Institutions wither in the quality straitjacket

November 24, 2000

An obsession with auditing is preventing British universities from competing with the US, argues Frank Furedi.

John Kay's warning this week about the vanishing world-class British university is timely. Until recently, leading British universities were indeed among the best in the world, but sadly they risk becoming an endangered species. Soon top American universities will be in a league of their own, with the gap between the two systems likely to widen to the advantage of the Americans.

Kay criticises the unimaginative and bureaucratic management style of Oxford University (see feature opposite). No doubt his frustration with the unfocused and unresponsive committee structures, the endless cycle of interminable and inconclusive discussions and indecisive management styles will strike a note of sympathy with many academics. A profound sense of organisational stasis appears to affect all levels of British academic enterprise.

But I doubt if Oxford's allegedly outdated traditions and byzantine bureaucracy are responsible for the depressing climate that prevails throughout the higher education sector.

In any case, the Oxford of today bears little resemblance to how it functioned in the old days. Since 1996, Oxford has made some effort to reconfigure its structures. Perhaps this is part of the problem. For, contrary to Kay's thesis, Oxford, along with the entire university sector, is more than happy to adopt new organisational measures.

Rather than resisting such measures, the university sector has become addicted to the quick-fix of organisational solutions. Indeed, the managerial ethos that dominates higher education has become so preoccupied with organisational reform that it is in danger of losing sight of what universities should be about.

There are good reasons why Oxford and other prestigious institutions have fallen behind their American competitors. Unacceptable levels of funding have led to a systematic decline in academics' pay and, more importantly, in their conditions of work. Consequently, many institutions find it difficult to attract and retain world-class academics.

But low pay rates and inadequate investment in higher education account for only a small part of the problem. In the past, numerous top academics, including Americans, were prepared to accept a relatively low living standard in order to work in British universities. Today, they are likely to think twice before opting for downward social mobility. Why? Because the very character of the university system has been called into question by successive governments that regard higher education as a laboratory for bureaucratic experimentation.

During the past decade, governments have insisted on subjecting universities to a centralised system of auditing that cannot tolerate diversity. It seems that every university has to adopt bureaucratic practices that can be audited according to a common set of criteria. The imperative of homogenisation inevitably erodes the distinct qualities of individual institutions. The byzantine bureaucratic practices of 19th-century Oxbridge appear positively robust and flexible when compared with the mind-numbing procedures introduced in response to pressures from the Quality Assurance Agency and other auditing initiatives.

The first casualty of this "audit culture" is institutional flexibility. Universities can compete in the global market only if they have the freedom to play to their strengths. Subject to years of centralised bureaucratic pressure, British institutions lack the flexibility and the spirit of enterprise necessary for transforming themselves into global players.

The auditing ethos also influences the intellectual climate in universities. Research is regulated and grant-chasing deprives academics of time to experiment with ideas. When academics try to please funding bodies and the quantitatively oriented research assessment exercises, the outcome is often banal and poor research. Bureaucratic pressure has forced many academics to abandon or modify their research interests. These pressures have already stifled creativity in the lower end of the university hierarchy and are inexorably working their way up the higher education ladder.

In contrast, top American universities are in the enviable position of providing academics with an environment that is hospitable to intellectual experimentation. That is why they are likely to continue to retain their edge. It is not Oxford's "old-fashioned" governance, but the new-fashioned centralised system of institutional rigidity that threatens to compromise excellence in British higher education.

Frank Furedi is reader in sociology at Darwin College, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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