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Regular version of the site

Exploring the Governance Paradox in Universities

On October 21 Peter Maassen, Professor in Higher Education Studies in the Faculty of Education at the University of Oslo, gave a presentation at the 7th International Conference held in Moscow by the Russian Association of Higher Education Researchers. Professor Maassen’s presentation was entitled ‘The University’s Governance Paradox’, in which he spoke about the contradiction between the development of university leadership and the realities of exercising control in universities.

Professor Maassen visited with the HSE News Service talking in depth about the governance paradox in universities and the main gaps he sees in higher education research around the world.

— You presented a report called ‘The University’s Governance Paradox’. What is the paradox, exactly?

— The essence of this paradox, in a somewhat simplified form, is that university leaders and managers are expected to become more executive and run universities like businesses, while they only have control in their university context, at least to some extent, over one of the two primary processes, that is, education. Research takes place in a disciplinary setting over which university leaders in principal have no control.  At the conference I discussed this paradox from three different perspectives: from a historical perspective, an institutional theory perspective, and a prestige economy perspective.

The paradox is a consequence of the differences between the ideologies and expectations underlying university governance reform agendas and the basic institutional characteristics of universities, including ‘institutional robustness’. The reforms aim to make universities more effectively engaged with society (in other words more ‘useful’ for society), and it is assumed that this aim can only be achieved if universities become ‘integrated, strategic organizational actors’. This should be realized through more professional institutional leadership and management, through enhanced institutional autonomy, through more competitive funding regimes, and through a number of other measures. In the institutional realities of universities these reforms are absorbed, but seldom lead to the intended outcomes of the governance reforms. The reason for this is that the productivity and outcomes of the primary activities of universities (teaching and research) cannot be forecasted.

University leaders and managers are expected to become more executive and run universities like businesses, while they only have control in their university context over one of the two primary processes, that is, education. Research takes place in a disciplinary setting over which university leaders in principal have no control

In addition, there is a prestige economy dimension that links the status of a university to the prestige of its top researchers. This prestige is dependent on their success in the competition for external research funding, and on the productivity (research output, patents, doctoral graduates, etc.) related to this success. Since these top researchers in general have to be as autonomous as possible in order to be successful and productive, the ‘university as a strategic integrated actor’ aim of reforms would be counterproductive when realized.

So the paradox in practice is that reforms are promoted and implemented that everyone involved knows are decoupled from reality, and cannot be allowed to be successful. However, they are politically and ideologically fitting the ‘global reform agenda’ for public sector governance, and therefore, are supported by governments.

— What inspired you to study this issue? Can we speak of something having gone wrong one day?

— I have been studying higher education governance and governance reforms since the 1980s. Initially, I was part of a group of researchers who assumed that higher education governance models and practices around the world were converging. This development was anchored in a global reform agenda that in a simplified form argued: ‘Higher education institutions should become “integrated strategic actors”, led by professional leaders and managers, who are expected to develop institutional profiles, guide their institution into a fitting “niche”, and make sure that their institution’s engagement with society intensifies. In this all institutions are expected to be academically excellent as well as socio-economically relevant, in order to contribute to the innovative capacity of private sector companies and public sector organizations, the creation of jobs, and the solving of the grand challenges that are confronting our societies’.

Given the political and socio-economic importance of higher education, and the size of public and private investment in higher education, the research capacity and available research funding for research in higher education is far too limited

Gradually I realized that the data that we gathered strongly suggested that higher education institutions are in reality more difficult to reform than the reform agendas take for granted. All in all, the converging trend we assumed was not taking place. Further, some countries have more successful higher education systems than others, at least when measured through indicators such as ‘high position in global or regional rankings’, ‘success in attracting international students and staff’, ‘success in competition for European research funding’ (esp. framework programmes), ‘the quality and quantity of outputs’ (e.g., in the form of publications and patents), and contributions to innovation. For me the following questions became relevant: ‘What are the factors that determine the relative success of some systems or institutions, and the relative “lagging behind” of others?’ And: ‘What is the impact of governmental reforms on the success of higher education systems and institutions?’

So instead of trying to study why higher education systems around the world were becoming more alike, my interest changed to studying how the continuing differences (in structure) between higher education systems can be interpreted.

— How did you collect the data for your research? What were the criteria you used?

— We have done a number of research projects on this issue in my research group at the University of Oslo, and we also cooperate with researchers from other countries, including Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Australia, the USA and South Africa. We have focused on one project on flagship universities in 10 countries, collecting data mainly through interviews (about 150), and document analyses. In other projects, we have used surveys. All in all, most of our data were collected in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Until now we have no cases from Russia.

— What are some of the main gaps in higher education research globally now and what should be done to overcome them?

— One major challenge is connected to limited capacity and funding. Given the political and socio-economic importance of higher education, and the size of public and private investment in higher education, the research capacity and available research funding for research in higher education is far too limited.

Another challenge lies in the tendency of higher education researchers to do research on higher education in an ‘isolated’ way, both in terms of research focus (studying higher education as if it is an isolated sector), and in the profiles of the researchers involved (cooperating mainly if not only with other higher education researchers).

Finally, related to the two previous points there are many gaps in higher education research globally, for example, with respect to the relationship between higher education and socio-economic development; the role of higher education in innovation; the change dynamics within universities, especially at the departmental level; the nature and effects of types of higher education system structures; and the factors that influence student learning (where cooperation with neurologists and neuropsychologists should be promoted).

— Are you involved in any special collaborative projects with HSE?

— Not at the moment, but I hope that it will be possible following my visit to further discuss cooperation possibilities with HSE colleagues, and especially those colleagues who have visited the University of Oslo in the past.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service