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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 5 Stories

"Academic Audits"
American educators examine European practices

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

  Christian Thune described Danish efforts to assure quality in undergraduate instruction through academic audits.
  Christian Thune described Danish efforts to assure quality in undergraduate instruction through academic audits.
AN "ACADEMIC AUDIT" is "a way of putting teaching and learning at the center of the university enterprise," Peter Williams, who directs the British agency that conducts such audits, told a conference at the University of North Carolina recently. "It promotes an agenda of professionalism in teaching, not just research."

Williams was one of several speakers who described the academic audit procedures that have developed in Great Britain and a handful of other countries in recent years but are little known in the United States.

"Nobody in the U.S. is doing this -- no state agency, no accrediting agency," said David Dill, professor of public policy analysis and education at the University of North Carolina and organizer of the meeting. "That's why we decided to do this, to show people in this country how audits are done elsewhere."

The conference was attended by experts who have conducted academic audits in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere, as well as officials of state coordinating agencies and regional accreditation bodies in the U.S.

Dill has described the audits as "external reviews of the internal processes by which an academic institution assures itself of the quality of its teaching and student learning." (See related article)

One of the main reasons for these inquiries is to make sure postsecondary institutions, especially research universities, pay adequate attention to undergraduate instruction and don't spend all their time and money on graduate education and research.

Peter Williams described how the process usually works in Great Britain, where university audits were mandated by the government of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Williams is Director of Institutional Review within the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the United Kingdom.

Each audit is conducted by a team of three academics (four in the case of Oxford or Cambridge) and a secretary, selected by Williams' agency. The institution being audited can object to one or more team members but has no veto power over their appointment.

Faculty team members should have "inquiring and skeptical dispositions," Williams said. "And they must have a strong personal presence. They can't be shrinking violets because they must be able to hold their own in tense, sometimes turbulent engagements."

Since those qualities are not always found in abundance in academic life, many of the faculty members have served on previous teams, forming a sort of professional corps of academic auditors. They are hired on part-time contracts by the quality assurance agency, usually for three years.

After plowing through mountains of material submitted in advance by the institution being audited, the team visits the university for several days of interviews with faculty, staff and students. They try to determine if the claims for effective teaching and learning that have been described in the institution's own documents have a basis in reality.

The team then huddles to write a report, which is made public. "We try to get a coherent report that is written in one voice," Williams said, "but we seldom get that, so we do a lot of rewriting."

The final report is shown to the university before publication, so errors can be corrected, "but we have the right to ignore all of that," Williams said.

  Educators attending a conference at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, were urged to consider
  Educators attending a conference at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, were urged to consider "academic audits" as a means of improving teaching and learning.
Unfavorable audits do not lead to budget cuts or to other dire consequences, but their publication, in printed form and on the agency's Web site, usually receives press attention of the kind most colleges and universities seek to avoid. The "teaching and learning" reports apparently have caused enrollments to rise or fall at several British institutions.

"The most effective incentive is publicity," Williams said. The process also has beneficial "secondary effects," he added. "Some of the ideas that are circulated in the audits find their way back to the institutions from which the auditors came."

In Hong Kong, where academic audits, called Teaching and Learning Quality Process Reviews, were instituted recently, poor ratings on the teaching and learning scale can have direct consequences, William Massy, professor emeritus at Stanford University and a member of the University Grants Committee in Hong Kong, told the conference. Negative findings about undergraduate instruction at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology led to cuts in that university's graduate enrollment last year.

Several conferees questioned the wisdom of making public the academic audit reports. "Isn't this ‘gotcha!' approach threatening to faculty?" one asked.

"It's easy to slip into ‘gotcha!' mode," Peter Williams conceded. "We urge our auditors to avoid that. The process is not about ‘gotcha!', it's about testing claims and assertions. We try not to make any assertions without strong evidence to support them."

But Williams and others acknowledged that faculty resistance can be a major obstacle to an effective audit. "It has to be collegial," David Dill said. "If the faculty doesn't buy in, it won't happen."

Denmark follows similar procedures as Great Britain and Hong Kong but does not make the audit results public, according to Christian Thune, director of the Danish Center for Quality Assurance and Evaluation of Higher Education.

Thune said Danish audit teams have found student meetings helpful. "We have often found much disagreement between what students thought they were going to be doing and what the education program actually is," he said.

He also suggested that informal dinners at the start of a site visit can break the ice between auditors and their wary hosts. At one such dinner, he recalled, administrators became quite drunk and revealed more flaws in the university's procedures than the audit team ever could have found on its own.

  Peter Williams
  Audit team members must have "inquiring and skeptical dispositions," said Great Britain’s Peter Williams.
Among American educators in attendance, reaction to the academic audit ideas appeared to be mixed.

One state coordinating agency official said he had "picked up some useful ideas" at the conference but another said it would be "suicidal to impose this on top of all the other existing evaluations" in his state.

Robert J. Barak, deputy executive director of the Iowa Board of Regents, wondered if "governors and legislatures who have been pushing for hard-fisted governmental involvement" in higher education policy-making would settle for "this kind of voluntary, constituency-based approach?"

Several officials of accreditation bodies, under fire because of policies that are believed by some to be inflexible and out of date, said they already were moving in the direction of academic audits.

"We are involved in a thorough re-examination of the entire process," said Ralph Wolff, executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the accreditation body for California and Hawaii. "We are trying to shift our focus from overall accreditation to a more intense concern for teaching and learning."

Dill pronounced himself pleased with the conference results. "I had fairly modest expectations," he said after the meetings. "I was hoping to stir the pot a bit, get people in this country thinking a bit about these ideas...I think that did happen."

-- William Trombley

Photos by Jim Strickland, BlackStar, for CrossTalk

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