres of research. It is not the case that UK universities were established simply as self-directing scholarly communities. The foundation of Oxbridge colleges was commonly stimulated by religious ends; what became University College London was set up to provide secular education; and the major civic universities were generally established to provide, in some part, social and economic benefits. Once it is accepted that the self-regulating scholarship of a university may be developed within the context of a variety of purposes, it becomes clear that various forms of management may be needed to pursue these purposes. A scholar may not, for example, be the best person to advance a university's social mission; someone with specific knowledge and expertise, even if not a scholar, may be.

In the latter part of the book, attention is given to what should be done to improve "downwards" accountability in academic institutions. The author's approach is to recommend greater explicitness. Drawing on what she sees as a tendency for the law to give increased weight to accountability, she advocates greater procedural transparency and the more general provision of reasoned explanation for decisions taken, especially when these may have great impact on the lives of academics and students.

Her case for greater explicitness is overwhelming and consistent with the move towards a more open, less deferential society. Interestingly, remarkably similar arguments are advanced for the development of such forms of "upwards" accountability as external quality assurance or politicians' demands for value for money - developments of which Evans seems deeply sceptical. One might be inclined to wonder whether "upwards" and "downwards" accountability are simply two aspects of the same process.

Peter W. G. Wright is assistant director, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Calling Academia to Account: Rights and Responsibilities

Author - G. R. Evans
ISBN - 0 335 20195 4 and 20194 6
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £60.00 and £22.50
Pages - 242

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