Gaming university governance in search of your niche

The academic and scientific sectors have always been competitive. Grades serve as a way to rank students. You must compete for scholarships and grants with other candidates. Scientific discoveries have to be made before other research groups beat you to it.

But for a long time, competition was mostly among individuals or groups, not universities. They had a guaranteed student pool, usually from the same city, and the funding came through on a steady basis as part of the socio-political contract, that is, ‘I, the State, am funding you, the University, simply to reward you for your existence’.

Globalisation made universities compete for students, professors, research contracts and the right to manage major scientific projects. State policies have exacerbated this situation and fuelled competitiveness by implementing performance-based funding, a trend that can be observed all over the world, from Canada to China.

Rectors now have to act like captains of sailing yachts. In order to compete successfully, a boat must follow its course strictly, and to make sure of that, university management teams now interfere in university processes on a larger scale than ever before. This naturally causes resistance, as the university has never been a flexible type of organisation.

How can you learn to manage a university in such conditions? You could learn by trial and error, but that is a slow and risky method. You could even refuse to compete at all, which is a position that many universities embrace. And you could attempt to simulate the competitive conditions and try on the role of a university rector without any real risk within a gamified environment.

University race simulation

For corporations, simulation-based management training is not at all rare. It is impossible to teach management simply by talking about it; you have to put a person in a decision-making context. No one would put their own business at risk by giving a newcomer an opportunity to practice on a real company, which is why the risk-free environment of a simulator is perfect for skills development.

University governance simulators are not as common. In 1999, the Jackson Hole Higher Education Group developed Virtual U: The University Simulation Game, software that simulates university administration processes. Conditions have changed since then, with the emergence of new educational technologies and programme types and as a result of the increased role of competition and globalisation in education.

Furthermore, Virtual U did not take into account the context of universities undergoing transformation. In 2016, a web-based computer simulator Reaching Top Position in University World Rankings was developed. It simulates competition between Russian universities on their way to the top 100 of global rankings. In three years, approximately 2,000 players from different universities have experienced this simulator-based training.

Simulator participants get to lead management teams of virtual universities for two days. This time translates into six virtual years, during which they have to analyse more than 1,500 parameters and make about 250 decisions. At the end of each round, the simulation shows how each of the decisions affected the university as related to its teaching, research, infrastructure and so on.

Just like in real life, participants are limited by budget, time and their own competencies. You win if your university hits the top 100 of world rankings.

The simulator’s complex mathematical model and software are just one element of the educational technology at work. Another important element is the communication among participants, as well as reflection on the game. Teams have to present their strategies and analyse the results.

Additionally, facilitators perform scenario interventions by using participants’ statements against them. For instance, a key professor can leave your school for a competing lab because your team was unable to answer a question about research priorities. Students can become unhappy about the university’s new branding. Also, the ranking methodology can change.

Competing styles

The simulation does not provide any recipe for how to advance a particular university’s position in the world rankings or serve as a cure-all, but it does reflect people’s behaviour in the face of a governance challenge. The programme puts players in situations where it is necessary to apply relevant managerial and competitive skills.

By looking at participants’ behaviour, one can pinpoint some typical characteristics of university management as it exists today. All our participants so far have been from Russian universities, but we believe these observations could be applied to other contexts as well. Here are some of the different behaviours we have observed:

  • Finger pointing. Unsuccessful teams tend to blame external factors for their failures, for example, “there was not enough time for decisions”, “some rules were not clear”, “the model was too complex”, etc, and rarely try to identify their own managerial mistakes. This is a normal human reaction, but the competitive landscape is always vastly unclear and difficult to pin down and real universities are way more complex than any model.

  • The Renaissance University. The overwhelming majority of teams do not focus their resources and efforts on a single area and instead try to turn their universities into jacks-of-all-trades with impeccable teaching, research, relationships with industry and infrastructure. Historically, almost all universities have strived to be multiversities. Yet, in today’s context of limited resources and increasing number of universities, it is necessary to prioritise.

  • Resource management. One in five teams finishes the game with a bankrupt university on their hands. In the real world where universities no longer receive resources by virtue of existing but instead have to compete for them, it becomes crucial to be able to manage them efficiently. This problem might be a characteristic of publicly funded higher education institutions. They are unused to treating organisational development resources as investments.

  • The inertia of collective consciousness. When a team includes members from the same university, the participants tend to replicate the hierarchy of their social relationships within the game. Mutual reinforcement of negative behavioural patterns and ingrained notions follow such teams throughout the whole process.

    Representatives of the same university obviously have a harder time stepping back and assessing themselves critically.

    What we can conclude from that is, first, in order to transform, an organisation needs a critical mass of employees with fresh mindsets. Second, heterogeneous teams are more competitive, which means that your university’s leadership team should include people from other universities or even from other sectors.

  • Teamwork models. The first model is “all eyes on the leader”. One participant takes control and the others provide occasional humble advice. That seems like a more manageable situation, with the rector of a virtual university trying to control all the processes and sort out all the decisions themselves. However, due to the large amount of information and pressing deadlines, the leader gets so worn out by the end of the game both emotionally and intellectually that the university loses its ability to achieve results.

    The second model is “everyone manages everything”– another extreme that seems more similar to random movement than to purposeful work.

    The most successful teams embrace the third model – you agree upon general decision-making principles and then assign responsibilities. This requires good communication skills, including a willingness to compromise. When a primary strategy does not work, such teams stop and reconsider their priorities. In the real world, a real management team is always stronger than a rector’s bureaucratic machine.

  • Strategic formalism. Perhaps the most troubling observation concerns attitudes towards the task of developing a strategy for a virtual university. The importance of thinking long term and trying to view the university holistically is one of the key messages of the game. Participants often use the ‘right’ words in their presentations, but do not include them in implementations plans afterwards. This gap between declarations and actions is identified by facilitators via fact-checking.

  • Blind acceptance of the game rules. At the start of the game, participants are tasked with getting into the top 100 rankings. But what would it cost your virtual university? Not a single team starts the game with this question. Eventually, when the task becomes too much, the participants either give up or start lying to themselves – “you just wait, we will get into that top 100 the next year”.

    The most important part of the simulator-based training is not the game itself. The best outcome for the developers is not when a team gets into the top 100, but when participants are able to critically analyse their common moves and underlying assumptions at the end of the game.

    Framing the simulator as a game fulfils an important function. Placing anything within the context of a game allows the participants to strip it of unnecessary gravity. After all, games are something that is not real. This way, rankings are no longer viewed as a ‘sacred cow’. You can go all-in. You can ignore them. You will lose, but nothing bad will come of it.

    In the real world, university rankings can be perceived as a litmus test – they are simply an external affirmation of internal successes. The stronger a university’s identity is, the less destruction global competition will cause it, and the more effectively it will be able to use it for its own benefit.

Competition 2.0

University governance does not boil down to improving competitiveness and quantitative indicators of effectiveness. The developers of the simulator have been considering a new version of the game for quite some time now. There will be a number of significant differences.

First, a strategy will be defined as a result of participants’ search for their own niche in an increasingly complex university landscape.

Arizona State University cannot compete for elite students with the Ivy League, but it can teach ‘average’ students better than anyone else; the University of Tromsø, the world’s northernmost university, specialises in surveillance of maritime conditions and early warning in Arctic waters; and Ikiam University in the Ecuadorean jungle specialises in biodiversity.

These are some of the examples of unique self-identification within the academic system. The team that gets closest to its target positioning at the end of the game will win. Of course, there will also be additional points for ambition because you have to dream big.

Second, a university will be judged not only by the rankings’ criteria but also on having answers to the demands of its various stakeholders. A key competitive strength within the game will be ‘university people’: students, professors, administrators and staff.

The drama of the new game will be people leaving a university that could not grant academic freedom and sufficient lab space to researchers or provide students with a comfortable environment and the ability to manage their own education.

Third, the new version will also include the option for teams to cooperate.

University networks, consortia and associations play an increasingly bigger role in the higher education landscape. Such networks reinforce universities’ political positions. Also, the challenges today’s universities face cannot be accomplished alone as research and teaching cost more and more and research and R&D projects are ever-growing in scale, requiring complex sets of complementary competencies.

In any case, there should be more gamified tools for university management training, not necessarily in the form of a computer simulator. Almost any method for modelling change could prove useful.

Universities experience immense pressure to transform and any managerial decision has serious implications for processes, people, reputation, finances and so on. Modelling helps to significantly improve management skills and decrease collateral damage.

Dara Melnyk is head of the Research Group at the SKOLKOVO Education Development Centre, Russia. Her preferred e-mail address is Petr Tutaev is head of the simulator developers team. His preferred e-mail address is