New Public Management

The August HE Watch focused on workshops offered by Professor Johann Mouton and his colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch in order to enhance the monitoring and evaluation of University Capacity Development Grants (UCDGs). In the workshops, grant managers and others were trained to describe activities funded by the Grants in ways which would allow them to be measured and for the impact of the activities to be assessed.

This month, we again focus on monitoring and evaluation of the grants as the DHET’s annual round of monitoring takes place. As HELTASA members may know, until this year, monitoring and evaluation has involved visits to campuses to look at the way Teaching Development Grants (TDGs) had been spent. The replacement of the TDGs by the new UCDGs means that the focus this year is on programmes funded by the new grant.

<Monitoring in higher education is rooted in the ‘New Public Management’ discourses that emerged in the 1980s and which were promoted by the likes of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. Key to New Public Management is the idea that public services, including higher education, need to be actively managed and shown to be providing value to tax payers. Usually, this active management involves the development of strategic plans along with goals and indicators, which are then used to assess progress or impact. Achievement against the goals is then monitored.

The management of the UCDG can be seen to emerge from this thinking. When they applied for the grants, universities had to indicate the way each ‘activity’ being proposed for funding was aligned with the institution’s strategic plan. Indicators or targets for the life of the funding cycle then had to be identified and a baseline set against which progress would be measured. The evidence that would be used to assess impact also needed to be stated.

While all this might seem very reasonable, it is not without problems. New Public Management requires evidence needs to be concrete and ‘countable’ and, as a result, in relation to teaching and learning institutions often identify attendance at events or participation in activities as indicators. The problem here is that mere attendance or participation cannot guarantee an effect. In a similar vein, it is not always possible to identify the source of learning (even when we can measure it accurately) as it is impossible to say whether the learning emerged from an initiative offered by the university or because of students’ experiences elsewhere. Hopefully, the guidance offered by colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch will ensure that this process is more rigorous although UCDG plans showing new indicators and so on will not be used this year. Monitoring will be on the basis of the plans originally submitted to the DHET for approval.

For AD practitioners, the point of thinking about reporting and monitoring relates to our own understanding of our work and, importantly, to our own research. Assessing impact is actually a form of research and, as in any other project, we need to be sure of the validity of what we are using as evidence. Many HELTASA members will be involved in meetings with colleagues from the DHET as they arrive at institutions to monitor the use of grants. While interaction with officials is welcome and the need to be accountable for the use of taxpayers’ money is indisputable, particularly in a country like South Africa where calls on the public purse are many, Academic Development practitioners need to consider the bigger picture and to be aware of broader conceptual issues.

There is also the question of the entire notion of New Public Management itself. Critiques of the practices associated with New Public Management abound with many focusing on the way power is being stripped away from the traditional academic governance structures of Faculty Boards and Senates and located in specialist units in the hands of ‘institutional managers’ who strategise and monitor without necessarily having had any experience of academic life other than as students.

A google search for ‘critiques of New Public Management in higher education’ will bring up a host of articles from around the world. For work closer to home, HELTASA members might want to look at Tartius Nampota’s (2016) doctoral thesis exploring the introduction of New Public Management practices at the University of Malawi. What Tartius shows very clearly is the way reforms introduced under the banner of ‘transformation’ and associated with New Public Management did not have the results intended.

As transformation is a central concern for all of us, seeing in context a relatively innocuous event such as a monitoring visit of a grant intended to contribute to making our higher education system more fair by enhancing teaching and learning is critically important. Developing ourselves as Academic Development practitioners involves more than simply focusing on teaching and learning. We need to read and explore work on higher education more broadly.

Thinking about the monitoring visits provides us with an opportunity to do exactly that.

Nampota, T. 2016. Emergent governance practices in the University of Malawi following reform implementation from 1997 to 2013. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Rhodes University