Tracking governance choices in post-Soviet universities

The former Soviet region is in the news for all the wrong reasons these days. The war in Ukraine haunts the news and in many ways seems to be a relic of the Soviet-dominated past, recycled and rekindled, but with deadly and worldwide consequences.

Until the early 1990s, the Soviet Union controlled all higher education across the region. It was a homogenous approach in a diverse region, which now comprises 15 independent countries.

This one-time uniformity of the former USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) provides a natural laboratory to understand the ways in which higher education in the region has evolved from a common starting point. When universities are left to develop within their own national contexts, what choices do countries make to create the form and function of tertiary education, particularly their institutional-level governance?

To understand this broad question, an international research team focused our efforts on governance structures at the institutional level. This is the point at which policy intersects with practice and where coordination and strategic development occur.

University governance reflects the beliefs and priorities of those in power. At the same time, governance structures shape decisions and actions. Structure is both a dependent variable and an independent one.

And structure is not neutral in its creation or operation. Our inquiry, stopping just before the start of the current war, yielded four models – a state-extended, an academic-focused and an external model and one with internal/external stakeholders – across the 15 countries. Each are described below.

From a common start

The former Soviet region includes what is now a range of very diverse countries, from the Baltic countries, full members of the European Union and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), to Russia and the countries of Central Asia. The sovereign nations that emerged or re-emerged each had a different history before incorporation into the Soviet Union and then a period of forced commonality.

But after 1991, the countries’ university systems were free to evolve on their own as did how they were governed.

During Soviet times higher education institutions were very similar, regardless of their location and local history. This was due to a highly coordinated, centralised and well-funded approach to post-secondary education, reflecting the unique goals of the communist government.

The system was intentionally structured to remove competition and be immune from market and economic forces, but not political or ideological ones. Institutions were not only of the state, but they were the state.

Since independence, across the region higher education institutions have faced a series of challenges, including finding their way in newly established market economies amid financial and political uncertainty; updating and broadening curricula and removing Soviet ideology; developing research capacities; coping with brain drain; and updating infrastructure, data systems and facilities.

They did this in newly competitive educational marketplaces with the growth of new private universities and amid sizeable numbers of students paying tuition fees. The result was a range of pressures shaping higher education institutions and the ways they were governed.

Four emergent models

Four different models emerged when we looked at who was involved in governance and their pathways (for instance, whether they were appointed, elected, etc) into governance; the leadership of the governance structure and how that individual came to that position; the scope of work of governance bodies; and the types of accountability.

The first is the academic-focused model. This approach is common to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as well as Ukraine and Moldova.

The latter two have dual governance structures, with the two bodies working in tandem. For academic-focused governance bodies, the elected rector is a first-among-equals coming from the university’s academic ranks, serves at the preference of the academic staff and serves as the body’s chair as part of the rector position.

The body focuses strongly on academic issues and the leadership is accountable to those who elect them. The membership is dominated by academic staff as well as university representatives that include students and members of campus units and trade unions. Key governance decisions beyond academic issues, such as budget and planning, often fall outside of this body and are either made by the rector and his or her staff or are the responsibilities of the ministry.

The second model is state-extended. This approach in many ways is structured similarly to the academic-focused mode. The essential differences are that the leadership of these bodies is appointed by the government, the scope of responsibilities is limited based on what is delegated to them from the ministry, and the person is primarily accountable to the government.

These models exist in Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It seems to extend the strong single-leader model of the Soviet era. The rector is powerful, with authority derived directly from the state.

Thus, the government has a strong role in setting the institutional direction and driving decisions around policy-making. This structure limits the scope of institutional-level governance. Ministries remain strong and have direct control of universities.

The third approach is the internal/external model, which consists of membership from within as well as outside the university. Armenia’s board of trustees, Latvia’s boards, Lithuania’s and Estonia’s university councils and Moldova’s Strategic and Institutional Development Councils are examples.

Ukraine and Moldova adopt a slightly different approach from others in this group in that, rather than a single body with dual representation, they have two bodies with coordinated responsibilities. For example, Moldova’s Strategic and Institutional Development Councils are themselves the internal/external body with a combination of university staff and external appointments.

The final model, which we label external civic, describes the governance structure of Kazakhstan. The term civic can be a nuanced term, but here it indicates that governance is grounded in the community and its citizens, even if those citizens are elites. In the Kazakhstani context, the balance tilts toward governmental members, but participation from the private sector and from other universities does exist.

This is a nuanced distinction and an important one in which membership matters. If the external civic board members are all or mostly governmental, this module becomes the state-extended one and loses the important voice of civic stakeholders.

Having members of government holding the most seats and being the most influential voice is a possible challenge if the country is to operationalise the design of its citizen-based governing boards’ structure.

It is important to note that some countries have put in place additional external advisory bodies. These include Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Russia for some of its universities.

Although the authoritative decision-making body was either state-extended, where the influence remained in the government, or academic-focused, where the influence was from within the institution, these advisory bodies present opportunities to bring outside perspectives into university decision-making. But even then, questions remain regarding who is appointed to these advisory bodies.

Our understanding is that often it was government officials who comprised these external advisory boards, but not exclusively, suggesting an opening for the inclusion of some non-governmental voices in university strategy, even in centrally controlled higher education systems.

Making sense of governance patterns

If governance is about power and voice, as former Harvard University dean Henry Rosovsky famously noted, these models offer insights into university power dynamics and ideas about the variation of authority and control between governments and their public universities.

The external civic and state-extended models reflect a locus of power outside the university. The state-extended model places authority in the government, which varies between university presidential and ministerial influence and involvement, depending on country and university.

Given the composition of the Kazakhstani external civic governing bodies, while the structure allows for broad stakeholder influence, currently that influence tilts to the government.

However, it is different from the state-extended model because influence is indirect via appointments rather than through direct ministerial line-management oversight and it has the potential to be balanced with corporate and academic (from other universities) voices.

The academic-focused model also reflects a division of power between the government via the ministries and university academics. In the academic-focused model, the government devolves or delegates academic decisions to the university governing body. The level of this delegation is tied to levels of state-granted autonomy.

The final model reflects the most complex of the power dynamics. This model is termed internal/external because of its involvement of university and governmental or other external stakeholders and reflects a balance between these stakeholders’ influence and aims.

In the Moldova structure, for example, there is a differentiated role between the Academic Council and the Strategic and Institutional Development Council (SIDC), with different stakeholders serving on each and only the rector and pro-rector serving on both bodies. The rector chairs the Academic Council and an external member of SIDC chairs that body and is selected by members of SIDC.

Estonia’s university councils include five individuals appointed by the senate who are not members of the senate or serving as senior university administrators, five individuals appointed by the ministry of education and research and one person from the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

Latvia’s boards balance the interests of internal and external stakeholders and explicitly ban current members of government from serving on boards. The Armenian boards of trustees are also designed to be representative across stakeholder groups, with balanced representation of governmental members, external individuals, students and university staff.

However, as a European Union analysis suggests, examples of governmental influence in the selection of non-governmental appointments consolidate its influence.

Advancing governance

Three important implications for advancing governance both in this region and beyond it come from this broad and comparative analysis.

First, governance can and should evolve to meet current challenges. There is no single structure for university-level governance. Governance works best when it meets the needs of multiple stakeholders, and depending on the case, achieves a balance between government, academic staff, institutional leaders, students and general citizens, including employers and alumni. No model fits every context and different approaches emerged from a common start.

Governance works best when it starts with universities’ needs and expectations and then settles on appropriate governance structures, rather than remaining steadfast or adopting a foreign model without understanding its assumptions and context.

Second, changing governance is easier said than done, but governance can and does evolve. However, when governance structures change, so must processes, expectations and leadership approaches at both university and ministerial levels.

Most important when it comes to change is the ability to transform mindsets and adopt new ones. Change for the future is often constrained by an inability to overcome the past and this is true in governance as well.

Finally, ensuring that those involved in governing have the skills, capacities and knowledge to govern effectively is important. Developing and offering training and development programmes and workshops and creating and sustaining ongoing networks of practice that bring together governing body members and university leaders – together or separately – are useful strategies to strengthen governance.

While the former Soviet countries garner attention from what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, they should be seen as an important laboratory for higher education comparison and evolution. Their common start provides opportunities for additional study.

Dr Peter Eckel is senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He works with campuses and their boards on strategy and governance. He is the academic head of a new global programme in higher education management (executive, online) and he edited a forthcoming book on Governing Universities in Post-Soviet Countries from Cambridge University Press on which this essay was based.