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Elusive Forces of Accountability in Higher Education

Elusive Forces of Accountability in Higher Education
Protecting institutional autonomy while producing outcomes that meet the needs of the public and business leaders is the central goal of an ideal accountability system.

Problems in identifying and assessing results in higher education surfaced with state policies on outcomes assessment in the mid to late 1980s. The cries for reform in public schools, launched by “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report of the Reagan administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, were soon echoed in calls for changes on public campuses. Criticism of American higher education and student learning came from all quarters of the political spectrum, and it continues to do so.

The trend gained momentum from movements in the early 1990s to reinvent government and reengineer business. Many scholars of education argued for greater accountability strategies, such as more student involvement in the learning process and better curriculum integrity. Although infused with different ideological values and solutions, they all argued that the current state of undergraduate education lacked coherent curriculums, on the one hand, and student learning and quality teachings on the other.

Assessment of undergraduate learning appeared to offer an antidote for the perceived ills of higher education. It tasked colleges and universities to identify the knowledge and skills their graduates should possess, design indicators that reflected those objectives, evaluate the extent of their achievement and use the results to improve institutional performance. Supporters of assessment proposed to track the basic skills and general knowledge of students from entry to graduation as well as the specialized knowledge acquired in their academic majors during their time at college. It appeared to be the answer that could close the gap between legislative hope and campus comfort.

However, the past and present models of accountability suggest little progress in the process of reconciliation between the two. We have witnessed at least three approaches to accountability; bureaucratic/political models of accountability (assessment), managerial efforts in improving teaching and learning (performance funding); and, finally, greater involvement of market systems (privatized education and external accreditation) again aimed at improving teaching and learning. These forces attempt to make higher education institutions more responsive to various values of accountability such as efficiency vs. effectiveness; input-oriented vs. outcome-based; responsive to the societal needs vs. market needs; etc.

The lack of agreement on these public needs — what government and society expect from colleges and universities — agitates the antagonism between academic organizations and external groups. Absent agreements on the expectations, commitments remain open-ended and the demands unrestrained. Governors, legislators and business leaders continually call for colleges and universities to launch new programs and services while constantly castigating them for trying to be all things to all people. In turn, academics complain about being called unresponsive when government and business leaders are unclear about their priorities.

One complaint is that few forums exist that bring academic and external leaders together in ways that produce mutual understanding. The two groups all too often see each other at their worst rather than their best. Governors, legislators and business leaders see administrators and professors mostly frequently lobbying for more money at budget times, rather than designing and delivering relevant programming and conducting research. Academics often complain of shortfalls in state funding rather than recognizing the sizeable support that governments and businesses regularly supply.

The main culprit is not a lack of accountability but a lack of clarity regarding the type of accountability required and to whom higher education institutions owe it. Edward Weber asks the right question: “What does an effective system of accountability look like in a world of decentralized governance, shared powers, collaborative decision processes, results-oriented management and civic participation?” To that, add one more element: market pressures.[1] One can outline a few characteristics of an effective state accountability system, as seen below:

  1. Demand external results while protecting internal autonomy of higher education;

  2. Through public-public and public-private partnerships, adopt a public agenda with clear and limited priorities;

  3. Guarantee sustained funding for public higher education through public and private sources;

  4. Demand greater collaboration, rather than competition, among colleges and universities; and

  5. Report annual performance results in relation to expectations to external and institutional audiences.

Considering that higher education institutions are pulled into different directions, clashes among capitols, campuses and communities are inevitable. While the state largely fails to define the limits required to protect institutional autonomy, institutions slight the societal interest in campus results. The key element is to define limits to protect institutional autonomy while incorporating public and business needs into the outcomes of higher education. The key is to define these demands and limits up front. Higher education is too important to society in a competitive, globalized economy to become either “off-limits” to external accountability or the passive subject of external control. In other words, “external harassments” should be replaced by mutual and defined collaboration.

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[1] Edward P. Weber. “The Question of Accountability in Historical Perspective”, Administration & Society, September 1999 vol. 31 no. 4 451-494.

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