Research management – A question of balance?

Is ‘research management’ an oxymoron? – A concept that pits researchers against administrators and threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Or is it a realistic response to a world in which national wealth is based on knowledge production and the ability to effectively participate in global market networks?

Increasingly, it is the latter: research management throughout the world has become far more professionalised and specialised, with greater emphasis on strategic research planning and research accountability.

But that doesn’t mean that a balanced approach – and one that takes into account the more traditional academic values – is no longer needed.

“There is a danger of over-managing the research function,” Lynn V Meek, professor and foundation director of the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne, told participants during the opening session of the RHEDI Executive Leadership Programme held in Durban, South Africa, last month and aimed at senior research managers and policy-makers from nine Southeast Asian and African countries.

In a joint presentation with honorary professorial fellow of the LH Martin Institute, Alan Pettigrew, which outlined the “Dilemmas of Research Management, Policy and Strategy”, Meek said research management should still “protect, enhance the drive and passion of researchers” while simultaneously ensuring the sustainability of the process, access to the necessary resources and, in the context of finite resources, investment in priority areas.


Highlighting some of the ‘dilemmas’ facing research management, Meek said that while they are now key actors in the global knowledge economy, there is a big danger of universities “overselling” their direct contribution to the knowledge economy – through reductionist global rankings, for example – with consequences for their credibility and the trust that society shows in academia.

Universities are both fountains of innovative ideas and training grounds for knowledge workers.

But rather than making a direct contribution to utilising innovation for wealth production, Meek said the human capital component of universities was probably an even more critical task.

“Universities are in danger of claiming they are fundamental to the knowledge economy and governments therefore expect that they can make a direct contribution to increasing GDP. When this fails to materialise, there may be consequences for the credibility of these institutions,” he said.

“How we train researchers is as important, if not more important, than direct contributions in terms of new technology and innovation by the institutions themselves.”

Nevertheless, the governance and management of higher education are about the governance and management of knowledge systems and knowledge workers coupled with the expectations of mass participation, he said.

Another dilemma facing higher education throughout the world arises from the fact that despite increases in research investment – many countries attempt to devote between 1% and 3% of their gross domestic product to research – an emphasis on economic return on investment is apparent.

This has implications for the kind of research conducted, explained Meek. “Investment in basic or blue sky research has declined in favour of applied research and national priorities, and investment in public good research is increasingly difficult as a result of the commodification of knowledge.”

Meek also highlighted the global trend towards managerialism and the corporatisation of university governance structures.

“Have the governance and coordinating structures of higher education shifted too far towards the market?” he asked RHEDI participants.

Meek said that in Australia, today’s vice-chancellors – once elected to their positions – were now appointed on the basis of their skills and had to perform as CEOs – at high salaries and with stringent key performance areas.

Balancing trust and risk

Alan Pettigrew, former vice-chancellor of the University of New England, said governance was increasingly a balance between the concepts of trust and risk.

“How far do you trust the people over whom you have responsibility and how far do you risk allowing staff to get on and do what they are meant to do?” he asked.

Pettigrew pointed to a lack of trust sometimes visible in governments towards academia and a greater balance towards risk aversion in order to protect resources.

“Politicians worry that they will be punished for mistakes by the electorate. In the case of universities, that’s not helped by sporadic cases of academic fraud and misconduct involving public funds. This is the cycle that government structures are looking at. And risk is winning because they don’t have enough trust in what academics can do,” he said.

During discussion, a participant from South Africa argued that heavy reliance on public funding meant that universities could not hide behind concepts like academic freedom in order to justify their strategic choices, but that they needed to work together with government in an effective way.

Meek agreed, saying accountability from institutions was necessary, but in some cases it could go too far, resulting in risk avoidance which was ultimately detrimental to innovation. Once again, he suggested, the emphasis was on “finding the right balance” particularly in the context of the social contract of a particular country.

Managing tension

From a national policy point of view, Meek argued that managing the tension in a diversified higher education system between a world-class system and world-class universities was a key issue.

“Every nation requires a rational division of labour among its higher education institutions; no country can fund all of its higher education institutions to be world-class research-intensive universities.”

Meek said evidence suggests that rather than leading to differentiation, market competition in fact precipitates institutional imitation, especially around the issue of research mission. Achieving institutional diversity and mission differentiation therefore required some form of government policy intervention.

“All institutions want to be in the top 10. Every country needs a rational division of labour among its higher education institutions.”

Meek said there was “no simple answer” because resources were finite.

“Policy makers and institutional leadership generally coincide on this point: government has to play a role in determining differentiation and setting goals for higher education institutions,” said Meek.

How far that role extends, and what form such intervention takes, are questions of balance – which are likely to preoccupy the research management sector for some time to come.

* RHEDI will launch its own, interactive and resource-rich website on the University World News platform in the near future.