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ThinkEd: Accountability – the decade focus


Stuart Middleton

4 November 2010

Education seems to need a word or two, a slogan, each decade to rally around. The 1990’s gave us “competitive advantage” – that simply made clear to us that collaboration was a better route to travel. The first decade of this century gave us “steering mechanisms”. That clarified the fact that we didn’t really have any clear idea of where we wanted to head and which vehicle would do what.

During this decade “accountability” is emerging as the word of the decade. “Transparency” made a brief surge but those who are smart enough soon saw through that! No, it is the Age of Accountability. I would have thought that accountability is easily achieved but apparently it is really quite difficult if not a struggle.

In the compulsory sectors the various attempts of governments to get some accountability is fraught with anguish – In Australia the NAPLAN and in New Zealand the National Standards have startled the teachers in staff rooms throughout both countries. I can’t see why. It is the purpose of schools to teach students to read and write and do sums and it ought to be easy to say whether this has been done or not. The result of this confused reaction of the professionals is simply the continuation of confusion in the community – la plus Ça change…

In tertiary education I would have thought that accountability was even more easily achieved. Government-funded institutions have three key objectives: getting students into tertiary programmes, keeping them in tertiary programmes and getting them through tertiary programmes. Research and technology transfer and other tertiary activities are, in this rubric, simply programmes.

Getting them in. This should be measured through agreements about targets between funding agencies and tertiary institutions. The New Zealand approach with a tolerance of +/-3% is a good one. Of course the accountability here is inclusive of relationships with communities, the arrangements with high schools for meaningful pathways and suchlike. (It also implies an accountability requirement on secondary education to bring students to a point of academic preparation that makes these pathways possible.)

Keeping students in has two key elements – the quality of teaching and therefore the quality of learning in the tertiary institution and the quality of student support in a wide variety of areas. So this accountability measure is one which reflects successful retention – students there at the end of a year ready to progress to whatever is next be that the next year and level of a programme or post-graduate study or employment.

Finally, getting them through. Call me old fashioned but I do hold the view that the successful completion of qualifications at all levels is in fact a valuable and reasonable accountability measure. In this regard the post-tertiary sector in whatever English-speaking country you care to name should currently simply hang their head in shame. Completing the job is an absolutely reasonable expectation of anyone who starts it and is paid to do it. No other area other than the gambling industry is licensed to lift cash off people without any guarantee of a return and at least the gambling industry is honest about that.

Now the three accountability measures sound easy but packed into them is a wide range of responsibilities and activities that providers will have to pay attention to and which might be summarised as follows:

Getting them in

• Sound community relationships
• Excellent career guidance and advice
• Collaboratively developed pathways from secondary
• Place students appropriately
• Funding agreements that set sensible targets

Keeping them in

• Appropriate student support
• Excellent teaching
• Mixed mode delivery systems
• Accessibility of support

Getting them through

• The successful completion of qualifications within reasonable timeframes
• Seamless progression to post-tertiary activity

This all seems easy and the sector should be greatly relieved that what seemed perhaps to be such a tricky issue has been clarified and simplified and can now be implemented. But wait! What will be the metrics that are wrapped around these? No doubt the sector will argue for targets that are soft while the governments will want those which provide some stretch.

The arguments about the lvel and appropriateness of targets could well consume the rest of the decade by which time a new word will come along.

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