'Could do better', but please don't sue me for saying so

Fear of litigation has left some scholars unwilling to criticise students' work. David Matthews reports

August 25, 2011

Academics are afraid to give negative student references or put candid remarks on exam scripts because of an overbearing risk-management culture in universities, according to a researcher who has undertaken a two-year study of the issue.

Kim Soin, reader in accounting at the University of Greenwich, said academics needed to engage with the concept of risk management to ensure their concerns were heard, or risk losing "control of what they do and how they do it".

Dr Soin, who conducted the research with Sharon Wheatley, a lecturer at BPP Business School, said that the growth of risk-management systems in universities had made some academics "quite fearful" and risk averse.

The introduction of Freedom of Information and data protection legislation meant students now had greater access to what academics wrote about them, which had led to fears of legal action.

"Because of Freedom of Information, students can see their references. There is a reluctance to write anything bad about the student," Dr Soin said. She added that this fear had spread to discussing contentious issues in class or even putting comments on exam scripts.

Dr Soin said that "risk registers" - which set out and quantify the risks within an organisation - increasingly control how universities are managed.

Yet in interviews conducted at one unnamed university, many academic managers reported finding the concept of risk management "totally alien". "Some were unwilling or unhappy to be interviewed on the topic, saying they knew nothing about it," write Dr Soin and Ms Wheatley in a summary of their research.

"Many brought administrators to the interviews since they were seen as more 'able' to answer questions about risk management."

Dr Soin said the study also found that the risks that most affected academics, such as stress over research assessment, were often dealt with inadequately.

"What our study showed was that academic concerns ... were not reflected in the risk register," she said. "Academics have to engage in this process so that the risk-management system reflects a more comprehensive view of the risks the university faces."

Risk registers also often fail to "capture the tension" between teaching and research, she added.

The study found that it is normally university administrators who take responsibility for the creation of the risk register, despite the fact that formal responsibility lies with heads of school.

Dr Soin said that market reforms to higher education had led to new dangers that should be encompassed by the risk-management system: the risk of not meeting student recruitment targets; financial risks; and competition from private providers such as BPP.

If academics failed to engage, she warned, they "will lose control of what they do and how they do it, particularly with respect to autonomy and creativity - which are central pillars of university life".

She added: "If academics are not motivated to engage in this process, they may quickly become...casualties of 'the risks of risk management'."

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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