Accounts of accountability

Reading Paul Mooney’s “exposé” of third level education, I was engulfed in a wave of nostalgia (alongside the nausea). While lacking in the subtlety and ideological nuance of much of the discourse, Mooney’s PowerPoint discussion could have emerged straight out of John Howard’s “Culture Wars” that devastated Australian tertiary education during the first decade of this century. Indeed it was the precarious labour conditions generated within this false “war” between markets and the public good that demanded I leave my home country and travel to the other side of the world in order to find secure, reliable employment – a journey with deep resonance with Irish history. To find this discourse at work in Tuesday’s Irish Times was both strangely comforting in its familiarity and deeply chilling.

Begun under the previous Keating Labor administration, the neoliberal shift toward privatisation of education – a user-pays system based on competitive market principles – intensified and expanded under the Howard coalition government of the late 1990s. Howard’s genius, though, was to cast the neoliberal doctrine of “obvious” market superiority as the victory of good, earthy old-fashioned Oztrayun (white, Anglo-Celtic) common-sense values over a high-falutin’, pretentious, privileged, chattering class and all their fancy book learnin’. Academics, and educators more generally, were made obvious targets, not to be trusted for their sceptical, socially interested engagement with non-market ideas such as the public good that used to be education. The general mistrust of intellectual life in Australian culture was poked and prodded by the continual iteration and mediatisation of this discourse until it became a schism through which damaging University reforms could be easily driven. That the ones articulating and mediating this argument, and those who benefitted most from it, were an economic and political elite could not put the lie to what everyone “knew”: Universities and academics were a cultural elite, wasting taxpayers’ money and needed to be rationalised by market forces like everyone else.

There were many weapons in this war: for instance, the nobbling, including direct ministerial intervention, of the Australian Research Council and allocation of funding toward applied research in partnership with industry; the introduction of University league tables based on imposed measures such as graduate employment outcomes and quantified research output to determine funding allocations; the reduction of institutional funding creating a competitive environment based on attracting full-fee paying international students (or cash-cows as they were known amongst my colleagues); developing measures of academic output that privileged funded research, which, in a monopoly funding environment, scuttled the career prospects of critical, social researchers most likely to challenge the free market orthodoxy; the casualisation of the tertiary workforce (which increased by 125% between 1989 and 2007 to 22% of the workforce) creating a precarious and competitive employment environment, not conducive to organisation and protest, nor for developing long-term and rich educational outcomes for students.

However underpinning them all was the notion that academics (and I will focus on the third-level only here) were unaccountable in their research and teaching and that by introducing measures to force accountability upon these recalcitrants, the victory of “common-sense” could be secured. This is the same argument that underpins Mooney’s article and presumably the measures he is currently proposing to the government. University lecturers are free to do what they like and this OUTRAGE must be stopped. Everyone else is accountable, why aren’t they? Begrudgery as ideological weapon.

This wedge of “accountability” has the power to undermine the very principles of education. While I doubt there is any academic who would take issue with appropriate accountability measures (given we are already rendered accountable through student feedback, external examiners, quality reviews, peer review and to auditing by funding bodies to name a few mechanisms), what defines appropriate becomes crucial. The competitive market principles based on the quantifiable value to Ireland Inc (!!!!) advocated by Mooney is one model. Another would be measures based on the value of education to society, culture and the ethical frameworks that shape the politics of a country. Irish academics are already, and quite erroneously, criticised for failing to identify the problems of the Celtic Tiger that lead to our current dire economic circumstances – just ask any taxi driver. Clearly we already bear a responsibility – are accountable – to the society that funds our research and whose citizens we educate. To overtly articulate our achievements of that responsibility, not only in outraged letters to the Irish Times, but through the values of our teaching and research may be the only mechanism by which we can avert the coming onslaught of “culture wars”.

In the face of a hostile media environment, this may seem a weak response and it certainly lacks detail. However, the Australian experience suggests that reasoned argument will never be enough to counter the “truthiness” of the case that academics consider themselves an exceptional elite beyond the rules imposed on others. The existing social accountability of academic work needs to be made a pervasive concept, iterated and reiterated with vigour, but without peevishness or contempt.

Most importantly, academics and those who value education must not buy into the existence of a “war” between accountability and existing educational practices; between us and them. Fighting this dichotomous construction may in fact be the most important battlefront in what must not be a war. If we allow this discourse, of which Mooney’s article is merely the vanguard, to establish the terms by which we engage with society, we ensure a battle from which we cannot emerge as victors. {jathumbnailoff}


Image top: drgandy.