Thursday, 13 June 2013

Steps Towards Institutional Ecology: 1. Mechanisms of Accountability

I am working on a framework for understanding educational institutions as 'ecologies' and this is the first of a number of posts which will develop the idea. As managerial interventions (from Vice Chancellors and ministers) slash institutions, there have been profound effects (many of which unforeseeable) on the culture and operations within those institutions. Yet, we have little understanding of how institutional culture is shaped, the relationship between the functions of individuals, their job roles, the students, formal procedures, governance, etc. Present attempts at institutional reform feel like medieval dentistry and a more sophisticated understanding of institutions seems much needed.

Accountability lies at the heart of any viable operation. Yet it's real function is difficult to pin down. Totalitarian regimes appear viable - for a while. But they usually collapse eventually. I was thinking this looking at the news from Turkey (where I'm giving an ITEC presentation next week). Accountability is not just about engineering 'participation' from the electorate (holding a referendum about real-estate development seems inappropriate), it is about having 'trusted mechanisms' of critique and inspection (in the UK, we would probably hold a public inquiry, not just into the park development, but into the actions of the authorities). Deep down, these mechanisms serve to make explicit the connection between information and decision, where sources of  information upon which decisions are based are revealed, and the mechanisms of decision-making in the light of information are inspected and challenged. Within educational ecology, an equivalent question which relates to the Turkish situation is "what are the mechanisms for holding Vice Chancellors to account? How are sources of information exposed and decision-making processes inspected?"

Notionally, there are at least three mechanisms.

  1. the academic senate (or sometimes called the academic board)
  2. the governors
  3. the unions
But each of these mechanisms has undergone important changes in recent years, particularly with the rise of new universities. 

Senate is the place for academic debate about the direction of  the University led by the academics of the university with the Vice Chancellor as their head. It is not, as is often now the case, a rubber-stamping organisation for the latest policies of management. Its purpose is to maintain the essential function of the University, which is (fundamentally) the pursuit of truth and knowledge through teaching and learning. As a rubber-stamping meeting, this function of Senate has gone. And with it an opportunity for holding leaders to account.

The governors are the body of people whose job it is to steer the University as viable business. They should inspect the accounts, ask questions of the leaders, of current policies and directions, and to play a key role in the selection of management. In recent years, many Vice Chancellors have found ways to turn the board of governors into another rubber-stamping group. It's not difficult to see how this might happen. "Being a governor" is a badge of honour, often with more 'in it' for the individual governor than for the institution. As a result, governors who have little interest in 'governing' will gladly accept places on the board and (frankly) do what they are told. It only takes a critical mass of 'VC-friendly' governors on the board before the processes of ratifying any further appointments are tainted.  Consequently, another (and possibly the most important) mechanism of accountability is lost.

Finally, the Unions have traditionally the task of holding the managers to account in the interests of their members. But with savage spending cuts and consequent redundancies, the relationship between unions and managers has become unsurprisingly confrontational. In such circumstances, "holding to account" can become a somewhat hysterical game of accusation and counter-accusation which helps no-one. Furthermore, protecting the members interests is a different game from protecting the future of the institution or the future of education. Unions within universities often struggle with what it is they are actually trying to protect or to challenge. In difficult times, and particularly with 'stitched-up' governing bodies and bureaucratic  Senates, it becomes easier for managers to simply ignore the unions in what they will argue are the "broader interests of the institution".

If we are to move towards an understanding of institutional ecology, then these examples of changes to accountability structures provide an excellent example to study. We are likely to see institutional failures in the near future, and where that happens, we will be able to examine governance structures and academic decision-making processes. This is unfortunate for the institutions concerned, but it would be more serious not to learn from their misfortune. The fundamental questions will be 
  • What information was available?
  • How did decision-making function in the light of  the available information?
  • What information was ignored?
  • Who decided what information to ignore?
  • Who challenged this?
Of course, these will be questions for any public accounts inquiry into any failure. But the issues lie deep in our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the nature of information, the way decisions are made, and the impact of technology.

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