Audit Culture and Anthropology: Neo-Liberalism in British Higher Education

Article excerpt

Anthropology as a profession is particularly dependent on universities, institutions that throughout the industrialized world have been undergoing major structural readjustments over the past two decades. Central to these reforms has been the introduction of mechanisms for measuring 'teaching performance', 'research quality' and 'institutional effectiveness' Taking British higher education as a case study, this article analyses the history and consequences of government attempts to promote an 'audit culture' in universities. It tracks the spread of the idea of audit from its original associations with financial accounting into other cultural domains, particularly education. These new audit technologies are typically framed in terms of 'quality', 'accountability' and 'empowerment', as though they were emancipatory and 'self-actualizing'. We critique these assumptions by illustrating some of the negative effects that auditing processes such as 'Research Assessment Exercises' and 'Teaching Quality Assessments' h ave had on higher education. We suggest that these processes beckon a new form of coercive and authoritarian governmentality. The article concludes by considering ways that anthropologists might respond to the more damaging aspects of this neo-liberal agenda through 'political reflexivity'.

Over the past two decades higher education in Britain and in other industrialized states has undergone a process of radical reform or structural readjustment. A key element of these reforms has been the introduction of mechanisms for measuring 'teaching performance', judging 'research quality' and assessing 'institutional effectiveness'. These mechanisms are intended to ensure 'accountability', a principle justified on the rational and democratic grounds that those who spend taxpayers' money should be accountable to the public. Measuring performance is characteristically framed in terms of 'improving quality' and 'empowerment', as though these mechanisms were emancipatory and enabling. However, in Britain at least, accountability is not always as democratic or empowering as it appears. On the contrary, as we shall argue, a peculiarly coercive and disabling model of accountability has emerged. There are three main reasons for this: first, because accountability is elided with policing (Power 1994; 1997); secon d, because it reduces professional relations to crude, quantifiable and, above all, 'inspectable' templates (Strathern 1997); and, third, because it is introducing disciplinary mechanisms that mark a new form of coercive neo-liberal governmentality (Foucault 1991; Rose 1992).

Universities are just one site where neo-liberal ideas and practices are displacing the norms and models of good government established by the postwar, welfare state. The ways in which neo-liberal governance has been introduced in other policy areas in the 1980s and 1990s has become a subject of increasing interest to anthropologists (Shore & Wright 1997). Some have explored this by analysing how new forms of power are embedded within changing patterns of language (Seidel 1988), shifting notions of 'culture' and 'community' (Mackey 1997) and the construction of new subjectivities (Martin 1997). Others have analysed the aetiology and consequences of neo-liberalism from the perspectives of economic anthropology (Gudeman 1998) or by using ideas of consumerism and 'abstraction' (Miller 1998). This article provides a further contribution to these debates by developing four themes of inquiry. First, it explores how modern audit systems and techniques function as 'political technologies' for introducing neo-liberal systems of power. Second, it traces the rise of these managerial technologies since the 1980s, particularly the way they were introduced into the university sector. Third, it examines the effects of this 'audit culture' on higher education and on British society more generally. Finally, it poses the question of how anthropologists should respond to these neo-liberal reforms. …