Millions go down drain in audit fiasco

August 4, 2000

Universities are overburdened with red tape that wastes millions of pounds and creates immense stress among staff, a funding council report reveals.

The report, to be published this month for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will confirm academics' suspicions that many time-consuming and stressful administrative demands made on them could and should be avoided. It says bureaucracy costs the sector Pounds 250 million a year, as The THES revealed last month, and poses fundamental questions about external scrutiny.

The report accepts the need for accountability, but criticises the duplication, confusion and conflicting demands of overlapping systems, and advocates a less interventionist regime. The report is expected to call for a radical new "investor partner" relationship between Hefce and the institutions, with demands from other bodies channelled through Hefce.

The funding council commissioned the report from PA Consulting for the transparency review it is carrying out at the behest of the Treasury. PA is attempting to put a price on accountability for the first time. Institutions involved in a pilot study said that a single subject review by the Quality Assurance Agency can cost anything between Pounds 40,000 and Pounds 200,000. A QAA audit can cost from Pounds 80,000 to Pounds 100,000, the report is expected to say.

"We are facing more intrusive demands in more detail, from more external bodies," said Geoff Hitchins, deputy vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, one of the pilot institutions. "It costs a lot of money - the sums are astronomical across the sector."

Leeds Met put the cost of a QAA subject review at up to Pounds 200,000. Dr Hitchins said that from Pounds 75,000 to Pounds 80,000 was more common, but institutions can face several reviews a year. "And it is not just the QAA," he said. He highlighted the increased use of competitive bidding for ever smaller sums of money: "This cannot be value for money," he said.

The report has sparked controversy even before it is published. The QAA, pre-empting expected criticism of its demands on resources, has already cast doubt on the validity of the quoted figures. It dismissed some figures as "guesstimates", and said that the institutions may be to blame for the excessive costs.

It pointed out that the figures for subject review were based on "staff time estimates by two universities".

"Staff time estimates are based on time spent on an exercise, which in some cases may be more than was needed to meet the requirements of the agency," said a QAA spokesman. "The work will often include time spent on activities undertaken for the institution's own purposes anyway. The report did not have direct experience of continuation audit to draw upon, thus its figures in respect of audit are guesstimates."

Central to the controversy is how much of the Pounds 250 million in red tape costs could be avoided. The figure includes the cost of the QAA, the collection of financial information for Hefce, the collection of student statistics for the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the growing demands for data from research councils, the Teacher Training Agency, Europe, the National Health Service and external stakeholders.

"Most of these data would need to be collected anyway for university purposes," said a vice-chancellor who has seen the report. "The important issue is to try to reduce the overlap, confusion and conflicting demands for data, since it is here that economies of effort and cost could be made."

Dr Hitchins said the government was partly to blame because it had increasingly attached strings to small sums of money, with its "something for something culture. But there are signs that Hefce is recognising this," he said.

The report is also understood to discuss the unquantifiable "behavioural costs" of accountability, which includes stress felt by staff before QAA visits, and advocates further research into this.

Roger Brown, former chief executive of the now defunct Higher Education Quality Council, and principal of Southampton Institute, would not comment directly on the report, but said it raised fundamental and timely questions. His research into the new quality assurance regime predicts that the bureaucratic burdens may not decrease, despite QAA promises of a "lighter touch".

Hefce declined to comment on the report until it is published.

Letters, page 15

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