How craze for audit cultures have strangled our varsities

Taita-Taveta University Vice Chancellor Professor Hamadi Boga (in light blue gown) receives an ISO certificate from the Kenya Bureau of Standards during the institution’s first graduation ceremony in 2017. [File, Standard]
It is official, Kenyan universities now live in a pervasive audit culture.

The economic imperatives of neo-liberalism and the technologies of ‘new’ managerialism are making a profound change in how universities are managed, and by extension refashioning how academics view themselves.

The question is whether all these audits, a product of new manegrialism regimes, add value to academic mission.

A while ago, a young lady walked into my office asking how many ‘customers’ we serve, and how much ‘money’ my department made in a semester. She had been sent by the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) which required this data to make scenarios on the actual ‘worth’ of a university don.

For profit businesses

We are not in the business of ‘buying’ and ‘selling’, we are academics, I reminded her. Even then, reference to our students as either customers or clients has increased with each audit. 

Former Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i was quite big on audits. The finger-wagging CS ordered the Commission for University (CUE) to conduct an audit on universities. A sensational report which told of unapproved and duplication of university programmes and understaffing was later released.

Nothing new, but the report sold newspapers.

New managerialism represents a way of trying to impose managerial techniques usually associated with ‘for profit’ business onto universities. One of the hallmarks of new manegrialism in Kenya is evidenced by the increased interventionist nature of policy steerage by the State through audits. This managerialism is bound to grow more invasive.

New managerialism adheres to need for quality assurance, performance, obsession with assessment tools, a pervasive culture of audits, and an insatiable appetite for rankings and self comparison.

Today, all universities in Kenya extol their ISO (International Standards Organisation) Certification and their walls are strategically emblazoned with such things as service charters.

All these symbolism is part of and an expression of audit cultures. Audit cultures beget showy campuses, akin to owning designer jeans. There are more credits in displaying them than living them. It is an ornamental celebration of form, which often masks concerns of efficacy.

For a Kenyan university to be without an ISO Certification is analogous to the Kenyan household that dares skip the mandatory chapati meal on Christmas. 

Audits and the culture of audits is a mongrel borrowed from accountancy. Audit cultures have become a central organising principle in the governance and management of human conduct, especially in universities. In turn, these audits have created new kinds of relationships, habits and practices that might actually refract the noble aims of higher learning.

For any problem afflicting universities, the word audit is always bandied as a potential solution. Kenyan academics are aware of the kind of pressures and practices it inscribes in their everyday workings. 

First, audit cultures in universities interpolate academics as auditees. It is a language of power. It is a system where the daily conduct of academics is subjected to invasive policing mechanisms, where individual performance of academics is scrutinised and paraded to the gaze of ‘external experts’ and where value of routine operations is understood more in terms of rankings, bureaucratic benchmarks and economic targets.

Marking scheme

For instance, in one of the most mindless of tasks, CUE now subjects universities’ curricula to a marking scheme where they are graded as is done for an examination. The result has been an increase in uniformity, standardisation and a worrying poverty on creativity and innovation.

Audits are not just mere exercises of State power; they are a complex system well able to transform a deliberative, critical collegial environment, to a loyalty based system where university bosses become modern-day emperors.

Audits are not neutral or politically innocent practices designed to promote ‘transparency’. Nay, they have a possible effect of transforming academics from thinkers to zombified cogs in a production-assembly line.

But there is more. The hours and resources invested in preparing paper trails for external assessors mean a major drain in university recourses, and limits academics into clerical, glorified record managers. At its worst, it has now led to a culture of ‘performance’. Many universities hold dress rehearsals before the more dreaded KEBS audits. In some universities, most audit exercises are mere theatrical performances lacking in any value beyond winning ‘certification.’

In his searing critique of audit regimes, the scholar Neville Johnson in his article Dons in Decline argues that ‘it no longer matters how well one teaches, or how one has inspired young minds, it is more important that (academics) have produced course plans, bibliographies, outlines of this and that, and all manner of paraphernalia of futile bureaucratisation required for assessors who come from on high like emissaries from Kafka’s castle’.

Audits distract academics from real work. While audits have improved record-keeping and have created more paper work (and more administrative jobs in Kenyan universities), the true claims of audits are in desperate need of audit.  

The writer is a lecturer of media studies at Moi University.

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