Forget the form-filling, just listen and learn

June 22, 2007

An ethical audit could restore humanity to the sector, Jon Nixon says in our series on new ideas for higher education

As an exercise in public accountability, the audit culture represents a monumental cock-up. The public, in the main, does not understand what is going on, and people are becoming increasingly sceptical about the value of higher education. Academics are divided, alienated and gearing up for yet another dispute over pay and conditions of service. Vice-chancellors, with a few exceptions, continue to grant themselves inflated pay rises while preparing for ennoblement, retirement or both. Far from building public trust and ensuring institutional effectiveness, the audit culture has bred public mistrust and fostered institutional risk aversion.

Academic practitioners routinely grumble about this sad state of affairs, but without the complicity of academics, the audit culture would be unsustainable. The mechanisms of peer review and peer inspection are central to the auditing process. Academics collude in the institutional differentiation and stratification that they routinely deride. This constitutes a scandalous mismanagement of learning and dereliction of professional duty across the higher education sector.

The University and College Union has shown little interest in developing any collective resistance to, or analysis of, that culture’s effects on institutional morale and individual career trajectories. Professional associations are embedded within it — through, for example, the nomination of individuals to research assessment exercise subject panels and the establishment of their own surveillance regimes. Publishing houses and academic journal outlets are central to it, given the significance of publications in career advancement. As an exercise in hegemonic control, the audit culture is exemplary.

If academics must contribute to the mechanisms of audit, it should be by means of an ethically grounded audit based on the centrality of learning and the assertion of academic values. Such a contribution would remind universities that their prime responsibility is to listen and be receptive, to understand and evaluate, to stop and think, to question and, when necessary, challenge. Its key purpose would be to rebuild public trust and relocate the university within the public domain.
Many of the practices, systems and structures within which academics operate are manifestly not concerned with the advancement of student learning or of professional education. Take, for example, the now almost unquestioned assumption that teaching quality can be adequately defined in terms of meeting pre-specified learning targets. Anyone who has ever reflected on their own learning knows that the most important, significant and life-enhancing outcomes invariably come out of the blue. It is by definition unpredictable — we cannot know in advance what it is we do not know.

Or take the assumption that the professional standing of academics can be judged on the basis of four academic publications produced over a five-year period. This has led to an embarrassing proliferation of ill-prepared publications and a recurring frenzy of staff transfers from one institution to another. Long-term planning at departmental, faculty, institutional and sector-wide levels has thereby been reduced to a lottery. The effect on institutions, in terms of continuity and progression, is sometimes devastating. As an attempt to promote long-term strategic planning within institutions and across the sector, the RAE is a long-running farce.

Learning may be unpredictable in its processes and outcomes, but it is deeply purposeful with regard to the learner’s sense of identity. Purposeful learners have a sense, however hazy, of the good life and of the moral ends and purposes associated with such a life. As such, we may be vague regarding what our next move is, but invariably have a sense of the endgame: what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to lead? What kinds of relationships do I want to form? What kinds of affiliations do I wish to foster? It would be difficult, if not impossible, to go on learning and not to be exercised by these kinds of questions.

So, an ethical audit would also seek to listen to the stories that the learners tell themselves about the kinds of people they want to be and the sort of world they want to inhabit and hand on to future generations.

Academics would be judged by their attentiveness to these stories and their respect for the authenticity and honesty of the tellers — their students, their colleagues and the wider public. Universities would be expected to be places within which such stories are narrated, contested and defended.

They might even be places where people enjoy learning and develop a love of learning. An ethical audit would recognise the subversive hedonism of learning. It would remind us that places of learning are necessarily places of pleasure. It would reassert the utter wrong-headedness of Gradgrind and his modern-day counterparts. It would charge academics with responsibility for ensuring that the student experience places learning at the centre, presents learning as unpredictable, surprising and risky, and conveys a sense of the sheer joy of learning.

Jon Nixon is professor of educational studies at Sheffield University and professor designate of professional education at Liverpool Hope University.

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