Audit Culture in UK Higher Education

10 January 2020, 1801 EST

In 2016 I took a job at university in the UK. As an American, British academic culture was new to me, especially its ‘audit culture’. The key elements of audit culture are mechanisms for the evaluation and measurement of teaching and research. The vast majority of UK higher education is delivered by public institutions, regulated and funded in large part by the government. The UK government justifies its use of oversight mechanisms on democratic grounds. They argue that since higher education is funded primarily, though not exclusively, by the central government, academic staff should be held accountable to the public through the evaluation of the relative ‘excellence’ of a university’s research and teaching. However, as I will explain, government-mandated reviews are only the tip of the iceberg. The practice of oversight is woven into the day-to-day administration of teaching and research.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a national review of research quality and productivity that takes place approximately every five years (the upcoming REF is in 2021, the previous one was held in 2014). The process is taken very seriously by university administrators because it informs the allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for universities’ research. At my university we have already begun preparing for the next cycle with what is known as the “rolling REF”, an ongoing internal assessment exercise where we all read and assess one another’s published work. What this means, in effect, is that it feels like there is no end to the REF review process. As one colleague put it, “after the REF is before for the REF.” 

The rules of the REF are baroque and shift with each subsequent cycle. Under the current rules, as a scholar on a research and teaching contract your aim should be to produce four, four-star research outputs every five years. This is because, at least for the 2021 cycle, no one researcher can submit more than four items, but universities have to submit at least something from all eligible staff it employs (just determining eligibility requires a flow chart–see p. 36). There is also an “impact case study” element to the REF used to assess the role research plays outside academia. To give you an idea of the scale of the REF audit, here are the stats from 2014:

However, national exercises like the REF and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) —a similar national-level audit of teaching practices first instituted in 2017— are just the most visible element of a much more extensive network of oversight mechanisms that shape everything from teaching delivery and student assessment to research and promotions. For instance, whereas in the US a professor is all but sovereign in the classroom, often granted large discretion over course content and assessment, in the UK every aspect of teaching is subject to review and approval. All academic staff within a department are members of local boards, such as the “Board of Undergraduate Studies” charged with reviewing module descriptions (what in the US would be called a “course description”) often a year or more in advance of when you will first deliver the module. Similarly, a colleague is assigned to “moderate” all of your graded assignments, meaning that they review a sample of marked coursework for consistency and evaluate the adequacy of your feedback before a centralized student services office releases the results. (To be clear, there is variation in exactly how these processes are carried out at the local level. I am describing my university’s system.) There is also a system of annual external review at the programmatic level. All degree programs (what in the UK they call courses) are subject to a yearly process of external review by an examiner from another university, who reads and recommends changes to essay and exam questions, moderates samples of graded assignments, and certifies the quality of the program. 

I’ll be honest, sometimes living within this audit culture drives me bonkers. It places a heavy workload on academic staff. They are responsible for reviewing the work of others in addition to the delivery of their own teaching and research. One unintended consequence of this system is that it severely restricts what you can do in the classroom in terms of innovation. Unless an exercise is easy to review, it’s not viable as an assessment. (Though I have been asked to do it, the last thing your colleague wants is to watch videos of student presentations in order to assess your grading for consistency and fairness.) Moreover, the requirement that everything be announced in advance and reviewed by an external examiner eliminates spontaneity. You can’t make changes mid-course to respond to student engagement. There is no such thing, for instance, as a pop quiz. Having lived in a system that functions just fine without all this rigamarole, I am frequently annoyed by the unintended consequences and additional requirements.

At other times, however, I appreciate the fact that the result of all this oversight is a system that is, at least in some ways, “fairer” than in the US. I mean that in the sense that it is less overtly political and more bureaucratic. Whereas many of my colleagues experience the REF as an anxiety producing instrument of neoliberal governmentality, I found the idea that there were clearly articulated publication targets profoundly liberating after the publication arms race dynamic in the US. Moreover, the absence of tenure in the UK all but eliminates the existential element of review. There is no up or out imperative that means that someday you will face the possibility of losing your job in a tenure review. In fact, at my institution REF performance is only loosely linked to promotion, if at all, and promotion standards and expectations are made explicit. If you meet all the benchmarks on the promotion application, you can be promoted by a university-level committee even if your department and your school oppose your application. Relatively speaking, that means as a junior staff (aka faculty) member you can care a lot less about what the senior members of your department think of your work. One unintended consequence is that, at least in International Relations, the UK academic ecosystem feels far less paradigm driven at its core.

Similarly for students, the additional oversight makes for a “fairer” but much more rigid system. For instance, professors cannot simply grant students deadline extensions. Extension requests go to a board and require documented evidence of extenuating circumstances. Similarly, a student’s grades are unlikely to change just because a particular student has the moxie to complain (whereas another does not) because the practice of moderation means that the professor’s grades were already subject to review. That’s not to say that students don’t have ample recourse for complaint. They can bring complaints to the Student Staff Panel, which meets regularly and allows students to point out all nature of unfairnesses.

Audit culture in the UK isn’t so much better or worse than the US system. It’s just different. Power operates through different pathways. Its operation feels more diffuse, which can make its fulcrums and levers difficult for an outsider like me to identify. There is still bias and harassment. Efforts to combat or push back on those behaviors are easily bogged down in the bureaucratic machinery. At the same time, on good days, there is something liberating about the limits that audit culture sets. For instance, having a REF publication target that applies equally to everyone can be freeing for a junior member of staff. In the US a lack of rules too often creates only the illusion of freedom. It’s the difference between, for instance, a company that offers unlimited time off on paper, but where everyone is afraid to take it, versus a place where there are rules about time off and an expectation that every gets a break. Publication targets mean there is a point at which you have done enough for the time being. Perhaps that is too romantic a spin, but if audit culture has a silver ling that would be it.

Note: This is the second post in a series on the differences between US and UK academia. Confused by US-UK terminology? I explain some of those difference in the first post.