Audit overload

Bureaucracy is an inescapable fact of life in today's academy. John Morgan unravels the true extent and consequences of red tape

March 4, 2010

If you believe the surveys, academics are being swamped by a rising tide of paperwork, left floundering in an ocean of forms.

A hypothetical day in the life may look something like this. You spend a morning drawing up "learning outcomes" that demonstrate to the Quality Assurance Agency the exact level of understanding your students will gain from a new module.

"All modules, units and qualifications have learning outcomes that outline what a student will know, understand and/or be able to do once they have successfully completed the block of learning," the QAA informs you.

You then move on to a research grant application form, gearing yourself up with some research council guidance that advises: "The onus rests with applicants to demonstrate how they will achieve ... excellence with impact, bearing in mind that impacts can take many forms and be promoted in different ways."

But trying to explain the impact on society of your study of medieval Finnish literature proves exhausting, so you seek respite in some old copies of Times Higher Education. You happen to open up at an article reporting that only 46.8 per cent of staff in higher education are academics, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Muttering to yourself about "managers" taking over, you turn to the appointments section. There, you read that the University of Cambridge's department of chemistry is inviting applications for the "newly created post of research facilitator". This individual will be required, among other duties, to "identify research funding opportunities", "create an awareness among academic staff of those opportunities" and "assist in the preparation of grant applications".

As your head slumps to your desk, you drift into a blissful daydream about a world where the people in universities actually teach students, rather than file reports about teaching-related activities, and perform research, rather than grapple with research-related red tape.

So the caricature might run. But is there any substance to academics' complaints about bureaucracy?

Every group, be it a business or a household, requires some form of bureaucracy to ensure its smooth running. Some academics, however, believe that the forms of audit and accountability introduced to British higher education through bodies such as the QAA, the funding councils and the research councils, have not only forced universities to develop extra layers of bureaucracy to meet the demands of external scrutiny, but have also changed the nature of academic life.

There are those who argue that a "hyper-bureaucracy" has taken hold, tailoring universities to the needs of the labour market, coercing academics into following the rationale of business in their research choices and destroying notions of the intrinsic value of scholarship.

But do academics direct their unhappiness at those who shape policy, or at blameless administrators who happen to be closest to hand? And isn't bureaucracy necessary to make academics accountable and to ensure that public money going into universities is spent fairly and effectively?

When academics grumble about the rise of bureaucracy, they can cite research to support their case.

A 1994 study of "time diaries" by the Association of University Teachers found that academics were spending 33 per cent of their time on administration, compared with the 11 per cent identified by a survey for the Robbins Report into the future of higher education in 1963.

A University and College Union survey in 2006 found that "more than 40 per cent of lecturers say bureaucracy or external influence is the worst aspect of the job".

The 2007 Changing Academic Profession international survey found that, of all 18 countries in the study, UK academics reported spending the most time on administration - an average of ten hours a week during term time. Only Australian respondents came close, devoting nine hours a week in term time.

And in a 2009 paper, Malcolm Tight, professor in higher education at Lancaster University, analysed ten separate studies of academic workloads undertaken since the 1960s. He found that the perception that academic workloads had reached untenable levels "may be directly linked to the increased amount of time spent on administration".

But beyond making academics grumpy, does this bureaucratic burden matter?

Andrew Oswald believes it has reduced the ability of scholars to do their jobs and has eaten away at the values that underlie the academy.

The professor of economics at the University of Warwick was among a number of professors at the institution who fought plans to toughen up the QAA regime in 2001.

He cites the documenting of contact with students and anonymous marking - which introduces the possibility for administrative transcription errors by turning named students into numbers - as examples of bureaucracy that "eats up people and resources".

"There are losses to time and there are losses to common sense. It's as though we have to work on the assumption that there will be some incident or legal case we'll have to deal with," Oswald says.

"When I was at high school, working in the public sector was thought to be something important, something ethical - almost noble. These were people dedicated to the greater good.

"That notion has almost reversed in my lifetime. It is as though those who go into the City and make millions are working for the greater good, and those going into the public sector are to be suspected. That reversal is a foolish one and a shame for our country."

Some think that academics bear some blame for the advance of bureaucracy. Jon Nixon, honorary professor in the University of Sheffield's School of Education, and author of the forthcoming book Higher Education and the Public Good: a Sense of Possibility, argues that academics have "colluded" in forms of bureaucracy imposed by the Government, such as the research assessment exercise, which have pushed student experience from the forefront of higher education.

"This is a whole mindset that has been internalised by academic professionals, which will take a very long time to change," he says.

To challenge it, he advocates "some sort of near civil disobedience - or perhaps just a sense of humour".

Of course, bureaucracy did not spring up overnight and ambush higher education. It has been promulgated by an ideology that can be traced back decades, some argue.

Trevor Hussey, emeritus professor of philosophy at Bucks New University and part-time tutor at Hertford College, Oxford, discusses these ideological roots in his 2009 book The Trouble with Higher Education: A Critical Examination of Our Universities, co-authored with his Bucks New colleague Patrick Smith.

It argues that as the amount of public money spent on universities has gradually increased, so "governments have lost their faith in academic institutions to spend it efficiently".

The authors see the introduction of the RAE in the 1980s and the creation of the predecessor bodies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the QAA in the early 1990s as crucial. Compelled to meet the demands of so much external auditing, it is "not difficult to understand why universities have acted as hosts to the growth of formidable bureaucracies", they write.

Hussey is particularly critical of the documented learning outcomes required by the QAA: "An enormous amount of paperwork becomes involved - learning outcomes for teaching sessions, learning outcomes for the whole module and degree."

He adds that all this extra work has not improved what scholars do. "The lack of trust that you would, as a professional, go on and do good teaching and good marking - it is very demoralising," he says.

That is not the only negative effect of learning outcomes, Hussey says: "It completely transforms the relationship between students and academics. It is treating education as a commodity. The student is a consumer."

Michael Power, professor of accounting at the London School of Economics, has examined changes in regulatory styles across society in The Audit Explosion (1994) and The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification (1997).

He describes the expansion of auditing - the policing of organisations' own systems for monitoring quality - in the 1980s and 1990s. He argues that this growth was produced by the liberal state model of indirect oversight of organisations, rather than direct control, and by governments' increasing need for tight fiscal constraints.

Power sees higher education as "a good example of these processes in the sense that with teaching quality, universities had to create the appearance of quality control. Quite bureaucratic systems were created that, more or less, were decoupled from real teaching activity. But as time has gone on, the paperwork around teaching accountability - and the need to evidence what you are doing - has grown."

He says of changes across society brought about by audits: "There is this change in style towards bureaucratisation and the formalisation of the processes to be audited. You have to show that you are doing things that can be audited.

And auditing - in higher education as elsewhere - is not a passive process. By valuing certain activities, it directs people away from others.

"Because journal reviewing was not explicitly valued in the audit and evaluation system that was the RAE, activity drifted away from it," Power says.

He warns in The Audit Explosion that the "spread of audits constitutes a major shift in power: from the public to the professional, and from teachers, engineers and managers to overseers".

What impact has the spread of auditing and evaluation had on the research element of academics' careers?

Bob Bushaway, senior research fellow at the University of Southampton's Centre for Higher Education Management and Policy, describes the system of grant applications to the various research councils as a bureaucratic "sledgehammer".

He argues that over the past 20 to 25 years, 80 per cent of research council funding has gone to 20 per cent of universities. The bulk of the money still ends up with the research-intensive universities.

"We've got this vast process, a formalised system and bureaucracy, but really it is making a difference for only 20 per cent of funding. We've got a system that, you might say, is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, because it is actually making a difference to such a small part of funding."

Bushaway says much effort is wasted: for every successful application, research councils reject about 15 to 20 others. But academics are still under pressure to intensify this effort.

"Over time, universities have increasingly applied procedures that up the ante for the individual academic," Bushaway says. "Now, quite routinely, targets are applied for income generation in a given period. There may also be targets for numbers of applications.

"If you add into the mix wider trends, such as the turn away from responsive-mode funding (which supports more open-ended research) towards directed-mode funding (which supports work aimed at specific goals), most of the academic community feels squeezed."

Bushaway suggests that the number of research councils should be cut to one or two, which would result in a system more like that in the US.

But he concedes: "I can't see universities ever going back to the days when there was enough money to go around and you didn't need to put so much effort into the judgment system."

Although administration is inescapable, some academics argue that the forms of bureaucracy established in teaching and research are being used by the Government to impose a market ethos on universities.

That is the case set out by Grahame Lock and Chris Lorenz in a paper titled "Revisiting the university front", published in the Studies in Philosophy and Education journal in 2007.

They suggest that the "'commercialisation' of higher education and research means in reality their hyper-bureaucratisation, via the imposition of so-called evaluation, assessment and accreditation schemes".

That prompts them to ask: "Might the final result be the disintegration of the university as an institution?"

Lock, a faculty fellow in European philosophy at the University of Oxford, makes a distinction between bureaucracy, the sort of organisation needed in any arena where people work together, and hyper-bureaucracy, which he describes as an "out-of-control system where there is no end to the extra information that can be required".

How does that arise? "You get it when, as some sociologists have put it, the search for some optimum, especially optimum efficiency, takes no account of the costs in time, energy and cash of achieving this optimum - audit, QAA, RAE, the research excellence framework, ever more forms with ever more detailed questions and answers."

Driving this process in higher education is a government logic that, Lock argues, values universities only for their contribution to the labour market or for research that has a commercial application, and is ruthless in trying to drive down costs.

"Bureaucracy fits extremely well into this," he says. "Efficiency has to be measured."

The myriad battles being fought over job cuts in departments across the country all stem from this process, he suggests.

Bureaucrats reared in the school of "new public management", founded on private sector notions of efficiency, "permanently" seek efficiencies and home in on humanities or social science subjects with little market value.

"This is what explains (the demand to demonstrate) impact," Lock says. "It is the next stage in orienting the governance of universities towards the market."

And the end result of this hyper-bureaucracy? Lock argues that it will eventually mean that "universities are no longer universities. They will become operations for the transmission of labour market skills."

As to how this trend can be halted, he says: "My response is that in the short term, you can fight to defend bits and pieces; you can defend a niche for a while. If you know enough tricks, you can hold off the bureaucrats - you can convince them that there is a demand for old Finnish literature.

"But to do that, to have to defend yourself and your department against this tsunami that is flooding in, is exhausting."

Administrators regularly find themselves on the front line in battles over red tape. Professional staff can sometimes feel unfairly targeted by those who rail against bureaucracy, says Giles Brown, administrator/school manager of the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, and editor of the Association of University Administrators' journal Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education.

"A significant proportion of bureaucracy comes from outside the formal higher education system," he says. "It comes from the Government via Hefce or whoever. We do our best to localise it at the departmental or institutional level.

"Sometimes, administrators bear the brunt of this. What we do is seen as increasing bureaucracy, but a lot of these things are not optional. Universities do have to comply with regulations," Brown says.

He suggests that academics and administrators should "be using our voices and making sure we are heard at the right level, and using our influence to give input to research councils or Hefce, so that requirements are based on our experience on the front line".

Dave Hall sees the conflict in slightly different terms. The registrar and secretary of the University of Leicester says: "One thing that has always struck me when I hear colleagues complain about bureaucracy is that sometimes what they are talking about is democracy. What they are seeing is an institution trying to behave and manage itself in a collegiate way."

When some scholars moan to him about bureaucracy, he says, "what they are complaining about is being asked for their ideas and to read a policy document".

And criticism of the teaching-quality regime misses the point, Hall argues.

"I think the QAA is a red herring," he says. "The issue is how do universities themselves raise quality and standards. You would expect them to have processes for doing that, and it does mean you expect staff to draw up competently written programme materials."

Hall also defends the Transparent Approach to Costing, which features time surveys completed by academics - and is hated by many. "Trac helps us to understand how academics spend their time, in the same way lawyers account for their time," he says.

It means that universities can demonstrate that research is underfunded, he adds, and "is critical to how we debate with Government".

Management is essential, Hall argues. "You can't deliver a university education in a field. There is this infrastructure. It is not separate, it is not an added-on form of bureaucracy. It is an integral part of doing what we do."

It will come as no surprise to hear that Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the QAA and former academic registrar at the University of Hull, does not recognise the portrait of excessive bureaucracy painted by critics of his agency.

"The QAA works with institutions, which are themselves principally responsible for quality and standards," he says. "We work with them both to support them and to provide assurance that quality and standards are being maintained within higher education.

"We give great attention to ensuring that any expense - whether financial or in terms of human resources - is proportionate to what we're trying to achieve. We have put a lot of effort into that and into minimising bureaucracy."

The agency made a "major step" towards reducing red tape in 2002 when subject reviews were scrapped, McClaran notes.

Asked whether QAA audits have resulted in more paperwork and bureaucratised curriculums, he replies: "When we audit, we are auditing the way in which the university or college itself manages its quality - and they would be doing so even if we weren't auditing."

McClaran says there is now "a great deal of attention paid to the quality of the delivery of teaching to students. I think that is altogether a good thing."

Research Councils UK similarly denies that its evaluation of research changes the nature of academics' work.

A spokeswoman for the body says the £3 billion a year it invests in research and research training makes it "crucial that RCUK demonstrates the economic, societal and cultural impact of the research it funds to show value for public funding. Impact summaries were introduced to grant applications as part of a long-term commitment to encourage academics to consider the potential impact of their research.

"The purpose of these summaries is not to change the research they do. The impact plans encourage applicants to explore from the outset who could potentially benefit from their work in the longer term."

The spokeswoman says an RCUK study found that the average time required to complete an outline proposal is two days.

Those who argue that the burden is being reduced can point to a Hefce-commissioned study from 2009, titled Positive Accountability. It found that the costs to universities of complying with accountability requirements of higher education funders and official agencies fell by 21 per cent between 2004 and 2008, from £240 million to £190 million.

No discussion of bureaucracy in the academy would be complete without the views of an academic expert in bureaucracy.

Paul du Gay, a professor in Copenhagen Business School's department of organisation, is the author of In Praise of Bureaucracy: Weber, Organisation, Ethics (2000). Taking its inspiration from Max Weber - another academic with a keen interest in bureaucracy - the book argues that representative democracy "needs the bureaucratic ethos", stressing its role in treating individuals fairly and disinterestedly.

"The common complaint that government departments endlessly follow precedent might well lose its moral force if we find out that we have not received exactly the same treatment as our neighbour, friend or lover did in the same circumstances," du Gay writes.

While we experience frustration in our dealings with state bureaux, he writes, we may see that frustration as symbolic of the positive side of bureaucracy, a by-product of "the desire to ensure fairness, justice and equality in the treatment of citizens - a crucial qualitative feature of modern government that we largely take for granted".

When it comes to British higher education, du Gay says it is important to note the distinction between Weber's classic bureaucracy and the new public management.

"Universities have had bureaucracies for some time; the question is: 'What sort of bureaucracy is best suited to achieving what sort of purpose?' It may be that the sort of classic administrative bureaucracy outlined by Weber was rather more supple (and less destructive of the academic vocation) than its 'managerialist' successors."

Academics, he says, "need to recognise the importance of bureaucracy to the functioning of the university as an institution, and also the differences between classic forms of bureaucracy and their managerialist contemporaries, especially as the latter are in some ways profoundly anti-bureaucratic".

Outsourcing and a greater emphasis on measured outcomes are among the characteristics of anti-bureaucracy, du Gay says.

But what hope is there for the academic who just wants to do less administration, whether it is bureaucratic or anti-bureaucratic? The US offers a better model, according to some.

Power argues that in the UK, administrative work often "leaks into" the lives of academics. From what he has observed, he says, the situation is very different in the US.

"The academics there have a high degree of intellectual autonomy, but what amazes me is how little they have to do with administration. They have very expert administrators in the top American universities. You wouldn't have academics dealing with admissions, whereas we do to a large extent. It really is a teaching and research job in the States, for the top people at least."

Oswald concurs: "When I taught in a couple of Ivy League institutions, it would have been considered unethical (for managers) to scrutinise how I set my examination papers or spent my time with students. The idea of the intellectual independence of the academic is valued.

"Even in public universities such as the University of California, Berkeley, there is much greater independence for academics."

For others, a radical reshaping of the funding and monitoring bodies in higher education offers the best hope of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University, says: "My issue is really about the low quality of many of the demands being made on academic staff, rather than the quantity."

He argues that the funding councils, the QAA, the research councils and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator should be replaced with a single body.

"If you had one single regulator that regulated the use of public funds for higher education, we would have a more streamlined system and would get better value for the money that goes into regulation."

In the end, no matter what happens, it may just be that academics will complain about bureaucracy whatever the nature of the management that surrounds them. Perhaps the unusual degree of autonomy granted in their profession makes them hypersensitive to even the lightest-touch regulation.

Power says: "Academics do moan, because autonomy is valued, and we should discount the moaning to a certain extent. But if you talk to primary school teachers, nurses, middle management even in large organisations and banks, they will tell very similar stories. There is a sense in which evaluation requirements have become hard-wired into organisations.

"The phenomenon that is the audit society is a very big part of the lived experience of more and more people in this country. The politician who can get to that will be very successful."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.