Funding chiefs end tickbox culture that hinders academe, says Olga Wojtas
The tickbox approach to higher education administration that consumes so much academic time has run its course in the UK, according to Scottish funding chiefs who are pushing for reform.
The Scottish Funding Council is breaking new ground in the UK with a consultation paper that aims to ensure that governing bodies genuinely take responsibility for running institutions rather than assume that the council is in charge. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has been piloting a "single conversation" scheme, which would concentrate submissions to Hefce into a short period each year.
The consultation could lead to the SFC's dropping many of its data requirements and, potentially, learning what it needs from institutions' websites.
Roger McClure, SFC chief executive, said: "I think in the UK we are emerging from the era where people convinced themselves that if you adopted a compliance-based approach you could force the best performance out of people. When you get right down to it, you get the best performance only if there is local decision-making that can respond to local circumstances.
"The emphasis is on quality of data rather than on endless quantity that may not tell you very much. One way we can support governing bodies is to ask them to tell us in their own words how well they think they're doing."
Mr McClure predicted that this would reinforce governing bodies' responsibilities and autonomy, leading to continual improvement in the quality of their decision-making. "You're no longer filling in forms for the funding council but displaying to your own local stakeholders how you feel you're doing," he said.
Although administrators would gain most from the potential changes, academics should find their chores cut, too, he said.
Funds allocated for specific purposes are not covered by standard institutional returns, but institutions might decide that rather than submitting monitoring reports as they do now, the governing body would report once a year on whether projects had been implemented successfully.
The SFC is also asking institutions to inform it where there is scope for it to make joint requests with other bodies for information or to share information with them to avoid duplication. "I think this is a product of a more sophisticated understanding of what is likely to lead to better performance," Mr McClure said.
The SFC will hold seminars for interested staff in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, beginning next month.