Publish and be praised

March 21, 1997

Universities should be more open and accountable, say researchers on two separate projects

It is virtually impossible to glean even the faintest understanding of British universities' contributions and progress in such vital matters as teaching, research, efficiency and effectiveness from their annual reports because they are of such poor quality.

We monitored annual reports by British universities from 1988 to 1995 and found they failed to provide meaningful information which would allow interested observers to understand how successful these universities have been in achieving their objectives.

Universities worldwide have come under increased public scrutiny in the past decade as governments have wrestled with the financial dilemma of maintaining quality while expanding access and improving the education of new generations entering the workforce. In the United States and Canada, Maclean's magazine began an annual survey of universities in 1991 which ranks university operations and activities. By summarising the results of questionnaires sent to administrators, and going on campus to talk to students, faculty and managers, and off campus to alumni and employers of graduates, Maclean's has given the public an unprecedented view of life in the ivory towers.

We think British universities should similarly raise their profile by voluntarily publishing comprehensive and timely annual reports which are widely available. With public accountability becoming increasingly important, this would provide a visible testament of universities' commitment to openness in their management of scarce public resources, and assist an often sceptical public in gaining a more accurate understanding of their activities and contribution.

As a minimum the financial statements of universities should be accompanied by appropriate budget items for the current year, and expenditures and revenues broken down by school of study across the campus. The bases of allocating overhead costs, which can amount to 30 per cent of overall campus operating expenditures, should be fully explained and disclosed. By voluntarily disclosing high-quality, timely information on a routine basis, the universities would disarm many critics who claim that they are insufficiently accountable.

The universities should also publish appropriate information about their performance, and emphasise that teaching and research are their main activities. Unfortunately, the annual reports provide negligible information on these counts. How has the quality and quantity of teaching and research services changed on British campuses over the past five years? How have costs per unit of teaching and research changed? Have they increased, decreased or remained unchanged? Annual operating costs continue to rise and it is therefore essential that university managers and policy-makers constantly monitor outputs generated in relation to the cost of inputs, as well as review programmes and resource allocations in the light of these changes.

Measuring and reporting university performance require new types of information to be collected, analysed and reported. There are no perfect measures of either teaching or research performance but there are many useful indicators that would help both university managers and stakeholders, both on and off campus, to obtain a grasp of how well the institutions are doing.

For example, in the case of teaching, statistics about the number of enrolments, equivalent full-time students and graduates broken down by level and field of study showing trends for the past five years would provide a useful overview of teaching activity on each campus. Some indication of changes in the quality of teaching might be gained from information about student:staff ratios, summary results of student evaluations of teaching, external departmental reviews and the proportions of qualified academic faculty, all categorised by field of study and showing five-year trends.

Similarly, there are many useful indicators that could assist public understanding of progress in research activities. Examples are the number of research publications categorised into the main types, the external research funding obtained, the number of research students and graduates, and the destination of research graduates. Such information, classified by field of study and accompanied by five-year trends, would help the public to understand universities' progress in research activities. Perhaps it is now time for some pro-active accountability.

One potential benefit of developing the quality and type of information contained in annual reports is that administrators might themselves obtain a better understanding of the organisations they manage. Better information would contribute to better decision-making as regards teaching and research.

For example, cross-subsidisation of activities is an essential characteristic of all universities; some activities or departments regularly generate strong cash surpluses while others require financial support. Many uneconomic initiatives, often associated with minority interests, bring richness and diversity to campuses and indeed the nation's cultural life. In our view, it is important that cross-subsidies be monitored, controlled and managed so that their extent is contained within the affordable ability of the university community.

Some British universities are doing better than others on these scores. Although the majority of British universities publishes poor-quality annual reports, there are a few which have improved in the directions we indicate in recent years.

Worthy of note are the recent offerings from the universities of Edinburgh; Abertay, Strathclyde, and Napier in Scotland; and UMIST, Leicester, Ulster and East London.

Morton Nelson, William Banks, Jim Fisher, and David Coy are professors at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.

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