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Public trust and accountability: a time of special challenge

We want to use this article to explore two inter-related issues – the erosion of public trust in higher education and the ever expanding and changing requirements of public accountability systems, as we think addressing the latter is an important aspect in countering the former.

Across societies, higher education and research are core to social and economic success and are usually seen as serving the public interest because benefits extend to the individual and society. As such, there is an implicit social contract that balances institutional autonomy and public support through taxation, in return for accountability. However, many of the assumptions that have underpinned public support for higher education are coming under public scrutiny. Questions are being asked about educational relevance, graduate attributes and research impact. Higher education institutions are often accused of being self-serving and insufficiently interested in student learning or outcomes. Many governments are struggling to find the right levers to ensure the right level of accountability while institutions chafe at what they often regard as unwelcome restrictions on their autonomy.

Establishment under attack

In the UK, the Comptroller and Auditor General last year accused universities of mis-selling courses and noted that the sector has “a more limited level of consumer protection than other complex products such as financial services”. There was also controversy over vice chancellors’ pay, with the Financial Times asking if VCs were “engaged in some very eccentric sociological research projects of their own — testing the limits of shamelessness in public life and the degree to which institutional autonomy in publicly-funded institutions can be exploited.”

A 2017 survey by Gallup for the US Association of College and University Governing Boards is further evidence of this tension, with about 57% of members agreeing or strongly agreeing that public perceptions of higher education had declined over the past 10 years. Surveys and studies in the United States and United Kingdom continue to highlight growing public concerns around credential relevance, career readiness and cost vs. price. 

Into this already complex environment enters a general level of disenchantment with public institutions, unseen in many decades, with implications for higher education institutions. A recent survey by Edelman Intelligence (Global Trust Index. Country Ranking 2016-2018shows Europe and the US facing a “collapse in trust in institutions” (government, media, business and NGOs). In many countries there is a thirst to pull down the “establishment” or the “elites” that seems insatiable. Populism, the political face of this disenchantment, claims to speak for the “ordinary” people, the “forgotten” people. It distinguishes itself by its opposition to the “establishment”, in its distrust of facts and evidence, and in its hostility to “elites” who promote “establishment thinking” and “political correctness”. 

Populism contributed to the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It contributed to the election of President Trump who made his intention to break with the establishment, “to drain the swamp”, very clear. It is evident in the strength of anti-establishment, usually right-wing, political parties in many parts of Europe. In Ireland, we have seen growing public disenchantment with one-time pillars of our society including the Catholic Church and the police; politicians have also met with deep hostility. 

When populists speak of “elites” you may be sure that they include universities and academic staff – over-educated, over-opinionated and over-bearing, “liberal” in their views and remote from the concerns of “ordinary people”. The undermining of public trust in higher education and in its respect for knowledge, is a clear tactic of populism which feeds on prejudice and evidence-free assertion. Actual evidence, knowledge and expertise, are shrugged off as political correctness or “establishment” thinking. The then Minister for Education in the UK Government, Michael Gove stated during the Brexit campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Ruth Wodak in her book The Politics of fear: what right wing populist discourse means has labelled the condition as “the arrogance of ignorance”.

A breakdown in trust

But it is wrong, and utterly counterproductive, to dismiss those who are attracted to populism as uneducated backwoodsmen, or as Hillary Clinton would have had it “deplorables”. It is misguided for the academic community to collectively hold their noses and keep their distance from people with such views and hope they will eventually come to their senses and all will be as before. It won’t. Not least because there are strong underlying reasons for their disenchantment. A key contributor is a breakdown in trust between those with power and the people they serve. 

Voters, attracted to populist politics, have concerns that are objectively real and they have concerns that, even if misinformed or exaggerated, are real to them. Yes, there is a disappearance of lower skilled jobs, even if the root cause is not immigration. Yes, international trade agreements lead to losers as well as winners, but overall, they are positive in their economic impact. Yes, many people who once believed that the lives of their children would be better than theirs, now know that this is less likely to happen nowadays. Yes, the rich have got richer, while many are trapped in low incomes or in social security programmes. Yes, our societies are becoming more ethnically diverse, but this can enrich societies, not marginalise pre-existing populations.

What can higher education do?

Higher education needs to engage proactively and energetically with the root causes of populism and with its propaganda, if it is to first stem, and then reverse, the erosion of public trust in the academy. It should respond on several levels. It should challenge what is presented as facts, but which is often merely baseless opinion, through its scholarship and research. It should enhance programmes for equity of access to, and participation in, higher education. Such programmes are especially important in this context when addressed to adults who need to acquire skills relevant to job markets. 

And especially, the universities and colleges need to communicate effectively to combat ignorance and prejudice. The institutions need to build more and stronger coalitions of support, and proactively engage with their regional communities and nationally. Taking a leaf from the populists’ book, higher education needs to harness the power of social media to make the arguments for the values it espouses and take those arguments into the streets and homes of those who feel marginalised and dispossessed.

Above all, higher education institutions need to be, transparently, accountable for what they do. A difficulty here is that traditional forms of academic accountability, such as quality assurance and accreditation, may no longer be able to deliver necessary and adequate public assurance of the quality of institutional performance. New approaches are required, and in developing these we must balance different perspectives with expanding societal demands.

Accountability and quality

While quality assurance is an institutional responsibility it is also a national concern. Ensuring qualifications are of high quality and internationally comparable and transferable is a precondition for participation in the global economy and for talent mobility. As a result, many governments have stepped up their role, endeavouring to (re)regulate in order to ensure a closer alignment between higher education and national objectives. A war of words has opened up in many countries around educational relevance, graduate attributes, and the contribution of research. These issues speak to concerns about holding higher education accountable to the public for quality; about meeting the needs of students, society and government; and about the transparency, effectiveness and performance of colleges and universities. Accountability is about higher education serving the public interest and earning the public’s trust.

Defining and maintaining quality, guided by norms of peer review, has been a cornerstone of the academy since the seventeenth century, and the public have been content to accept this form of accountability. Institutional autonomy has been an important symbol of independence of thought and decision-making, enabling the academy to shape its curriculum and research, be the primary determinant of quality, and speak “truth to power”, even in politically challenging environments. These values were further strengthened by the Bologna Process, and enshrined in quality assurance processes which are built around institutional ownership of quality with assessment mechanisms which aim to enhance, rather than enforce, quality. 

A new quality protest

But, this system no longer seems adequate and for several reasons there is growing dissatisfaction with traditional collegial mechanisms. 

First, “quality” is a complex term, and although widely used, there is no agreed-upon definition or on how it should be measured, much less improved. Emphasis has primarily been on teaching and learning, and research, but increasingly quality extends beyond internal matters and reflects the capacity and capability of higher education to meet a variety of societal needs and demands. This suggests quality is variable, and hence a cause of great perplexity and unhappiness. 

Second, while quality assurance has been the mainstay of the academy, the inability to provide comparability and evidence in a usable and easily digestible format has become a major handicap. In the US, accreditation has come up against similar challenges. Quality assurance is often seen as being too process-oriented and insufficiently focused on real outcomes. Indeed, it often seems that it is just that – a process, which is arguably an inefficient use of resources and time, which benefits the academy more than students or society, and is not scalable in any meaningful way. 

Third, while quality-standards remain important, higher education is now being asked additional questions about performance and productivity. Performance involves questions of how well the institutions operate vis-à-vis their goals and those of society; hence, focus is on actual outcomes and outputs rather than simply the process. Performance-related deliberations have also shifted attention onto academic and professional staff and students. There has been a long history of measuring research activity, but questions are now being asked about what academics produce through their teaching, and issues of academic outputs and outcomes, such as progression and graduate employment. This may be a welcome rejoinder to global rankings, which overwhelmingly focus on research, but it speaks directly to public and political perceptions about what academics do all day or all year. Thus, what people want to know is how effectively students are learning, what they are achieving, and how personnel, institutions and the systems overall help students to succeed. 

Assessing and evaluating performance is both a controversial and complex process. At a national level, various countries are experimenting with re-constructing the “social contract” using a set of negotiations, such as performance agreements or compacts. While these enable both government and institutions to set goals, this approach can’t respond to wider demands for international comparability or scalability. While students have been an important part of the process, participation of third-parties, including business and employers and civil society, becomes inevitable. Indeed, new technologies will make the participation of people, generally, easier than ever with the potential to bypass the academy entirely. 

Each approach to quality assurance and assessment, as key elements of accountability, has shortcomings and is controversial in some way. Actions – involving myriad players: HEIs and organisations, academics and governments – are now being progressed, with great urgency, at national as well as at international and supranational levels. No doubt the challenges associated with this rapidly expanding and diverse “brave new world” are problematic, but it could be argued that the academy’s grip on “quality” has been overtaken by events. There is, therefore, an imperative on universities and colleges, of all missions to “start driving the bus”, if they are not to be left on the side of the road. 

Higher education has faced many challenges down the centuries and it has prospered, as have the societies that embraced its fundamental principles of respect for knowledge. This is a time of special challenge and a time when our societies need our colleges and universities, and academics, more than usual if our democracies are not to be weakened. To succeed, the academy must fight the undermining of public trust while delivering to its communities full and transparent accountability.

This article was published in WONKHE, 7 February 2018, http://wonkhe.com/blogs/public-trust-and-accountability-a-time-of-special-challenge/

BH Associates