Final draft of chapter for Education! Education! Education! - Managerial ethics and the law of unintended consequences. Edited by Stephen Prickett and Patricia Erskine-Hill and published 2002 by Imprint Academic, England.

Audit, accountability, quality and all that:
The growth of managerial technologies in UK Universities

Bruce G Charlton

Bruce G Charlton MD
Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry
Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Editor-in-Chief, Medical Hypotheses

Tel: 0191 222 6247
Fax: 0191 222 5622

Although independent corporations, UK Universities are heavily dependent on State funding, and have become increasingly subject to government influence. Recent government policy is working towards the transformation of undergraduate University teaching into a continuation of the school system which will offer an extended intellectual training to around half of the age cohort (Charlton 2000). The implementation of this strategy has led to a massive expansion in the use of managerial technologies as governments have struggled to gain control of all major aspects of University activity: student numbers, admissions policy, teaching, research, employment contracts etc.

Since UK managerial culture is dominated by the discipline of accountancy, the characteristic nature of government influence has been dictated by audit-based technologies of regulation with a particular role for concepts such as ‘accountability’ and ‘quality’. Audit technologies have proved to be subtle and effective ideologies, since they form self-reinforcing rhetorical systems. The criterion that all organizational practices should be auditable has been a potent stimulator of structural changes in Universities. These changes have shifted power from academics to managers, whose activities are more amenable to external monitoring and regulation.

Education for economic growth

State involvement in education tends to be taken for granted nowadays, although the magnitude of support may be hotly debated, but this is a comparatively recent matter in most countries. State support for education was historically linked to the need for a literate and numerate governing bureaucracy. For instance, the medieval church provided the (relatively small) bureaucracy, consequently the church ran the educational system. Only after the industrial revolution led to increased demand for a substantial secular intellectual workforce was there an expansion of State-funded education (Gellner, 1983). A major role of the State in Higher Education was pioneered by Germany in the nineteenth century with the emergence of Germany as a great power (McClelland, 1980). Germany’s lead was followed by governments of all major industrial countries.

The large scale involvement of all modern States in education arises because of the need to guarantee an intellectual workforce to generate and sustain economic growth (Gellner, 1983). Governments of developed, non-militaristic States realize that growth is crucial to their survival, because continual wealth expansion allows governments to exert control by ‘bribing’ emerging powerful interest groups without the need to confiscate wealth from existing powerful interests. Growth allows the emergence of non-zero sum economics from which all can benefit, in principle (Wright, 2000). States that fail to achieve continuous growth must usually resort to greater use of an expensive apparatus of propaganda, coercion and repression, which inflicts further damage on the economy.

Continual economic growth further implies continual cognitive growth in order to generate continual improvements in productivity. Productivity enhancement of course requires a (relatively small) number of highly trained creative and innovative specialists - engineers, computer scientists etc. But more importantly, cognitive growth requires ever greater division and specialization of labour, which implies information exchange on an ever increasing scale (Wright, 2000). It is this massively increased information exchange that generates the need for a mass of non-specialist, flexible, generically literate and numerate intellectual workers who can retrain and re-skill in response to economic developments. The main function of State supported Higher Education is therefore the ‘mass production’ of this class of generic literate numerate intellectual workers (Gellner, 1983). Such education was - until recently - done largely in schools rather than colleges or Universities. In the past, the mass-produced intellectual worker was ‘the clerk’: a clerk being a person with basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. Throughout the early industrial revolution, clerks comprised a large and expanding proportion of the workforce that eventually comprised around half of the age cohort. It was the main function of grammar schools to produce ‘clerks’ in large numbers - which is why many grammar school places were funded by the State.

Grammar schools needed teachers, and the adequate provision of State grammar school teachers became the principal function of State-funding to Universities - beginning with the Civic (or ‘Redbrick’) Universities, which were enormously expanded from the inter-war period onward, being joined by new technical and ‘Plateglass’ universities from the 1940s (Armytage, 1955).

The future for State-funded Universities

But this is now set to change. In order to continue to generate economic growth in competition with other countries, it is now considered necessary that the mass produced generic intellectual workers should be educated to a higher level than in the past - the old style ‘clerk’ having become deskilled or superseded by the advent of widespread computerization. And since education to the necessary level appears to be impossible within 18 years in the UK State school system (impossible, at any rate, in the State school system as it currently exists) it is therefore the aim of current policy to extend the period of intellectual educational experience to include several more years at an institution of Higher Education.

In principle, the policy to extend the education of roughly half of the age cohort by several years might have been attained without affecting standards by a massive expansion of diploma level qualifications at Further Education or Technical Colleges. Instead, the decision was made to devalue the standards of Universities and Honours degree qualifications. Presumably the title of ‘University’ and the ‘degree’ certification were intended as a bribe, effective at least in the short term until inflation catches-up, to encourage more people to stay in the educational system for longer. So instead of leaving school at age 16-18 with O-levels, GCSEs or A-levels, the idea is that the intellectual workers of the future will stay in the State educational system until age 21-22 and leave with an honours degree. Hence State Universities will come to perform a similar economic function to the grammar schools of the past, and State University lecturers will become de facto grammar school teachers for grownups.

A University degree up to around, say, 1980 functioned essentially as a professional qualification - whether for teaching, the civil service, engineering, surveying, medicine, or whatever. By contrast, the educational level attained by the bulk of new-style University graduates will be somewhat above the usual level of skills of reading, writing and arithmetic which were attained at grammar schools (after all, the individual student will have stayed in the system for three to five extra years of learning and maturing) - and professional certification will presumably move up to postgraduate level.

In a nutshell, we could summarize the change as a shift from the mass production of clerks by grammar schools, to the mass production of ‘middle managers’ by Universities. The new-style graduate will have abilities appropriate to the needs of modern commerce: accessing information sources, writing reports, using computer spreadsheets and word-processors, participating in structured arguments etc. The hope is that these mass-produced intellectual workers will prove able to do more than just clerical work acting under instruction, but will also be capable of participating in planning, auditing, sales, researching and other characteristic activities of contemporary economic life.

Given the nature of this policy shift for State education, the problem confronting government has been how to impose this new model on Universities which would be highly resistant to the process since it involves institutional subordination, de-skilling, reduced pay and lowering of academic standards. So the problem facing government was how to manage the Universities into switching their function.


Complex and differentiated modern economies require large numbers of managers whose economic function is essentially the coordination of the activities of specialized workers. The nature of managerialism seems to vary between countries according to the dominant disciplinary background of managers. For instance, in Germany, engineers form the most dominant school of managers, and engineering concepts seem to dominate managerial ideologies. However in the UK the dominant style of managerialism is derived from accountancy (managerial consultancy is dominated by the big accountancy firms) consequently audit-derived concepts and technologies dominate UK managerialism.

The concepts of ‘accountability’ and ‘quality’, which form the subject of this essay, can be taken as representative of UK managerial discourse. The word ‘accountability’ originally meant having the duty to present auditable accounts. In its technical meaning, accountability envisages a situation in which the business of the auditee was subordinated to the informational requirements of the auditor - and in a sense that is exactly what accountability still means, underneath all the managerial rhetoric. For instance, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education demands not only a set of ‘accounts’ of a particular form, but that University teaching be conducted in accordance with the demands of its auditing process so that these ‘accounts’ will be a valid reflection of organizational activity.

By contrast, the current managerial use of ‘quality’ (as in QAA) was developed and adapted to the needs of managerialism during the nineteen eighties and nineties. What has emerged is a generic, audit-based version of quality control usually termed ‘quality assurance’ (QA). Quality Assurance has transformed ‘quality’ into an abstract requirement for a particular kind of regulatory system. Quality Assurance now refers to auditable systems, not to guaranteed excellence.


Two definitions of accountability

Our era has been described as The Audit Society, because corporate life is increasingly dominated by accountancy-derived concepts and technologies (Power, 1997; Charlton, 1998). Accountability is one of these concepts - as its name implies. Discourse on the desirability of ‘increased accountability’ has become ubiquitous in political, managerial and even journalistic discourse. Accountability is assumed to be an intrinsically desirable goal, and nobody ever claims that one can have ‘too much’ accountability - the pressure is always for more. Yet accountability is a slippery rhetorical term with two largely distinct meanings: a sharply-defined technical managerial meaning, and a looser, more general or ‘popular’ meaning (Charlton, 1999). This opens the way for accountability to be used a rhetorically manipulative fashion - by shifting back and forth between technical and general meanings. In general discourse, accountable means something similar to ‘responsible’, and carries connotations of ‘being answerable-to’. Conversely, to be unaccountable may be used synonymously with ‘irresponsible’ and ‘out of control’. Since responsible behavior is universally approved, then calls to increase ‘accountability’ sound self-evidently desirable.

The technical meaning of accountability in managerial discourse refers narrowly to the duty to present auditable accounts. Originally, this referred to financial documentation that was adequate in terms of completeness and self-consistency - such that it is amenable to the process of cross-checking which constitutes the basis of audit (see below). The current managerial use of accountability is a direct extension of this financial usage - an accountable organization is one that has the duty to present auditable accounts of its activities - in other words an accountable organization is one that will provide comprehensive and self-consistent documentation of whatever it does.

Only insofar as it is legitimate to assume that the provision of auditable documentation is synonymous with responsible behaviour is there any overlap between the technical and general concepts of accountability. But the rhetoric of accountability operates on the basis of a ‘quick switch’ between the two. Any individual or organizational problem which can be connected to irresponsible behavior can be termed unaccountable in the general sense - and then the discourse can be switched over to a technical level in which the solution to unaccountable behavior is to set-up regular audit cycles that require comprehensive and self-consistent documentation of that behavior. Behavior may be rendered technically ‘accountable’ even when the real world behavioral problems that led to the introduction of audit are unchanged or exacerbated.

Unaccountable means un-managed

Now that this model of accountability has become habitual, it is able to generate problems of technically ‘unaccountable’ behavior, even when there is no evidence that actual behaviour has been irresponsible. There is a profound circularity about this reasoning. Accountability involves an assumed model of how organizations ought to operate, and how individual judgment should be regulated within these organizations. For behavior to be accountable means that it must be embedded within an auditable system of formally-related elements.

Accountability in its technical sense carries almost the opposite meaning to those democratic, egalitarian, radical and ‘empowering’ values that are associated with the term in general usage (Charlton, 1999). The drive for increased accountability may operate as an excuse to justify managerial takeover. Behavior is labelled as unaccountable (hence unacceptable) simply because it is not subject to managerial control, and this is taken (by managers and politicians who wish to control this behavior) to imply a need to introduce audit systems. Audit systems may then be set-up to advance the interests of those who have introduced them.

For instance, many University academics retain significant autonomy in their work, exercising independent judgment over such matters as hour-by-hour time-allocation, teaching style and content, and the subject matter of personal research. Such autonomy has - over many years and in many cultures - proved to be the only way to generate and maintain high academic standards. However, this autonomy poses a serious threat to political control, since there is no formal mechanism by which academic behaviors can be managed. The concept of accountability provides the answer.

If typical academic behaviour can be labelled as technically ‘unaccountable’, and if ‘unaccountable’ is regarded as unacceptable by definition, then there is a perfect rationale for introducing a formal system of monitoring and control. One might be a brilliant and popular University teacher, a first-rate researcher of international reputation, a diligent administrator, and employed by a prestigious university - but technically such a person is ‘unaccountable’ when there are no formal institutional mechanisms for monitoring, documenting and regulating behavior.

Autonomy is re-packaged as irresponsibility while subordination of employees by top-down and hierarchical control mechanisms is restated in terms of ‘increased accountability’.


The proliferation of ‘quality initiatives’, ‘quality units’ and the ever-more-frequent use of the term ‘quality’ in institutional discourse is evidence that State control over Universities will substantially be achieved by some version of ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) auditing. As with accountability, the effectiveness of this form of managerial discourse depends upon the rhetorical device of switching between general and technical meanings of the word.

Quality Assurance

Quality Assurance (QA) is a technical managerial term for that type of auditing which is concentrated upon systems and processes rather than outcomes (Charlton, 2001). QA is built on the assumption that any properly-constituted organization should be based around a system of auditing systems and processes.

Quality Assurance auditing has become closely identified with older managerial approaches including the word ‘Quality’ - such as Total Quality Management (TQM) ,and the awarding of quality assurance systems of organizations with ‘UK Standards’ and ‘International Standards’ (Feigenbaum, 1983; Perigord, 1990; TQM International, 1992). Quality Assurance auditing therefore has close evolutionary links to ‘quality enhancement’ strategies, based upon based upon creating a ‘culture’ centred on ‘quality’ which usually means reorganizing production around reliable processes and systems of checking and feedback.

The idea of Total Quality Management are usually credited to the late W. Edward Deming, who was held to be responsible for generating the Japanese economic miracle of the post-1945 era. TQM stands in contrast to traditional assembly line quality control inspections which focus upon testing the completed product and rejecting faulty items. According to TQM, the best strategy to achieve excellent products was an indirect one: to concentrate attention on the system and the ethos of the company, rather than being narrowly focused upon the product. But, as is natural in an engineering context, the final arbiter of success for the Deming-style TQM would remain the excellence of the product. For instance, the international sales success of Japanese cars and motorcycles was based upon the value-for-money and reliability of the product, not upon approval for the managerial systems by which they were made.

But Quality Assurance auditing was developed by accountants, not engineers - hence QA is an abstract activity that focuses upon systems and processes almost to the exclusion of the excellence of the product. Quality Assurance actually defines ‘quality’ in terms of systems - specifically in terms of auditable systems. A ‘quality assured’ product is one produced by an auditable system. The product of a QA system is therefore quality assured by definition - without necessarily regard to its excellence or fitness for use (Powers, 1997).

When ‘quality’ has thus been re-defined in terms of auditable systems and processes, rather than excellent outcomes, this has the effect of liberating ‘quality enhancement’ initiatives from the need to define desirable outcomes or best practice. This is of particular relevance to education, since it has proved impossible to agree upon valid and reliable definitions of the real-world ‘quality’ (ie. excellence) of teaching. However, with the advent of QA, politicians and managers have no need to worry about whether they are measuring real-world quality.

Educational debate has been shifted away from the contested territory of outcome measures, towards obtaining agreement to a standard system of practice - and that this must be a fully explicit Quality Assurance system in which all essential elements can be planned, documented, monitored and audited. This deft act of redefinition has the effect of rendering teaching at last amenable to quasi-objective quantitative measurement, to external monitoring, and to external control.

Transparent organizations

In other words, with the introduction of QA applied to teaching, proper teaching is conceptualized only as those activities and systems which are transparent to auditing. To be ‘transparent’ to auditing means to be amenable to comprehensive and self-consistent documentation - it is the existence of this documentation that renders all significant organizational activities visible to external gaze.

Since the rise of the ‘Audit Society’ and the dominance of managerial discourse over practice, for an organization to be ‘opaque’ to auditing, to include significant activities that are not documented, is regarded as intrinsically deficient and probably dishonest (Power, 1997). Yet, although transparency has become a term of approbation among managers and politicians, it is merely a technical term that refers to auditability. And auditability does not legitimately carry any necessary implications of responsibility to the public or of excellent or desirable practice, especially when auditing is implemented and evaluated by government officials.

The conflation of ‘transparency’ with probity has arisen because modern managers equate a properly constituted organization with a fully auditable organization. And this equation is endorsed because, in the accountancy-dominated world of UK managerialism, managers exert control by means of auditing. Transparent organizations are auditable, and auditable organizations are manageable - and vice versa. Therefore, organizations must be made auditable - at any price. And the price can be high. In a market system, there is a brake on excessive auditing - in a monopoly public sector activity such as the UK Universities, audit can grow even when its growth is exerting significant damage on performance and efficiency.

By its concentrations upon systems and procedures, QA provides a mechanism for quantifying almost any aspect of organizational performance that can be given an operational definition - ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘equity’, ‘access’ or whatever the current buzz word happens to be. Any aspects of measured organizational performance may be attached to these terms with no more justification than face plausibility, then these can be quantified ‘objectively’ and judged against pre-established ‘performance’ criteria.

The magic of Quality Assurance is that what was un-measurable has been rendered measurable - so long as one does not inquire too carefully into what words like ‘quality’ actually mean in operational terms. Although in the real world we are no nearer to measuring the excellence of teaching than ever we were, by the enchantment of QA, numerical values have been attached to quantified aspects of individual and institutional performance, marks have been awarded, league tables prepared, performance criteria monitored, differential funding allocated… In short the system has been rendered manageable.

The example of QAA

Criteria to measure the real-world excellence or ‘quality’ of University teaching have proved impossible to agree upon. Instead, the ‘quality’ of teaching has been re-defined by the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) in terms of documented compliance with an approved Quality Assurance system (Charlton, 1999a; 2000a).

The most fundamental attribute of a QAA approved system of teaching is that it is auditable - in other words that it can be comprehensively and self-consistently documented. ‘High quality’ teaching is therefore an explicit system characterized by Mission Statements, aims and objectives, flow-charts, monitoring, feedback and formal procedures for all imaginable contingencies. Only that which is documented, hence auditable, is deemed to count as legitimate teaching activity. (Unfortunately this eliminates everything that people mean by ‘high quality’ teaching in normal everyday discourse - however, this regrettable fact has not prevented the widespread equation of QAA score with excellent teaching.)

The QAA inspection of my own medium-sized University department (approximately 15 academic staff) generated considerably more than ten thousand pieces of paper housed in dozens of box-files that filled a room; and the inspection lasted four full days. The logistics of preparation took many months including full- and part-time secondment of several academic and secretarial staff, dozens of hours of meetings and ‘away days’ involving dozens of staff, and temporary employment of extra secretarial help. While the QAA central bureaucracy is itself a relatively small organization, and relatively inexpensive for the government, the heavy cost of inspection is borne by the department being audited. It has been estimated by a group of economics professors that the QAA Subject Review exercise has probably costs the University system approximately a hundred million pounds per year (Harrison et al, 2001).

No attempt was ever made to prove that the QAA method of organizing and evaluating teaching tends to lead to ‘high quality’ teaching, nor that this method of teaching was superior to previously practiced methods of teaching. The QA-approved system was assumed to be higher quality by definition, because the pre-existing systems were undocumented, hence unaccountable and lacking in transparency, hence ‘low quality’. Indeed, evidence and rationality suggest that QA-driven University teaching will be inferior to traditional methods. Certainly the QA system is completely unproven. There has never, at any time or in any place, been a University of acknowledged real-world excellence in teaching (or anything else) that was run in this fashion. Excellent Universities have taught their students in many different ways - but never in a fashion which would meet with QAA approval.

It would perhaps be an exaggeration to state categorically that excellent teaching is impossible under a comprehensive QA system - after all human ingenuity can achieve the most surprising things under the most adverse conditions. Nevertheless, especially in an underfunded system, QA causes a shift in resources away from teaching and towards auditing, a shift from ‘doing’ towards documenting, and a shift in power away from teachers and student towards managers, auditors and the politicians who set the audit agenda.

A substantial decline in the real-world quality of University teaching and the standard of honours degrees over the past decade is as certain as anything can be in so large and complex a system. That this decline has been disguised by the QA-generated mass of pseudo-objective measurements is no accident. But then QAA inspections do not, even in theory, measure real-world teaching quality - indeed they make no attempt to observe real world teaching. Instead ‘teaching quality’ is defined as that which is measured by the QAA audit.

The nature of auditing

Cross-checking for consistency

To this point, auditing has been described in very general terms. But so dominant an activity demands closer examination - in particular the way in which auditing seems inevitably to be associated with vast exercises in ‘bureaucratic’ documentation.

Quality Assurance auditing derives from financial auditing, and the principal purpose of financial auditing is to detect and deter incompetence and dishonesty in the handling of money. Incompetence is relatively straightforward to discover - but it is the claim of audit to detect dishonest dealing which requires further examination (Charlton, 2000).

There is an apparent paradox involved in auditing. At first sight, it might seem that checking the books fails to solve the problem of dishonesty. After all, if a practitioner is not trusted to do their job honestly, then why should they keep the books honestly? The answer is that audit detects fraud through cross-checking for inconsistencies. It could be said that the essence of audit is the search for discrepancies in documentation (Perigord, 1990). Fraud is detected when ‘the books don’t balance’. Cross-checking in financial auditing works when the accounts contain independent sources of evidence, making-up a web of money flows that constitute the operations of the organization. Each strand of the web should be consistent with each other strand when checked every-which-way. A large organization has so many strands that the number of potential cross-checks is almost infinite. Anyone wishing to ‘cook the books’ has a great deal to fake if they are to ensure that every possible inconsistency between independent sources has been ironed-out.

Fraud is therefore usually apparent to an auditor - especially when the volume and inter-connectedness of organizational activity is unmanageably large, and when information input involves many people. In effect the auditor is like a detective who takes a statement from each witness to a crime, then checks that each witnesses ‘story’ is consistent with all of the others. For example, in his ‘how to do it’ manual of Quality auditing, Mills (1993) describes the ways in which an auditor can use cross-questioning and observation to catch the auditee in various types of discrepancy. It is a basic assumption that inconsistency is evidence either of incompetence or dishonesty. Discrepancies are assumed to constitute attempts to cover-up fraud.

Financial accounting (usually) works in its job of deterring and detecting fraud because it is (usually) easier, cheaper and more efficient to be honest than it is to prepare internally-consistent fake accounts which can stand-up to skilled cross-checking. In other words, true accounts automatically balance when cross-checked because they are a reflection of reality, while it takes a great deal of work to create audit-proof false accounts.

Quality Assurance auditing - information instead of money

QA auditing has many analogies with financial auditing. But instead of monitoring money flows to detect financial fraud, a quality assurance system monitors compliance to a quality assurance system - it monitors that such a system is in place, and is functioning. Instead of money, the ‘currency’ is information.

QAA audits University teachers on their compliance to a particular, audit-compatible model of teaching, and this model must be explicit, factual and (so far as possible) quantitative. The specific content of the model does not much matter - what is vital is that there are explicit procedures, and that they are complied with. The ideal QA system would one in which, ultimately, every significant aspect of teaching is formally and explicitly planned and monitored. What is not documented does not count as significant, because it cannot be part of the QA system, hence cannot be audited, hence cannot be ‘quality assured’. Good teaching is defined by QAA in terms of an explicit information flow system; and whatever is implicit, or outside of the system, does not count as good practice.

A QA-compatible system will be expressible in terms of flow diagrams: these diagrams define the relationship of information sources, and the legitimate range of cross-checking between information flows. Armed with these diagrams of what is supposed to happen, QAA inspectors behave very much like financial auditors in their search for inconsistencies in documentation. And as with financial auditing, inconsistency implies incompetence or fraud. A QA system audits teaching documentation firstly for completeness, and secondly for internal consistency - each item of documentation must be consistent with all other items of documentation when cross-checked. Undocumented practice is prima facie evidence of bad practice - and the nature and level of documentation will be defined by managerial demands, not by teaching need.

As the QA system becomes more comprehensive, so the potential for cross-checking will increase. Each specific item of information from each person must also be consistent with the documentation each other person. Teaching must also be consistent with the Mission Statements, aims and objectives of the organization; and documentation must be provided to demonstrate this consistency. Internal information can be checked for consistency with external policies, such as relevant government or Department of Education policies. All this cross-checking inevitably requires vast documentation, hence vast bureaucracy, hence substantial cost (Charlton, 2000a). And this is the essential reason why QA systems have an irresistible tendency to become highly bureaucratic and expensive. Escalation of documentation is built-in, even when this is not the initial intention and when the early phases are relatively modest and sensible.

The fact that auditors could not conceivably read all the vast documentation, let alone perform the almost infinite number of potential cross-checks, does not matter. The point is that the auditors might want to know anything. And failure of either comprehensiveness of documentation or consistency in cross-checking in any one respect is taken as evidence of generalized fraud. If the auditee has failed to stick to recommended procedure (failure to ‘stick to guidelines’), then the auditee is culpable.

Interestingly, the first round of QAA inspections was not sufficiently documentation-intensive to prevent fraud. So far as the pre-1992 Universities were concerned, the documentation provided to QAA was a bogus facade - a Potemkin village successfully concealing the reality of a non-auditable teaching system (Charlton, 2000a). For QAA to prevent ‘fraud’, it will be driven into making the demands for documentation so comprehensive that fakery is easily established by the vast number of potential cross-checks, and so heavily labour intensive and multidisciplinary that fake accounting will not be an option. It must be made easier to comply with the letter of the audit than it is to cook the books.

In practice, QA systems will always generate a demand for truly vast quantities of documentation - whatever the hopes or promises of its advocates.

Advantages of audit-based management

In old-fashioned ‘command’ systems of management, the managers must directly ‘order’ the workers to perform certain tasks. This raises the problem of enforcing obedience. Orders will either need to be face-to-face, via an intermediary (eg a foreman), or by written instructions (‘memo’). But however it is done, this style of command management involves an element of confrontation, of one person directly asserting their will over another person, and achieving dominance.

When managers are more skilled, better-educated, higher status and more confident than the workers, attaining dominance is not usually a problem. Indeed, imposing dominance on others, bending them to your will, is enjoyable for some people. But when the workers include people more skilled, better educated, higher status and more confident than the managers who are supposed to command them - this makes command style management difficult and unpleasant at best, and impossible at worst (Charlton, 2001). More indirect methods of control have therefore evolved.

As audit technologies have evolved away from outcomes and towards systems and processes, difficult policy decisions and unpleasant personal confrontations have been exported outside the organization’s executive - away from the corporate management and onto third-party groups (Power, 1997). Managerial consultants or government agencies are used to generate standards, guidelines and protocols (for example the National Curriculum for schools), and enforcement of these standards has been devolved to external agency auditors (such as OFSTED). A manager’s role can be presented merely as ensuring compliance with these external standards and enforcement agencies.

Quality Assurance therefore appears to be a evolution of managerial technology, a style of management which (from the managers perspective) is superior to previous styles of management such as a direct command system. Superior not in the sense of necessarily improving the performance or efficiency of the organization, but superior in the sense that QA works more effectively to promote the interests of managers (Charlton, 2001). In particular, audit enables managers of low-level expertise and modest individual dominance to impose their will upon a more expert and dominant intellectual workforce.

The future of audit in UK Universities

The past decade has seen the untrammeled expansion of auditing in the UK Universities as governments have used funding restrictions to gain control of research, teaching, student numbers and academic standards. But this is probably a transitional phase. The very success of audit technologies has created the conditions of its own destruction by triggering the breakup of the unified monopoly State University system. Auditing has generated such a heavy administrative load that resources have been drained from teaching and costs are much higher than they need to be for Universities to do their job effectively. As things stand, private Universities could almost certainly out-compete the State sector, by undercutting costs and/or providing a better service. For example, the situation is ripe for prestigious Universities to opt-out of State control, and raise more income than they lose by charging market level fees (presumably these would be at least as high as private school fees - which are running at about five to ten thousand pounds per year). Such an institution could save on the ‘transactional costs’ imposed by a bloated bureaucracy, and attract the best academic staff (who naturally seek greater autonomy and a lower administrative load - as well as higher salaries).

It may be predicted that the UK State University system will soon begin to break-up, as institutions realize that the State asks too much in return for too little. Under pressure of a resurgent private sector, the Audit Society in Universities will be rolled-back. With luck, we shall see ‘accountability’ to officials replaced by responsibility to students, and teaching ‘quality assurance’ replaced by genuine educational excellence.


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Charlton B. (2000a). QAA: ‘light touch’ auditing is not an option. Oxford Magazine 176: 12-13

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Wright R. (2000) Nonzero: the logic of human destiny. Pantheon: New York.



also by Bruce Charlton
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The Malaise Theory of Depression
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Pharmacology and Personal Fulfillment
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology
Peak Experiences, Creativity and the Colonel Flastratus Phenomenon