From the mid-1980s on, accountability has been part and parcel of the higher education fabric. Much research has highlighted accountability reforms and observed that balancing autonomy and accountability remains a challenge. This chapter highlights that many of the concerns can be traced back to different perceptions and expectations of pertinent stakeholders. To support this claim, insights from the public administration literature are presented, and particularly the notions of accountability forms, functions and forums. The latter notion suggests that audiences may reflect differently on accountability: a political forum (for instance, parliament) versus the public forum (for instance, mass media) versus market forums (for instance, customers). Using examples of accountability mechanism in the Netherlands, England, Norway, Austria and Italy, it is illustrated that accountability becomes quite complex particularly if types of accountability mix and accountability narratives move from one forum to the other. It is argued that a more fine-grained analysis of accountability – stripped from the normative connotations that figure largely in the higher education literature – is promising to gain more insight in the implementation and impacts of accountability regimes in higher education.
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