Global Challenges, National Initiatives, and Institutional Responses – The Transformation of Higher Education
Higher education has faced significant change over recent decades. One of the major features of this change has been the persistent expansion of higher education, which has been increasingly linked to economic motivations and purposes. This shifting view about institutions and their primary purposes has led to a need to rethink and adapt the contextual framework in which these units operate. Hence, we have seen a reconfiguration of the sector along market rules, often through policy initiatives and government interventions that have affected funding mechanisms with a goal of promoting closer interaction between universities and industry.
As higher education has continued to expand, governments’ responses have been to seek structural changes at system level, establishing new higher education sectors or developing private sectors still further and the promotion of new universities of applied science. As a result of these shifts and changes, the dominant situation in higher education seems to be that of different forms of institutional differentiation, with a large number of countries with a binary or dual system and others with even greater levels of diversity and differentiation.
The trend towards expansion has raised significant economic challenges both for institutions and governments alike. Higher education has now moved from an expanding sector to a mature industry, and in its mature phase, political and social actors have become more demanding. They seem no longer satisfied by the addition of more activities or expansion of existing ones. This has had important consequences for prescribed modes of external and internal governance, notably through a much more explicit participation of external stakeholders in formal and informal mechanisms of governance. Another important implication of the pervasive managerial and economic dimensions of institutions has been the rising influence of academic management. This has challenged the traditional sovereignty of intellectual and collegial expertise as the key legitimate foundation for academic management decisions.
The rationale for many of these changes cannot be found exclusively within higher education alone and needs to combine an analysis of higher education specificities and the examination of wider transformations taking place in the public sector all over the Western world since mid-1980s. The emergence of new public management ideas has contributed to put the focus on universities to change their ‘traditional’ nature. Having to take into account, more and more, the interests of a variety of stakeholders, and to deal with growing international competition, HEIs had to rethink their traditional forms of organisation, governance and management, putting a new emphasis on the implementation of effective co-ordination and control systems, needed to improve organisational performance.
The shift from collegial governance to management concepts, structures and methods has enabled higher education institutions to act more collectively and strategically, and their participation in markets can constitute an enhancement or a diminution of institutions to decide about the profile of academic work they undertake. It may be that universities find more diversified sources to support their research projects and their educational programmes and become less subject to state control. However, the emphasis on institutional autonomy does not correspond to the retraction of state regulatory power. The transformation of the regulation relationships between the state and institutions has replaced a priori control, via funding, by a posteriori control, referred to institutions’ output. This has induced the elaboration of instruments based on performance indicators that are spreading throughout the sector.
The institutional adaptation to this new context has been moulded by a change from a cycle of trust and confidence in institutions to a cycle of suspicion. This has been visible in the rise of a series of accountability instruments such as the movement towards accreditation that has been observed in recent years. It may be argued that in this new context quality bears no longer a strong relation to HEIs’ core activities and that its processes are becoming bureaucratic and compliance structures, increasingly removed from the academic concerns that lie at the heart of quality in higher education. Additionally, and increasingly, universities have to respond not just on the quality of their education provision, but also on issues of financial sustainability, productivity, research impact, employability, student satisfaction, staff development, i.e. on a variety of aspects of their performance. There is no shortage of initiatives to collect data in order to classify institutions or rank them according to their performance, in spite of the questionable validity of a lot of these approaches. Notwithstanding the fact that performance is increasingly measured, there is scarce evidence that it is leading to changes in behaviour and indeed performance.
The question of how academics and non-academics are responding to this newly created environment is a matter requiring further research. Thus, in the last years we have been witnessing an increasing research interest over the academic profession especially when compared with other HEIs’ staff. This interest is particularly evidenced in the reflection over the effects of the aforementioned changes in governance and in the assumption of a management culture over academics’ identities and professionalisation processes. Concerning administrative and management staff, theoretical reflection and empirical analysis are yet to be developed. This professional group tends to be interpreted as a category or an occupation which is residual being its definition assumed in simplistic terms as opposed to the professional groups of academics. This simple division oversimplifies the reality and is insufficient to incorporate all the complex dynamics that the introduction of a managerial culture in HEIs translates.
In this conference we aim to discuss and reflect on how HEIs are coping with the demands placed on them and how the various dimensions of change are intertwined.