Universities are confusing accountability with accountancy

UniversityAffairs.ca – Columns & Opinions – How the ‘audit culture’ is ruining the academy and harming society in the process.
April 30, 2014.   by Marc Spooner

Over the last year there have been several articles in prominent North American newspapers examining the state of academia, decrying the disappearance of the public intellectual and calling out the rise of the vanity pay-for-publish sham peer-reviewed journal. Each correctly, in my view, attributes these developments to the publish-or-perish culture that overwhelmingly imbues our universities. For example, Lawrence Martinstates in the Globe and Mail, “Academia has been overtaken by specialists who are absorbed in their own little world with its imperative to publish”, Nicholas Kristof explains in the New York Times that “if the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized”, and most recently, Tom Spears writes in The Citizen: “And some of these, nicknamed predatory journals, offer fast, cut-rate service to young researchers under pressure to publish…”

If these articles all agree that the publish-or-perish imperative is to blame, the one aspect they fail to examine is the why? Why has the publish-or-perish culture become so alarmingly demanding that it consumes most of a scholar’s time and output and drives some even to fall prey to predatory publishing schemes? The answer, it seems, lies in how peer-review practices, once meant to ensure quality and rigour, have been completely subverted by the “audit culture” so pervasive at institutions of higher learning the globe over.

The audit culture distorts the whole academic enterprise by tabulating our worth as scholars through a very simplistic calculation that considers only publications and research grants when ascertaining our value as academics. Activities such as time-consuming research, alternative forms of scholarship, putting time into one’s teaching, or actually acting on one’s research findings, all important aspects of our academic practice, are devalued, or left out of the equation altogether. Our coerced scholarship is turned into mere grist for research production mills.

The audit culture combines the economic imperatives of competition with the technologies of public management and, as C. Shore highlights in “Audit culture and Illiberal governance: Universities and the politics of accountability” (Anthropological Theory 2008), in the process confuses “‘accountability with ‘accountancy’.”

What is especially distressing and is “another compelling reason why the rise of audit culture in academia and elsewhere merits attention; it increasingly shapes our lives, our relationships, our professional identities and the manner in which we conduct ourselves,” continues Dr. Shore. Indeed, audit culture has now crept from being a method of financial verification to a general model or technology of governance and is reshaping almost every aspect of higher education. The sociologist Michael Burawoy has examined how key performance indicators distort university practices and likens their effects to old school Soviet planning, where tractors were too heavy because their outputs were measured by weight, and glass was too thick because targets were in volume.

If the academy is ever to escape these negative and unintended consequences brought on by the audit culture, it will only be when we have ceased to allow ourselves to be measured by such narrowly defined outputs in a one-size-fits-all factory model of knowledge creation, dissemination and accounting.

Whatever the easy stereotype of the life of a scholar, either sequestered away in an ivory tower, or perhaps in reality more appropriately replaced with the image of hamsters endlessly turning wheels in the audit culture’s office blocks, in envisioning the nature of our future home, surely we should seek to repopulate the academy’s lighthouse, and once again provide the diverse array of consequential scholarship, action and critical public engagement our world so desperately needs. The present is a call out looking for an answer…

Dr. Spooner is an associate professor of in the faculty of education at the University of Regina. This article is based on a longer piece (in press) for theInternational Review of Qualitative Research.

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