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Trends in higher education governance

Universities and colleges the world over have undergone profound transformations in the past three decades. The changes to institutions and the nature of academic work have no precedent in the history of post-secondary education. Public resources have declined significantly and in the fiscal crisis, ideas of universities as producers of public goods have been substituted by stress on their links with markets and by notions of 'entrepreneurial universities', excellence, managerial goals such as 'productivity' or 'efficiency', and educational privatisation.

Following on continuous expansion of higher education until the 1970s, the subsequent funding decline has been accompanied by a redefinition of the meanings, goals and practices of higher education, write Lynn Meek (pictured) and Dianne Davies in the Research Report of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge. Their chapter is titled "Policy Dynamics in Higher Education and Research: Concepts and observations".

Definitions of higher education governance and management depend on the level of analysis - national, local, institutional, sub-unit or discipline levels. Dynamics within and between levels differ according to the context which, it has been argued, in turn depends on where universities are located within a triangular field constituted by academic oligarchy, state authority and the market. "We find these three 'ideal types' of coordination in developing and developed countries alike," Meek and Davies write.

The ability of universities to exercise initiative within system-wide authority structures is often measured on a continuum that has, at one end, a 'bottom-up' system where state policy follows rather than leads changes initiated by academics or institutions (high autonomy), and at the other end a 'top-down' system in which institutions respond to government policy initiatives enforced by the state (low autonomy).

National systems differ substantially in the ways governance is organised and the literature features several different conceptual models of governance - such as collegial, bureaucratic, political, organised anarchy, professional and, more recently, the entrepreneurial university, service university, enterprise university, corporate-managerial university and so on.

A central question in research on governance is whether the university is an exceptional institution that has retained its core authority structure over the centuries, or whether it must be understood in the same way as a modern corporation? Some research stresses university resilience and suggests current changes are the codification of existing practices. Others argue that the move to corporate enterprise undermines the claim of exceptionality and that universities face similar challenges to public service agencies during the late 20th Century.

While governance reform movements of the 1960s and 1970s were about democratisation and the inclusion of staff and students in decision-making, from the 1980s the governance debate shifted toward issues of efficiency and accountability, accentuated by the introduction of New Public Management (NPM), which alters the structure and policy processes of public bodies in an effort to make them more efficient and effective.

"In higher education systems the management models of the 1980s and 1990s entailed a much more direct ideological and political attack on the institutional and professional autonomy of universities which continues to have ramifications," Meek and Davies write.

"Governments introduced NPM in the hope of maximising output while reducing unit cost, and in the process shifting the accountability for achieving these ends to the institutions themselves," say the authors. For instance, universities have assumed former government responsibilities such as establishing salary policies, allocating expenditure, entering into contracts with outside agencies and businesses, and receiving and owning assets.

"The NPM approach tends to stress the centrality of the role of executive in the decision-making process to the exclusion of professional scientists, which in turn may threaten the innovative nature of the so-called professional bureaucracy of which the university is a prime example," argue Meek and Davies.

Changes to governance have often involved the state stepping back. The movement from a state control to a state supervisory governance model has granted institutions greater freedom - "moderated by strict calls to accountability and, in many instances, harsh market competition". The hope has been that market steering would enhance accountability and efficiency while reducing the financial burden of higher education on the public weal.

Australia provides an example of where NPM and market competition have replaced many traditional forms of academic governance, the authors write, with many responsibilities devolved to universities that are held more directly accountable for the efficient and effective use of funding and other freedoms, operate in a far more competitive environment and are under pressure to strengthen management, and become more entrepreneurial and 'corporate'.

With government funding less than 50% of operating budgets, and with large institutions - more than 40,000 students and budgets running to billions of dollars - universities rival private corporations in size and complexity and must respond quickly and decisively in order to take advantage of market opportunities. This requires strong and expert administration.

"Changes in the governance and management of Australian higher education directly concern the re-norming of the academic profession and possibly fundamental transformation of the idea of knowledge and of the university itself," Meek wrote in 2003.

Behind much of the change in governance has been the need for countries to be competitive in the global Knowledge Economy.

Professor Imanol Ordorika, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, argues that globalisation has modified the nature of states, and their withdrawal from higher education - expressed in the reduction of public resources - has implied growing competition for resources from the state and the market, reducing the traditional autonomy of academic institutions from both states and markets and promoting accountability initiatives:

"The public sphere has been put into question and the weight of market relations in every type of social interaction has increased. Globalisation has been a product and has in turn promoted a growing economisation of society and an erosion of all that is considered 'public'." Changes in states and the expansion of markets, particularly in education and knowledge production, help to explain the "reduction of trust" of societies in universities.

The crisis of 'publicness' and eroded societal trust has involved challenges to the efficiency, productivity, lack of equity and low quality of large education systems and has encouraged assessment, evaluation and certification policies around the world.

The emergence of a higher education market, Ordorika concludes, poses a major challenge for national research universities - the need to participate globally based on their own nature and distinctive character "without diluting these in the face of hegemonic models and dominant international guidelines...We need to be aware of the homogenising effects of productivity driven policies, their impact on the narrowing of university goals and the detrimental consequences on the social responsibilities of the university...The challenge for peripheral universities is the preservation of diversity of traditions and responsibilities through a broad commitment to society," Orodorika writes.

Charas Suwanawela, Professor Emeritus in medicine at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, is more optimistic about the potential benefits the Knowledge Economy and Society offer developing countries, write Meek and Davies. He argues that research on research systems could offer developing countries opportunities to find positions and strategies that take advantage of global changes.

Higher education governance, write Meek and Davies, "is in the end, primarily about the governance and management of knowledge and the formation of coherent knowledge systems". A knowledge system can be defined as "an organised structure and formal process for generating and representing content, components, classes, or types of knowledge".

The value of a knowledge system is based on four factors. First, it is a venue for organising knowledge and a framework for dealing with challenges posed by complexity and detail. Second, there are gains from organisation - Google is an example. Third, knowledge systems allow people around the world to converge around common understandings and collaborate in order to share and develop knowledge. Fourth, well-organised knowledge systems enable the re-use and reconfiguration of existing knowledge.

"Increasingly, governance and management of higher education are about the governance and management of knowledge systems and knowledge workers. In developing and developed countries alike, the utility of higher education governance and management models will be judged in terms of how well they allow the higher education institutions to contribute to further the Knowledge Society and Knowledge Economy," write Meek and Davies.

* Professor Lynn Meek is Director of the LH Martin Institute for Educational Management at the University of Melbourne.

* Dianne Davies is a freelance researcher and editor in Australia.

Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.
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