The meaning of university ‘autonomy’

Just over three years ago, towards the end of my term of office as President of Dublin City University, I took part in a meeting between university presidents and members of the ‘strategy group’ chaired by Dr Colin Hunt who were then working on a new strategy for Irish higher education (and whose report was published in 2011). One of the points of discussion was the desirability of university autonomy. All those present – presidents and members of the Hunt group – agreed that autonomy was vital for universities in a successful national system. But in the course of the conversation it became clear that there were rather different views about what ‘autonomy’ actually meant. In an exchange I had with a senior public servant on the strategy group it became clear that they saw autonomy not (as I suggested) as independence in formulating strategy, but rather as freedom to choose appropriate management methods to implement a government strategy.

In 2011 I moved to Scotland, and as readers of this blog will know I was appointed chair of a review of Scottish higher education governance. My panel issued its report in early 2012. One of our recommendations was that chairs of governing bodies should be elected by staff, students and other stakeholders. This recommendation, which we suspected would be controversial, has been vehemently resisted by governing body chairs and others within the universities, with one of the objections being that if implemented it would compromise university autonomy.

So is there in all this a properly developed view of autonomy? What does it mean? Does it mean, for example, that the state may take no interest of any kind in university governance? Does it mean, on the other hand, that the state can impose a strategic direction, merely allowing universities to choose methods of implementation? Presumably the truth lies somewhere in between these two rather different propositions. Autonomy cannot mean that society has no stake in universities and that its representatives should mind their own business; that would suggest a level of independence from anyone’s oversight that no other body in society, public or private, enjoys. On the other hand autonomy, if it is to mean anything, must include the right of a university to determine its own strategy, taking into account the public interest (which will usually be expressed in conditions of state funding).

Various definitions of university autonomy have been suggested. The European Universities Association, for example, has argued that it involves organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy – a definition that for me is too structural, and not strategic enough. Others have questioned whether university autonomy has come to be seen too much as managerial autonomy from staff influence.

Universities must, like all other bodies, show their responsiveness to the needs of the wider society, but must be left to make most of the judgements about how to reflect this themselves. In the meantime the state, as the guardian of the public interest, must be able to regulate some of the structures of governance, provided this does not include control over decision-making within the institutions. This was the position we were seeking to address in the governance review. I still think we found the right balance.

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3 Comments on “The meaning of university ‘autonomy’”

  1. V.H Says:

    I’m sorry but I totally disagree. I happen to think in this case too many cooks spoil the broth.
    Strategy when used by a klatch of civil servants just gives them notions. What we are talking about here is the use the USA and to some extent the USSR made of the universities during the cold war. But more specifically the Space Race where they had strategic overview and pretty clear goals. It could be summed in the five words ‘get me to the moon’. Then the MITs and MIP&Ts with limitless resources got on with things. What you are writing about is just another level of useless costs. And ludicrous to boot.
    Using the term strategy would be like Nebraska or the Republic of Tajikistan using it.
    If you want strategy it’s from the EU level it needs to emanate. Thence directly to the department involved. No State, regional or local involvement a all.
    Another issue is the CSs never has an end game so once something gets moving it can neither be turned nor stopped. Look at the CAP. It must be past it’s useful sell-by-date 30 years now, and it’s still distorting the local economy while achieving none of the goals. And with that model in mind I’d far prefer to see you billing the various States for the work up do rather than have you latched permanently and accepting every sort of string both politicians and civil servant can dream up to control you.

  2. Anon Says:

    I would briefly like to add that we can learn from the recent experiences of the recent ‘vote of no confidence’ and subsequent suspension and ‘retirement’ of the principle and many of the executive team of Adam Smith College, Fife.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    In discussions about university autonomy, one often comes across the statement that ‘autonomy is a necessary condition for excellence’, most academics would agree with that of course, however I would also argue that autonomy it is not a sufficient one. Universities do not become excellent by the simple fact that they are autonomous; far from it. The public authorities must keep a strong responsibility in favor of higher education and Universities must strive for excellence by improving the quality of their teaching and research, their governance, leadership and management (capacity of change in a rapidly changing environment), while putting in place robust accountability mechanisms towards their sponsors (State, private sector, foundations etc.)
    The reason why universities have been the most durable institutions in history is due precisely to a unique combination of autonomy and decentralization, which has been able to manage change and facilitate innovation in a far more effective way than any government bureaucracy or corporate hierarchy, not an easy balance to strike but still one worth pursuing.


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