Traditional understandings of academic autonomy have been put under pressure across a broad spectrum of democratic societies over the course of the past quarter century. Both the spread of the ‘New Public Management’ and wider forces pushing towards a ‘marketisation’ of universities have seen the growth of an increasingly intrusive managerialism at the expense of established norms of scholarly and collegial self-governance. Much of this has been done in the name of the accountability of universities as public institutions. Yet, do such – legitimate – demands for public accountability need to assume the managerial forms that have become increasingly prevalent? Starting from the perspective of public policy analysis, the paper argues that the accountability of universities must be reconceived in terms that escape the distortions of a narrowly performance-based ‘government by the numbers’, and recognise both the specificity of the sector and the multiple, sometimes contradictory demands placed upon it.
The argument is developed in three turns. First, models of accountability drawn from the wider public policy literature are introduced, highlighting both the institutional and the performative or ascriptive dimensions of the concept. Second, instances of the distortive effects of accountability instruments on higher education institutions are surveyed. Attention is paid to both ‘decoupling’ and ‘colonisation’ behaviours – i.e. patterns of adaptation marked either by a divorce between accountability measures and organisational performance, or by the reshaping of organisational operations so as to fit with accountability requirements at the expense of substantive objectives. Third, a framework is suggested to facilitate the emergence of a more appropriate accountability culture in the higher education sector based on dialogue and congruence with professional norms. The implications of such a shift for institutional and system governance are finally discussed.