Understanding the significance of university autonomy

If you were to pin down the key element that defines a globally successful higher education system, what would it be? Some might be tempted to argue that success flows from the wealth of resources available to the sector, either through public funding or through success in generating revenues and donations. But in fact while money is always a factor in some way, it may not be the critical one. It is in fact more likely that autonomy – understood as the ability of universities to devise their own strategies and implement them without government intervention – is the deciding feature. In fact, it is arguable that autonomy in turn facilitates successful revenue generation and the accumulation of capital reserves from donations and other sources.

It is interesting that this analysis has not just been adopted by those who operate within the Anglo-American model of higher education (particularly the American one), but now also by influential Europeans. The most recent contribution to this debate has come from the always interesting President of Maastricht University and former social democratic Minister of Education in the Netherlands, Jo Ritzen. Writing in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, Dr Ritzen argues that European universities have lost out to American ones and can only improve their position if governments grant them ‘full autonomy’ with appropriate levels of accountability:

‘Autonomy allows institutions to respond more directly to the needs of students and those of the labour market, and it increases the attention given by universities to innovation and internationalisation. Accountability is intimately connected to autonomy, granted by government on condition of clear responsibility with respect to the goals of the university.’

I would personally add that ‘accountability’ is not the same as ‘regulation’ and ‘control’.

Ireland, like other European countries, needs to take these insights into account as we struggle to decide what strategic direction our system of higher education should take. Right now the tendency is to suggest that government regulation and control needs to be tighter. If we go down that road, we may expect our system of higher education to be second rate. It is not a good option for us.

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7 Comments on “Understanding the significance of university autonomy”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The private 2nd level schools receive from the exchequer 100m or thereabouts and use the argument that the money used for salaries would have to be used one way or the other as each kid in the State has the right to be educated on the States dime. There is little problem with that logic until it gets to the point where you ask can each kid in the state attend, where there is no other requirement than residency in the State.
    Now, that’s the problem with the Irish and UK Universities in a nutshell. It is seen that left to their own devices they would revert to the Grammar school model. Receiving a huge subvention, selective and Fee charging.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Oh, the irony: University autonomy is of paramount importance. Lecturer autonomy? Mmm, not so much…

    • That depends, Ernie – first, what does ‘lecturer autonomy’ mean? If you mean the autonomy to develop, pursue and present independent intellectual analysis, absolutely. And I’ve said so several times!

  3. I just can’t follow this logical leap:

    “Higher education in Europe is overwhelmingly organised nationally. This is in contrast to the international labour market that our students will be entering. Hence, we need to bypass national systems of higher education. ”

    The organisational structures are important, but more important is what the university thinks it’s doing.

    At a conference I attended today, the president of a US state university remarked that his institution, which had undergone significant changes recently, had to figure out ‘what business it was in’. They decided they weren’t in the ‘education business’, but the ‘quality of life business’. They made their decisions to change, and behaved appropriately. These are people with major resources (relative to places like DCU and UL), who have thought deeply about the nature of what it is they are doing as a university. They didn’t see a problem with academic autonomy, but thought the notion of a university as a loss-making, or profit-by-accident type institution made no sense to them.

    Once the profit motive as an organisational principle becomes embedded in large sections of a university, then incentives are bent as a result. I’m not saying that is a good or bad thing–we’d need to study the change carefully first.

  4. Al Says:

    Interesting Link here:


    “A landmark report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts an uneven relationship between colleges and the job market. Although more future jobs will require advanced education, colleges are not doing enough to prepare their students for the projected workforce.”

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