Will the rest of the world follow the US' devolutionary path?

In the wake of the Cold War era, US research universities became increasingly characterised by a tribal mentality among schools and departments, and disciplines.

The surge in research funding, and in particular the tremendous growth rate among the major public universities, fostered the idea of the ‘multiversity’, which was less communal, and less aware of the institution's collective purpose.

These devolutionary patterns have accelerated considerably over the past two decades in the US and reflect relatively new realities or influences:
  • • Within the public university sector, decreasing public subsidies have influenced a movement towards internal management decisions and organisations, which has eroded a previous model of revenue sharing (in tuition and fees, in overhead generated by extramural research, for example) and moved the emphasis to profit, loss and prestige centres.
  • • This has been accompanied and reinforced by the concept that there are different market opportunities among different schools, departments, disciplines and their degrees, and hence opportunity costs (in the tuition price of an MBA versus an English PhD, for example) in which high-income units should retain and spend those monies.
Is the process of ‘devolution’ a particularly American phenomenon?

Perhaps the stronger sense of community once prevalent on campuses, and reinforced by budget allocations, the sense of collective effort in expanding academic programmes and growing enrolment, is a relatively unique American phenomenon.

The sense of loss, or regression into a more fragmented academic milieu, is therefore more pronounced; perhaps it never really existed in many other nations where the primacy of the department or faculties in various fields has been more significant, reinforced to some degree by the lack of general education requirements, which spread course workload, and funding, among the academic fields.

What about elsewhere?

In Japan, for instance, the supremacy of faculty and their departments and schools has long ruled, seemingly impervious to campus-wide coordination or even government policy initiatives.

Under a plan to expand the authority of the presidents of the elite national universities, Japan’s Ministry of Education changed the status of these institutions as corporate entities under a familiar formula: give the university and its academic leader more autonomy but with the burden of a greater accountability regime. But all evidence is that there has been no major shift in authority or power internally – thus far.

One sees similar ministerial efforts to empower the academic heads of French and German universities. As Professor Georg Kruecken of the International Centre for Higher Education Research-Kassel has observed: “The university as an organisation is transforming into an organisational actor, that is, an integrated, goal-oriented and competitive entity in which management and leadership play an ever more important role.”

This seems to point to greater centralisation of authority and perhaps the promise of greater cohesion within university communities, even if one result is the infiltration of private sector acumen about budgets and operations that some may not find completely admirable.

There is a distinct difference in the experience and viewpoint that focuses on the power and influence of central governments in shaping organisational behaviour, and with a different starting point in places like Europe, in which universities have not historically been as engaged as agents of economic development and socio-economic mobility as their American counterparts.

In the viewpoint of European critiques, for example, an ‘academic oligarchy’ of faculty narrowly concerned about their research ruled the day and only recently has succumbed to a numbing series of edicts from government to drag it closer to the ‘market’.

This is a storyline that simply does not apply to America’s public universities, which have always had in their DNA the idea of promoting socio-economic mobility and economic development as part of their public mission and portfolio.

Some elements of devolution are common

At the same time, however, some of the elements of the ‘devolution’ story are common, found throughout the world. There is convergence.

US research universities are perhaps a bit ahead of the curve in some aspects – like differential fees, different salaries for different faculty, entrepreneurial funding schemes for capital outlays etc. But it does seem to be a curve and one sees their relevance or emergence in most parts of the world.

There is, I suspect, much more commonality and convergence than there are growing differences in organisational behaviour. But one might speculate that the causes are somewhat different.

One cause globally is the quest of ministries to create so-called ‘world-class universities’ focused largely on ranking systems that rely on citation index, patents and licences, and reputational surveys.

The push by ministries for improved rankings, along with ministries' desire for greater differentiation within national networks of universities – where often the rush towards creating mass higher education systems results in statements and national allocations of funds under the ruse that all universities are equal in status, in quality, in productivity – is changing the behaviours of faculty and of academic leaders and their staff.

The establishment of quality assurance offices and staff, and matrixes to judge the performance of faculty and departments, in universities across the globe, attest to changing behaviours.

Finally, if we view the process of privatisation and increased fragmentation of resources as the result of a rational response of the academy, and specifically of research universities, to a more market-oriented environment, then arguably what I describe as ‘devolution’ is in fact some sort of evolutionary process.

Either way, one must assume it is not a process yet completed. It might mean, for example, that despite the tricky problems posed by tenure, some sub-set of academic programmes may appear increasingly as expendable; that faculty salaries will become increasingly differentiated; that the profit and loss centres, and prestige faculty and departments, will become more pronounced.

It means that the idea of the comprehensive university, with a broad array of disciplines, and with quality across the board, will be an increasingly rare or at least difficult-to-achieve commodity.

But that is only speculation. Universities have been extremely robust institutions over time, adapting to societal pressures and funding changes. ‘Devolution’ may be simply another phase that alters but does not fundamentally change core practices and missions.

That is speculation as well.

* John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow – public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley. This is an edited extract from his paper, University Devolution: How and why American research universities are becoming even more tribal, published by the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University.