Governance of universities

– An analysis with eight international case studies

Individuals as well as funds have in recent years become more mobile, resulting in challenges for the world's higher education institutions (HEI). The international competition for students, researchers and funds increases, which requires universities and colleges to act strategically, enhance their quality, be more innovative as well as attractive to students, researchers, funders and companies. The perceived need to be able to act more freely has contributed to a trend toward greater autonomy from the principals, even for public universities.

All the institutions studied in this report enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy and, for example, the University of Helsinki was granted an increased freedom of action in 2010. Others universities that have been given greater freedom in recent years include the University of Oregon and the University of Vienna. The increased autonomy often consists of increased possibilities to define strategies, organisation structures and use financial instruments (for instance bonds and for fund raising). Only one institution in the study, the University of Edinburgh, is formally independent from the state. This does however not imply that the principals in the other seven cases control daily operations, or that they lack any control at all. With few exceptions public control occurs through funding, evaluations and in some cases long-term performance contracts.

The universities often use their autonomy to work more strategically, to develop their profiles and to attract funds. In the case of the University of Oregon the state university system has recently been dissolved, and the university now has its own board. For the university the increased freedom from the principal results in greater opportunities to receive donations and make strategic investments. That universities have access to funds that may be used on a discretionary basis seems to be of great importance for their ability to act strategically. The fact that a university is public need not be a major obstacle for strategic autonomy. It is however common that the principals must give their approval for major changes in organisation or operations (e.g. creation of a new college).

The strategic development of the universities is usually led by the central administration (Presidents office or similar). However the processes more or less always include some form of collegiate discussions and influences from staff groups. The principals, and interest groups outside the university, may also be involved in processes to define targets and actions. At, for instance, NTU, KAIST and EPFL it is evident that the strategic activities largely are controlled by the central administration and the president, while the balance of power is considerably “lower down” in the organisation at Edinburgh, Vienna and Helsinki. Georgia Tech is of special interest as the strategic development is led by the president but combined with a long and very inclusive interactive process. The results suggest that a balance between central leadership, management and control on one hand and collegiate structures and influences on the other, is likely to be advantageous. Overly strong collegiate structures may act in a conserving manner while an emphasis on executive leadership and management may divide a university and lead to strong discontent. In many cases decision making processes may involve components on both higher and lower levels in the organisation. All of the studied universities have some form of collegiate fora (e.g. an academic senate) and consultation processes including the faculty and other staff. Some interviewed persons at for instance the University of Vienna and the University of Oregon have the impression that the influences from faculty and staff have been reduced as the institution has gained more autonomy. It is important to be aware that there often exist significant differences between formal and informal decision making processes and mandates at universities. A dean can, for example, formally enjoy a strong mandate but at the same time have difficulties in making important decisions without the support of the department heads. It should be pointed out that all studied universities stress that the university leadership in principle never try to influence ongoing research processes.

Few issues related to strategic development of universities are as important as the recruitment of researchers and teachers. Reassignments of positions after for instance retirements are often, in practice, handled on the department and school levels. On the other hand processes for new strategic recruitments commonly involve the central leadership of the university. These types of decisions, as well as decisions concerning specific investments, are usually made through (more or less) dynamic interactions between different levels at the institution, with the help of external expert groups and through horizontal consultation between for instance colleges. Gender equality and equal opportunities aspects are seen as important in recruitments at all studied universities. Such aspects may however never lead to that demands for high qualifications are sacrificed.

The termination of research areas and educational programs that for any reason no longer fits within an institution is a very complex area. Termination is often accomplished through mergers, if a research group in the long run not is able attract competitive funding or if a research leader has left the university. Another form of selection occurs through the strategic investments a university chooses to make, which of course also affects other areas. EPFL and KAIST are example of universities that have made clear strategic choices.

This report does not provide sufficient basis to safely draw conclusions concerning differences in strategies and organisational development between full spectrum universities and technology institutions. However, an impression is that while general strategic goals (e.g. improvement in university rankings, good conditions for researchers, high quality education) are well defined at all the studied universities, it appears somewhat easier for the technology schools to define strategic areas of strength.

International competition for funding, researchers and students may transform higher education institutions' long-term relationships (internally and externally), and require them to continue to strengthen their competitiveness in research, education, and other tasks. Some of the lessons that can be learned for the future development of universities and colleges in Sweden are:

  • Strategic plans of many Swedish universities, and other higher education institutions, should increasingly address how the institutions perform on the national and international levels, and relate this to defined targets. An interesting question in this respect is which Swedish higher education institutions that are, or will be, particularly exposed to international competition. The tools that are used to strengthen the attractiveness for researchers/teachers, students, funds etc. should be well defined and followed up.
  • Our results indicate that funds that can be used in a discretionary manner, and are readily available, are of great importance for higher education institutions to develop profiles and act strategically.
  • From a strategic point of view no clear disadvantages have been found for publically owned universities compared to private ones. The available information is however not sufficient to draw certain conclusions. The ability of universities to act autonomously in strategic, operative and financial matters is however likely to be important. Resultoriented performance contracts between the principal and higher education institutions is an interesting model for the definition of long-term targets and expectations. When steering and organisational structures of higher education institutions are discussed it is central to take into account the specific goals that these work towards.
  • The study suggests that a balance between control and management by the university leadership on one hand, and collegiate influences on the other, may be advantageous for strategic decision making. The reason being to avoid a too strong central control as well as overly complex and slow processes.

Governance of universities – An analysis with eight international case studies

Serial number: PM 2014:25

Reference number: 2014/153

Download Swedish report Pdf, 2.5 MB.


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