Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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."
||Christian Thune described Danish efforts to
assure quality in undergraduate instruction through academic audits.
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
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.
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.
||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.
"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
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.
Among American educators in attendance, reaction to the academic audit ideas appeared
to be mixed.
||Audit team members must have "inquiring
and skeptical dispositions," said Great Britain’s Peter Williams.
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