Retreating to the bunker

At first, those chosen for academic audit were startled rabbits, says Frank Burnet; soon they had wised up to minimise the risk of injury

September 18, 2008

I became an academic auditor in 1993, and consequently joined the first band of men and women recruited from both the old and new sectors. Many of the latter had spent long hours keeping the Council for National Academic Awards at bay.

I was painfully aware that I was a stranger to this kind of trench warfare and that my red shoes were screaming "he's a dilettante from some semi-old university who would be a light snack for a hungry bureaucrat".

The other auditors from the old sector were more quietly attired, and seemed to derive considerable confidence from knowing that their employers' royal charters were written on real calfskin. Many appeared, like me, to have been selected because they had shown a potentially career-arresting commitment to teaching.

I can remember little of my first outing as a fully fledged auditor, except that the registrar of the university under scrutiny had an attack of conscience after an exquisitely crafted exposition of the watch-like precision of his institution's administrative processes. He requested a private audience - at which he confessed that he had made it all up and that the real way business was conducted was over an after-hours G&T with the v-c.

I had been worried that I would lack the forensic skills to find where the bodies were buried, but soon realised that finding things to comment upon was going to be no problem. Room for improvement was apparent under nearly every stone I lifted.

Few of those audited were openly hostile; many, in fact, did excellent impressions of rabbits caught in headlights - the exception being medics, who tended to start proceedings with an imperious inquiry about the audit team's medical credentials. This was a rare opportunity for me to introduce myself as a medical biochemist and leave open whether my title had medical or philosophical origins.

However, as the years ticked by I could feel the audited doing what academics have always done brilliantly: taking systems, dissecting them and then working out how to turn them to their advantage.

Many of my fellow auditors were double agents, combining reconnaissance missions in potentially hostile territory with returning to base and ensuring that their own institution knew as much as possible about the rules of engagement and the most effective counter-strategies.

Soon the startled rabbits had been confined to burrows and in their place I was being confronted by well-rehearsed storm troopers prepared for any question and heavily armed with documents to support their case - and potentially with writs if all else failed.

I particularly missed my opportunities to quiz representatives of subject areas who could usually be relied upon to have idiosyncratic views on quality assurance, such as - selecting entirely at random - mathematicians and philosophers. They still came to meetings but were clearly exhausted after weeks of rehearsal under the stern gaze of the registrar.

It wasn't long before the audit process had lost its free spirit of exploration and headed towards becoming a game whose rules had been designed to minimise the risk of injury to all those playing. I was getting bored, but was saved by the introduction of audits of overseas franchises and partnerships.

I was a member of the first team to receive a flag-waving send-off at the quayside. Our destination was Greece, adventures in which had already cost the head of one UK higher education institution his job.

One of the programmes we were going to investigate was a masters in something like psychotherapeutic dynamics. It turned out that the premises of the partner institution was a small flat whose living room had been converted very temporarily into a complete academic institution.

One end contained some garden furniture and was designated as the teaching space; the other end housed a three-shelf bookcase and was claimed to be the teaching and learning resource area.

The opening remarks were delivered by the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency from the garden-furniture end and returned by the owner of the flat - and presumably the degree - from a position near the bookcase.

I stepped down as an auditor soon after and would be very surprised if similar experiences are still to be had overseas. I would bet that the rules of the game are now much better understood, and followed with balletic precision by all parties. Another little victory for the great unherdables.

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