Published 29 October 2015

Management and governance at the University of Copenhagen and Aalto University

– two case studies

How universities are managed, governed and organised is increasingly becoming a subject for discussion and is vital for ensuring that society’s R&D and educational investments have an impact on society and within companies. Questions of management are particular­ly relevant now that Swedish universities have been granted increased autonomy.

The two case studies presented in the report examined management, governance and organisation at two universities in the Nordic region that have completed both internal and national structural reforms. The main purpose of the case studies is to describe and reflect on how the reforms have impacted the strategic ability to carve out a role in the Danish, Finnish and international research and educational landscape. Did the situation develop as intended? And what did the Danish and Finnish architects of the reforms think once they were launched?

The University of Copenhagen (KU) is the largest and oldest university in Denmark, having been founded in 1479, and has more than 40,000 registered students. Since 2003, Denmark has undergone a number of different major structural reforms that have impacted on the development of the Danish university landscape. Aalto University was founded in 2010 through a merger of the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the Helsinki School of Art and Design. The university is run in the form of a foundation and the merger was linked to a consolidation of the Finnish university sector and a new Universities Act.

In general, the case studies show that the intentions of the reforms, which include measures aimed at management, organisation, financial factors and autonomy, have had significant impacts on both the managerial ability and organisation of these two universities. Manage­ment and leadership have been professionalised. New organisational models for the universities have been created. Power shifts have been effected in which the board, president/rector and institutional managers have, relatively speaking, been given more “power”, as a number of the interviewees expressed it. But the path to that point has not always been straight, but rather winding, and has, at the time of writing, resulted in specific management, governance and organisational implications that characterise universities with a number of different faculties. Thus, the collegial elements are strong, while there is a greater element of line management than has normally been the case for a traditional university. However, this “management and governance compromise” does not seem, so far, to have created local resource monopolies at institutional level or protracted bureau­cratic processes in connection with appointments, strategic work or abolition of areas.

The University of Copenhagen has gone from being a loose, decentralised federation to a more coherent and uniform structure in the direction of what can best be described as a modified line organisation. The university has undergone a significant change of organisa­tion and strategy in which the keywords have been concentration of resources and professionalisation of management and governance structures. Organisational structure and activities were changed as a direct result of a number of major university reforms that have been sources of a strong pressure for change in the Danish university system. As shown in the case study, this has led to renewal and adaptation of the activities.

Aalto University, which was created out of several existing universities, has produced an organisational model with six schools and an external board consisting of seven people appointed by a university body. The university’s management and decision mechanisms are intended to be clear and the various parts of the university are well integrated with one another. Strategies are in place at various levels and must be compatible and in line with each other.

One question, of course, is whether the new management and governance reforms have also created more internationally competitive universities. During the interviews, it was suggested that the management reforms have created more specialised institutions, but that it is too early to tell whether this has also resulted in greater competitiveness in the form of citations and other indicators. What is clear is that the University of Copenhagen has at any rate steadily climbed up various rankings and improved its position. Aalto University is in second place in Finland in the Leiden ranking in terms of highly ranked (top 10 %) scien­tific publications and stands out as having the largest proportion of publications in the country involving cooperation with industry.

To sum up: We believe that the management structures at the universities studied have been changed and professionalised as a result of both major politically initiated structural reforms that created the necessary pressure for management reforms, and greater capital injections that hastened the management reforms with the aim of creating universities that were more competitive in an international perspective. In other words, in both countries how the system was (re)organised seems to have been more important than how each individual part of the system was organised (i.e. governance of the individual university). One consequence is that the “aimless expansion” of operations, something that sometimes characterised the development of the Swedish university system, was avoided. In both cases, it has been possible to successfully build on “height” rather than “width” following the structural reforms.

Management and governance at the University of Copenhagen and Aalto University – two case studies

Serial number
Direct response 2015:22

Reference number

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