How audit culture is reshaping academic production

The increasing global obsession with rankings and world class universities is having a demonstrable effect on universities worldwide. While ministers of education clamour to have at least one globally ranked ‘world class’ university, Vice-Chancellors put all their efforts into boosting their rankings, sometimes neglecting other parts of the institution. Faculty and Deans are under pressure to lift research performance to align with the new mantra; ‘research is paramount in the global rankings game’– teaching excellence or other elements count for less, and sometimes not counted at all.

Paralleling the growing importance that is attached to rankings has been the growth of academic audits measuring university performance

In the early 1990s, a range of countries introduced academic audits which have grown in size and sophistication, consuming ever more time, energy and financial resources at institutional and national levels. Resources consumed by such exercises come at the cost of institutional teaching and research budgets, since few or no additional resources are made available by government to defray the substantial additional costs involved. While there is no single agreed measure of academic performance, it is research performance that counts most in practice—and a good score counts, both in reputational and often in financial terms. Where top-ranked institutions and faculties can gain substantial research funds, lower ranked departments run real risks, either of being disbanded, or merged into other units.

What has been the effect of the growth of this bewildering array of ranking schemes, and the parallel growth of academic audits? An international study conducted by scholars from Japan, China, Taiwan,AustraliaSouth Africa and the USA found evidence of significant distortions to the traditional academic mission, favouring research published in highly ranked international journals at the expense of local journals, while enhancing gender and seniority differentials within the profession.

In a series of case studies of universities across the selected systems, academic output in two social science departments was measured over the period 1993-2013, by charting articles produced by academic staff, and interviewing selected academic staff from those departments. The effects on research performance were quite demonstrable, highlighting several key changes. The Australian case study results, that generally paralleled several findings highlighted in the other cases, showed a trend towards publishing in ‘international’ journals, over ‘local'. This was particularly difficult for scholars such as local or national historians, and anthropologists of local indigenous cultures, for example, who often found it difficult to place their work in so-called ‘international’ journals, that were more valued by the national research audits (despite difficulties in agreeing on just which journals were to be accorded such status).

Early career and female academics felt these effects more strongly than older and more senior staff—who were more often than not tenured males. Whereas the latter group indicated that they continued to publish in much the same outlets as before, the younger cohort responded that their more precarious position meant they could not afford to ignore the pressure to target their research at ‘preferred' journals. This was, as they acknowledged, despite often having to carry major responsibilities for child care, as well as heavy teaching loads. As one female interview remarked, “every academic woman needs a domestic partner”.  

With the pressure on universities for demonstrable outcomes, academic audits are not going away anytime soon. However, it is evident that the distorting effects on academic work and priorities need much more critical attention.

Professor Anthony R. Welch is a member of the Global Challenges Research Group with the Worldwide Universities Network and co-author of the book, Education, Change and Society (2013) published by Oxford University Press.