Leader: Red tape: A form of distrust

As audit overloads academics, it also undermines their freedoms, impedes their work and damages their public standing

March 4, 2010

It's time for some positive thinking. Redundancy - that's not a huge personal crisis but an opportunity to do what you've always wanted. Funding cuts - these offer universities the possibility of a future less tied to the state and its agenda, in which they are more reliant on their own devices and thus able to sweep away much of the government bureaucracy that is the price of public funding.

The former is tongue-in-cheek (unless you are in management training, when it's called "resilience"), but the latter merits some consideration. Less cash from the Government could mean less pressure from the Government on how institutions spend it, applied in the guise of monitoring the use of public funds. Perhaps Lord Mandelson wasn't being totally disingenuous when he said recently that he was doing higher education a favour by giving an early warning on cuts; although he said he didn't want "to dress up funding mutton as policy lamb", cutting public cash does focus minds.

Academics are vociferous in their condemnation of bureaucracy, especially when it tries to measure the unmeasurable. Obviously, higher education must be accountable to its public paymasters, but if the audit becomes the goal, human nature is such that people will put more effort into the things that can be audited - never mind the quality, feel the paperwork. And even the Quality Assurance Agency does not assure quality; it merely ensures that the correct processes are in place to deliver it.

But banal and mind-numbing though it is, bureaucracy isn't neutral. It is insidious, changing the nature of both teaching and research; it also, of course, has been used to push academics in uncomfortable directions.

A scary new word to emerge in our cover story is "hyper-bureaucracy", which describes "an out-of-control system" that emerges in the search for optimum efficiency and takes no account of the costs in time, energy and money that are needed to achieve it. It is a bureaucratic nightmare in which there is no end to the extra information that can be acquired. The monitoring of contact hours and how academics spend their time are examples of the type of bureaucracy that "eats up people and resources", according to Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick.

Under such a system, autonomy is seen as under particular threat, posing a significant problem for the future. Many people have joined the profession not for the salary but rather for the liberty of being allowed to decide for themselves how to research or teach. If bureaucracy removes that freedom, a career in the academy could lose its unique selling point.

For some, however, red tape has done much more damage than just tying scholars up in knots - it has strangled the values that underpin the academy by undermining academics and questioning the value of what they do.

Working for the public sector was once considered important, almost noble, a dedication to a greater good, Professor Oswald points out. Today it is viewed with suspicion, and it is the public sector and its workers that are faced with cuts that are "the regrettable cost to the UK of saving the banking sector and getting the country through the recession", in the words of Lord Mandelson. "It is as though those who go into the City and make millions are working for the greater good," Professor Oswald says. "The reversal is a foolish one and a shame for our country."

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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