Strengthening universities – Lessons from Europe

Recent data from Norway’s statistical office revealed that 50% of all jobs will require a masters degree in the next 10 years, while unskilled jobs will shrink to 5%. This means universities will have a growing impact on development, argues Peter Maassen of Norway's University of Oslo – and that ensuring their success will become increasingly important. What lessons in strengthening universities may be learned from Europe?

“The outcomes and activities of universities in education and research have a crucial impact on the development potential and practices of their societies, not just economically but also socially and culturally.” The key question becomes how to stimulate institutional change to improve universities, and the role of knowledge production in that.

“Institutional Change and Strengthening Knowledge Production” was the title of a presentation delivered by Maassen, professor of higher education studies in the education faculty of the University of Oslo, at a seminar near Cape Town from 20-23 November held by HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa.

Research into flagship universities in Europe, which Maassen has been conducting with University of Oslo political scientist Åse Gornitzka, has challenged the simplistic notion that all European institutions are successful while those in Africa and parts of Asia are not. “This is not only totally unrealistic but also completely outdated.”

Important questions were, what does successful mean and what are the conditions under which successful universities operate? And what can other parts of the world learn about strengthening universities from the European experience?

“One thing of importance is that there is no global script, no easy recipe, no set of specific measures that lead to an outcome that is assured,” Maassen told the seminar. “There is no agenda that fits all universities in all their contexts. There are many filters that impact on the outcomes of reform and the results of institutional change processes.”

Some data

Some universities and countries in Europe are considerably more successful than others when it comes to research productivity.

The different performances of countries is clearly reflected in the global top 100 universities of the Academic Ranking of World Universities – the relatively stable Shanghai ranking – where the United States has 50 universities, continental Europe 23, the United Kingdom eight, Asia seven, Australia six, Canada four and Israel two.

Looking at universities listed in the top 50 globally by field, Maassen found that European universities achieved 25% of listings. The UK had 25 listings, Switzerland nine, the Netherlands seven, Denmark six and France four. Germany, Sweden and Belgium had three listings each, and Norway and Spain one each.

What is clear, looking at spending on research and development, is that there is more variety than homogeneity in Europe, said Maassen. This is a reflection of government choices and public and private sector decisions on research spending, “and it dramatically affects the conditions under which universities operate”.

Another indicator of university and regional success is provided by the European Union’s huge public research funding initiatives – the Horizon programme has a budget of €70 billion (US$74 billion) – including funding awarded through the European Research Council or ERC, for ‘frontier’ (basic) research.

In the ERC, which started operating in 2007 and currently has a budget under Horizon of €13 billion, geography does not play a role. The criterion for getting funding is the quality of the proposal, and all the grants go to individuals, not to universities.

Out of a total number of just over 6,000 grants, 21.1% have gone to researchers working in Britain, 14.9% to Germany, 11.8% to France, 9.4% to the Netherlands and 7.1% to Switzerland. Central and Eastern Europe together have about 0.4% of all grants.

The lesson is that if only academic criteria with peers are used to determine who gets funding, resources concentrate in successful institutions and systems. In Europe the top five countries – the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland – have won 70% of all ERC projects.

Looking at regions, Maassen and Gornitzka found that the UK and Ireland had 12 universities with 30 or more ERC grants, Germany had three, and the eight small countries around Germany – Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria – had 23. France had zero universities, as did Southern Europe and Eastern Europe.

So the UK had Europe’s most successful higher education system. Interestingly, though, the spread of grants indicates that universities are otherwise more successful in Europe’s smaller rather than larger countries, such as the Netherlands.

Looking at highly successful universities, which have received 50 or more European research grants, Cambridge (172 grants) and Oxford (151) lead the pack followed by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (118), University College London (114) and ETH Zurich (113).

In total, 22 universities in Europe had 50 or more grants. Again interestingly, more universities in the Netherlands than in the UK had at least 50 grants. “There seems to be something in the Dutch higher education system that works well,” said Maassen.

The key question was how research productivity had been strengthened in these universities?

Strengthening research productivity

Maassen and Gornitzka pondered ways to strengthen research productivity, anchored in theory but also based on data, and came up with actions in five key areas.

One area is the level of concentration of research funding – both at the system level and in institutions – versus a spread of money and capacity. For instance, are ERC grants found in clusters or spread across the university, and nationally is there a differentiated system with research funding concentrated in certain universities?

A second is top-down versus bottom-up research management within universities and systems: does one work better? A third is proactive versus reactive personnel policies: “We often forget that this is an area that determines the success or failure of universities,” said Maassen. “The most important resource in universities is not money but humans.”

A fourth aspect is how research and education are organised: are they integrated in one unit, such as a department, or does research take place in separate centres or units?

Finally, important to research performance is the interpretation of excellence. There may be one dominant interpretation that helps steer university management, leadership and decisions, or there may be various notions of excellence within the institution.

Successful universities in Europe

The researchers looked among others at ‘flagship’ universities in Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Norway.

Perhaps the most successful has been the University of Copenhagen, and it illustrates the importance of national context.

About a decade ago the Danish government decided to increase public funding of research from about 0.65% to more than 1% of gross domestic product. “There was an almost doubling of the research budget and the government decided all that had to be invested in universities.

“So we have a system that had always done relatively well and now had an enormous boost through public research funding,” said Maassen. Copenhagen became one of few universities to move up the Shanghai ranking, from around the 100 mark in 2003 to the top 30 now.

Within universities and the higher education system in Denmark, there was agreement to concentrate research funding. In the Nordic tradition, research management is very bottom-up, and it is decentralised and closely linked to academic activities.

Research and education takes place in the department and there are proactive personnel policies, with appointments made at the departmental level. Universities were allowed to create a layer of highly paid top professors – some of them Danish academics who were lured back from the United States, along with non-Danish high-flyers.

There is one notion of excellence at Copenhagen, and new initiatives that support research. For instance, seed money was provided for multidisciplinary platforms, which were used to develop cooperation between different parts of the university, seek external funding and work with industry – they were enormously successful.

In the Netherlands, since the 1980s there have been efforts to achieve an effective division of labour in higher education and research. Concentration is not about creating elite universities – “that notion is fanatically rejected. All universities in essence should be regarded as equal and all are expected to produce pockets of excellence,” Maassen explained.

At the extremely successful University of Amsterdam, there is a combination of top-down and bottom-up research management, and proactive personnel policies. Research and education take place in separate units, such as schools and research centres. “There are various notions of excellence, but a very clear and supportive environment when it comes to stimulating research excellence.”

At Belgium’s University of Leuven, the researchers found a concentration of research, a combination of top-down and bottom-up research management, proactive personnel policies, research organised in separate centres, various notions of excellence, and “governance chaos”.

“It is an interesting example of a university which is in a national context that makes it very difficult to have an effective governance structure. But they have managed to protect research in separate units. As long as there is funding, the centres are protected and productive.”

Switzerland’s successful higher education system has two federal universities, in Zurich and Lausanne, that are funded by the federal government and have a common board. The other universities are governed by their states.

There is research concentration, with agreement on areas universities focus on. “At Zurich there is bottom-up research management and a very decentralised system but with a board that creates clear framework conditions, in which a proactive personnel policy is possible. Research and education are in the department, and there is one notion of excellence.

Finally, at the University of Oslo there is a spread of research and bottom-up research management. Personnel policies are reactive rather than proactive, research and education are in the department, and there are centres of research excellence. “There are various notions of excellence,” said Maassen.

Some key findings

The research uncovered commonalities and differences among flagship universities that have been successful in European competitions, and are attractive to students and staff.

While the scores produced were “kind of crude”, Maassen said, they enabled the researchers to compare university governance structures on the basis of various dimensions – an area that is not very well researched – and impacts of the differences.

The four dimensions are: level of internal democratic participation versus an executive model; external (executive) participation in the board; centralisation of governance structures (power of the central leadership); and concentration of power in the board or decentralisation.

The research revealed that the universities of Copenhagen, Zurich and Amsterdam have a more executive model than Leuven, and that Oslo is the least ‘executive’.

“If you go behind the crude scores, you can also see how important the context is.

“One of the reasons why Oslo is successful, even though it doesn’t have a very executive model, has to do with the specific context in which it is operating, the nature of society and the national culture. An executive model with a clear hierarchical top-down governance approach doesn’t fit Norwegian society. It wouldn’t work at all in a university.”

Much more data had been gathered, Maassen continued, but the initial overview revealed that a successful university does not require a specific governance structure.

“You can have very successful universities with democratic, weak leadership – not weak in a negative sense – but also successful universities in the European context with a more executive-oriented leadership.”

The research concluded that in Europe there are some commonalities but also great differences in national contexts and in the nature and structure of university governance. There is not one model that works for all and leads to successful universities.

But to become successful research-intensive universities, certain conditions have to be fulfilled at three core governance levels: the national public governance structure, the institutional governance structure, and the level of autonomy of the most productive academics.

While successful universities had a range of governance approaches, success was associated with governance that allows a high level of autonomy for academics. Also key were a supportive national system and funding model, the notion of differentiation and system development.

“It is important is to realise that the conditions for successful universities are determined within the institution, but not only there. The national context is extremely important,” Maassen said.

“Part of the reason why the flagship European universities could become successful was that they were operating in a context, like with the ERC, where there is a lot of competition for funding which allows some to be successful, all to participate and many not to be successful.”