‘Best practice’  auditis article

by Michael Loughlin in The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), March 22, 2002, p. 20.

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dynamic learning curves,
a continuum of
and enhancement

...whatever that means


When even the leader of the QAA is confused by the jargon his organisation uses, what chance do academics have?
Michael Loughlin says it is time for public servants to rise up and challenge management-speak.

Michael Laughlin is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of Ethics, Management and Mythology, published by Radcliffe Medical Press, £24.95.

Over several years, the public sector in the United Kingdom has been subjected to a series of “quality reforms”. Large sums of money have been spent forming monitoring agencies and requiring workers in education and the health service to “demonstrate quality” in their practices. This typically involves learning to redescribe their practices in a bizarre managerial language, incorporating its “technical terms” into documents that form an “audit trail” — a cross-referenced, jargon-riddled paper chain to be perused by managers in their own organisations and, in the event of official inspection, by employees of the monitoring agencies.

This process is labelled “accountability”. When an organisation is accountable in this sense, “quality” is deemed to be “assured”. The specific procedures of quality assurance change periodically. Management reserves the right to redesign forms, restructure its approval mechanisms, update guidelines or benchmarks. In general, the culture of perpetual linguistic innovation in contemporary management means there will always be new jargon for professionals to learn and incorporate into descriptions of their practices. Those of us in the public sector find we spend ever more time demonstrating quality and ever less time doing what we “small-c conservatives” used to think of as our jobs.

Conspicuously absent from the vast literature produced by government, senior management and exponents of the so-called management theories that gave rise to the “quality assurance” culture is anything resembling a coherent explanation, let alone defence, of their basic premises. How does empowering management in this way make services “accountable” to their users in any meaningful or worthwhile sense of the word? What do students or patients (invariably, and without argument, re-labelled “customers” or “consumers”) actually learn about the “quality” of the services provided as a result of these management mechanisms?

Top of fileThe analogy with financial audit suggests that those who control the new quality regimes have discovered an objective measure of “quality” that can be read off the relevant documentation like the bottom line of a commercial balance sheet. Indeed, favoured models of evaluation usually involve lists of criteria to be ticked off by observers. The more empirical the exercise can be made to appear, the better, because the approach is founded on organisational theories that take mistrust of — or outright contempt for — “subjective” ideas such as “professional judgement” as their starting point. As Philip Crosby (celebrated management “guru” and a founder of the “quality revolution” in management theory) put it in his “classic text”, Quality Is Free: “Quality is too important to be left to professionals, who always think they ‘know best’.” Contemporary management theory is awash with pseudo-scientific terminology. Talk of “quality engineers” and “industrial quality management science” coexists with somewhat more ethereal entities such as “the continuum of quality-awareness”, and management scientists purport to have discovered “basic quality criteria” common to all complex organisations.

When asked about the meaning of these “criteria” — which supposedly provide the intellectual foundations of the “science” — authors and commentators invariably reject rigorous analysis in favour of assaulting their audience with a barrage of rhetoric. “Quality”, “excellence”, “autonomy”, “empowerment”, “continuous improvement”, “dynamic learning cultures”, “ownership”, “effectiveness”, “self-actualisation” — the vocabulary expands interminably.

To take seriously the idea that these terms require analysis would be to admit that their employment in defence of one’s favoured policies is a contentious exercise, in need of detailed arguments to support the specific conclusions drawn. Insofar as arguments and analyses are supplied, they are invariably superficial and circular: authors may claim to have discovered certain “aspects” or “dimensions” of quality, but these turn out to be such things as “effectiveness” or “ownsership”. Then, without much further ado, these things are declared to be the anticipated outcomes of the policies or structures being “defended”. So one unclear term is “explained” with reference to several others, and the debate is closed — with those in positions of power still able to choose whichever operational definition of quality suits their purposes.

Take Peter Williams’s recent article (THES January 11) on the “life of the mind”. Although the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency laments the superficial nature of much of the discussion of quality to date, he does not lay the blame for this situation where it clearly belongs: at the door of politicians and senior management, who have made quite deliberate efforts to reduce all discussion of serious matters to the exchange of slogans and the recitation of their favourite buzzwords. Moreover, he goes on to “explain” (that is, to assert without explanation) that quality assurance is not “the enemy of academic freedom or integrity” and is “as much a route to self-assurance as it is to public assurance”. Of course he does not explain why the preferred route to “self-assurance” for thousands of underpaid public sector workers should involve paying people such as himself several times their salaries to monitor their practices.

Top of fileHe similarly “explains” that quality assurance is not the opposite of quality “enhancement”, adding “whatever that word means”. In a more rational world this aside, coming from someone in Williams’s position, would be shocking. First, if he does not know what “quality enhancement” means, how does he know that it is not the opposite of quality assurance? Second, why has the QAA been assessing academic departments in terms of an “aspect” called “quality management and enhancement” (QME) only for its chief executive to admit, casually, that he does not know what quality enhancement means? QME was one of the six “aspects” of a provision assessed under the old QAA system, and academics had to pretend they knew what it meant to satisfy their QAA assessors. Perhaps departments that dropped points on QME should consider an appeal?

I agree with Williams’s assertion that universities should be about the “life of the mind”. But it testifies to the shameful intellectual poverty of the age that such a statement can strike anyone as anything other than a platitude. What would a university that was not concerned with the life of the mind be like? Give the Blairite crusade against “intellectual snobbery”, a few more years and we may yet find out.

There is no evidence that centralised managerial control of academics — the setting-up of systems that dictate in advance the form that “quality” teaching should take — is the best way to encourage creativity, innovation, integrity or any of the things Williams purports to favour. Simply incorporating the terms “academic integrity” and “academic freedom” into your stated “quality criteria” does not constitute a proof that your favoured system achieves these things. In writing in this way, Williams assumes not an academic but a distinctively managerial methodology. It is the same mindset that thinks (to take an example from senior management in the National Health Service) that if you want to encourage individuality among staff, the best thing to do is to set up a workshop, force staff to attend and give that workshop the goal of “validating staff as individuals”. We do not need to “validate” people as individuals to “promote” individuality any more than we need to force academics to be free by making “academic freedom” a “quality criterion” with the backing of a powerful central agency.

So what can the rest of us — those who do the work in public-sector organisations — do about all this? We have to be clear that the purpose of all of this quality jargon is not to improve services, but rather to locate power in the hands of those who control the “quality mechanisms” and to “deliver support” for government policies. The definitions of quality offered to justify this control lack intellectual foundation, and statements made in their defence are often ad hoc and are sometimes patently inconsistent.

Academics have a particular duty to foster critical intelligence and denounce nonsense. Those of us supposedly dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking have allowed the science of “opinion-management” to develop unchecked. With no argument, we have allowed some interest groups to claim exclusive ownership of persuasive terminology that used to be common property.

More than ever, it is imperative that we ask of those in positions of power in public life: what do you mean? What is it that justifies the uses they make of terminology and the conclusions they draw? We must insist on a serious and well thought-out answer. To subvert a key metaphor of Williams’s article, we must make a point of not singing in tune, of not reciting the rhetoric on cue. Unions should consider giving more support to members to refuse to take part in quality-assurance exercises whose rationale they conscientiously question, and some student representatives should stop talking utter rubbish on the subject. Someone needs to tell leaders of the National Union of Students that thinking of yourselves as consumers is neither big nor clever. Showing solidarity with your tutors and other workers in the sector — now that would be clever.

We must sound a discordant note. Challenge the nonsense at every opportunity. This, it strikes me, is the correct route to self-assurance and self-respect — and it is the best chance the workforce has of saving all that is worthwhile in our public services.

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