Posted tagged ‘university autonomy’

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.


The meaning of university ‘autonomy’

June 18, 2013

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.

Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy

November 20, 2012

When I undertook the task in 2011 of chairing the review of higher education governance in Scotland (the report can be read here), one of the recurring themes in submissions made to us was the imperative of university autonomy. It was often remarked that the world’s top universities are all highly autonomous, and conversely that highly controlled and directed systems of higher education tend not to feature much in global rankings. This explains, for example, why at least until now German universities have generally not received much international recognition.

However, it became very clear to me that ‘autonomy’ meant different things to different people. For some, it was the ability of universities to maintain the integrity of their decision-making structures in the face of government intervention. To others, it was about the freedom of managerial action. To others again it was all about intellectual freedom.

This difficulty in nailing down autonomy was not a new problem to me. In 2010, just before my term of office as President of Dublin City University came to an end, I was present at a meeting at which Irish government officials resisted the idea that university autonomy was about the freedom of individual institutions to decide their own strategy. To them, autonomy was about the freedom of universities to choose the means by which to implement government strategy. When I put it to them that autonomy could only be meaningful if universities could decide their own strategic direction, I was told that such a view had not occurred to them.

On the other hand of course, where public money is used to fund higher education, it is not unnatural for the government to expect certain outcomes. The current focus in Scotland on delivering better access to higher education for the disadvantaged (which universities support) is an example.

So where is the line to be drawn? Probably not where it is currently being sketched into the picture in Ireland. Amongst the more worrying developments there is the now published report by the so-called ‘International Expert Panel’ on A Proposed Reconfiguration of the Irish System of Higher Education. This report has come up with what it calls ‘an optimum configuration of the system’, consisting of ‘a small number of large, fit for purpose autonomous institutions with the critical mass necessary to determine achievable and flexible missions.’ Not visibly attaching much meaning to the word ‘autonomous’, the panel suggests that this outcome cannot be achieved by voluntary means and must be forced on the system. Leaving aside entirely the very doubtful proposition that larger (‘critical mass’) institutions are likely to gain more global recognition (when Caltech, the world’s number 1 university, would, if placed in Ireland, be the smallest institution in the system), it is notable that the panel attached no significance to the desirability of strategic autonomy.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, has indicated he is not in favour of these recommendations. But then again, the government has just issued a new Bill – the Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 – which, according to an analysis by Brian Lucey in the Irish Times, will allow the Minister to extend government control over payments and salaries within universities. While restraint in payments made by universities to senior staff would undoubtedly have popular support, allowing governments to control this centrally tends, as the horrible Employment Control Framework has demonstrated in Ireland, to stifle initiative and undermine strategy.

University autonomy must be used wisely by the institutions, and must not undermine public confidence in their decision-making. But on the other hand, subjecting universities to central control is not the right response. Governments need to engage in constructive dialogue with higher education to determine how public priorities can be supported within a framework of accountable autonomy. There is no worthwhile alternative. A Soviet model of higher education is not the way forward.

Reconfiguring the Irish system of higher education

February 14, 2012

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has, as part of its programme for implementing the national higher education strategy in Ireland (the Hunt report), has issued a paper setting out how it hopes to develop the structure of the system from its present state. The paper, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, makes certain assumptions about the current state of the sector and how it should be reformed. At the heart of these assumptions is the belief that what will make Irish higher education successful will be a much greater diversity of institutional mission that has been nationally coordinated. This position is expressed as follows in the paper:

‘In order to create and sustain a diverse yet coherent system, it will be essential that all institutions have a clear perspective on their particular mission and role within the overall system. In particular, it will be essential that institutions ensure that their programmes continue to be reflective of, and appropriate to, their mission.’

This diversity, the HEA believes, will need to be reflected in ‘greater differentiation based on field specialisation, programme orientation and mode of delivery.’ This in turn will be accompanied by ‘regional clusters’ which will allow students to tap into various specialisms spread across the universities and colleges in their area, at least in areas where there are several institutions that make this possible; and the HEA also envisages ‘mission-based clusters’ that will not depend on geographical proximity. All of this will also, the HEA intends, lead to the ‘elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision’.

The other key plan set out in the paper is to bring to an end the state funding of smaller institutions, which will have to merge with larger universities or colleges in order to survive. Institutes of technology will also have to consider mergers, leading to what the paper says will be ‘a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.’

The HEA rightly recognises that this kind of re-ordering will, as it puts it, ‘not occur in an “organic” way’, and it therefore envisages ‘top-down’ action. It therefore acknowledges a risk to institutional autonomy, but argues that this can be overcome by a phased and ‘agreed’ process of implementation; though one must assume that a different framework from that envisaged is not available to be ‘agreed’. As part of this process, universities and colleges are now to put forward proposals to the HEA involving one or more of options that include merger, clustering, conversion to ‘technological university’, or the establishment of a ‘specialist institution’. In the meantime the HEA will commission a paper addressing ‘the number of institutions, the range of missions and the alliances and relationships which have the potential to strengthen the system.’

What all of this represents is a significant reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education, from one characterised by autonomous but (increasingly) collaborating institutions, to one based on a national, centrally coordinated plan.

It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.

It is true that institutions will be able to propose their own plans for focused mission, but since all this will need to add up across the system as a whole, their ability to design their own strategic options will be seriously limited. And while it is entirely right that a small national system should encourage collaboration, in some contexts excellence requires competition also.

Given its role as funder of the system, the state has a legitimate right to look for both excellence and value for money in higher education. So for example, it can appropriately question institutions on issues such as unnecessarily overlapping provision, while however bearing in mind that a university will need, in each case, to be able to offer certain intellectual building blocks within the institution. What we are being asked to contemplate here is that institutional autonomy is wasteful, and that a ‘national system’ that distributes educational and research activity amongst institutions characterised by their specialisms will be better. This, it has to be said, is a mighty big experiment, and one without any currently successful model elsewhere to draw on or to provide some comfort. It changes the nature of institutional strategy from content to process, and vests substantive planning in a central structure. In short, it is threatening to replace institutional initiative with central planning, a framework that was not spectacularly successful in countries where it has been tried.

It is hard to resist the view that managing higher education by grand design is not the best way forward. In fact, Irish higher education has impressed both itself and the world with its ability to absorb serious funding cuts while still, more or less, maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. It does this with resources that are now very substantially smaller than those available to less successful competing national systems. There is, in short, no evidence that Ireland’s higher education sector is wasteful. There is no evidence that the existing model is in any serious way deficient. There is therefore little evidence of a need for the kind of centralised system being proposed, and there are many serious risks that will attend its implementation.

I could be proved wrong. But this is a big leap in the dark.

The future of higher education: ‘directed diversity’?

September 3, 2011

In Ireland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding council), Tom Boland, has just made a very interesting speech in which he has set out his vision for the future of the system. It is worth setting out verbatim the key passage in his speech:

‘The first and most crucial reform envisaged is what I’d like to term the end of the era of laissez faire in higher education, and its replacement by what might be termed “directed diversity”. By laissez faire, I mean the strategic approach to higher education which has had at its centre light touch regulation – a term that has now become deeply unpopular and not just in financial circles. While light touch regulation has brought us much success in higher education, including soaring participation rates and a standard of higher education which is good by any benchmark, it has also given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision; it has given us mission creep; inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions with no national, coherent strategic focus…

… We now need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research.’

A little later he added:

‘Through this process I believe we can build a higher education system which concentrates investment in multiple centres of excellence, right across the system; which brings coherence to these centres as a whole system; which encourages collaborations where these make sense from the viewpoint of a quality student learning experience; which greatly enhances accountability by greatly enhancing the quality and comparability of data on the performance of the system, and which ensures that we have diversity of institutions offering a wide range of provision combined with clear institutional focus on national goals. This is what I mean by the term “directed diversity”.’

The question addressed by Tom Boland, which is one that had also been examined by Ireland’s recent report on higher education strategy (the Hunt report), is whether the strategic development of the higher education system should flow from the decisions of autonomous universities or from a nationally coordinated plan, however that plan might be constructed. His conclusion that national coordination is necessary is not unique in global higher education.

All of this addresses the key issue of university autonomy, what it means and whether it is important; or indeed if it is important, how it should be exercised. These are the absolutely critical issues of higher education. They will determine its future nature and direction.

Understanding the significance of university autonomy

June 14, 2010

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.

University autonomy and national strategic goals

December 14, 2009

One process currently under way in Ireland – one that has been mentioned in this blog on several occasions – is the strategic review of higher education set up by the Minister for Education and Science earlier this year. In May the steering group overseeing the strategic review invited interested persons and organisations to make submissions to it, and 104 such submissions were received. These can be viewed on this website.

The steering group is now expected to submit its report to the government some time next spring. However, in the meantime it is interesting to look at some of the submissions, particularly where these come from organisations or agencies that may have an influential role in determining the future course of higher education in Ireland. It may be worth noting in passing that, in calling for submissions, the steering group asked for a particular format to be adopted in by those responding; and in fact almost nobody making submissions adhered to that format (DCU being one of the very few exceptions).

One question that runs through several submissions, and which must indeed be a key issue that will need to be addressed in the report to be issued by the steering group, relates to the desirability and nature of the autonomy that should be enjoyed by higher education institutions. A theme taken up by several respondents is one of support for autonomy balanced by genuine accountability. How autonomy and accountability can most effectively be combined is a topic to which I shall return. But for now what caught my eye was in the submission of Forfas, the national advisory body for enterprise and science:

‘Forfás believes that higher education institutions should be entrusted with greater operational autonomy while in tandem working towards the goals of higher education from a public interest perspective. The challenge now is to find a way of increasing central coordination at policy level that is underpinned by the goals of the Strategy while simultaneously increasing individual institutions autonomy to manage their own operations, in the context of those goals. These two objectives are not incompatible. Increasing institutions’ managerial autonomy should help drive efficiency in the use of available resources.’

What are we to make of this? It seems that Forfas see autonomy as institutional freedom to implement strategy, but not to formulate it. The initiation of strategy, if I am reading this correctly, will be the identification of ‘goals … from a public interest perspective’ achieved through ‘increasing central coordination’. The submission offers the view that there is no contradiction between this and the idea of greater autonomy. A broadly similar idea is also contained in the submission of the Higher Education Authority.

So as not to be misunderstood, I am by no means objecting to the idea of coordinated national policy objectives, nor to the idea that these should influence institutional decision-making. But the mechanism for achieving that is through funding. Setting policy objectives through financial inducements allows institutions to make judgements about the appropriate mix in their strategies of public policy objectives resourced by the taxpayer and strategic goals that may be pursued by other means. There would also need to be a mechanism by which institutions can persuade the government and its agencies of the need for innovation in areas that may become crucial national policy objectives but which have not yet been identified by the state and its agencies.

What we must avoid is a concept of central strategic planning through a bureaucratic framework. An attempt to deliver this would fail, not least because higher education institutions do not operate on a top-down basis to the extent that would be needed to make such a framework function successfully. More generally, we need to ensure that academic initiative and innovation is not stifled by a centralised national administration. And finally, we need to recognise that the concept of autonomy implies something grander than some operational discretion regarding the implementation of someone else’s policies.

This is not a self-serving argument – or at least, I hope it isn’t. Those countries which have developed higher education excellence most effectively have done so on the back of high levels of institutional autonomy, both in strategic and operational contexts. This is not the time to step away from that idea.

A German lesson?

August 19, 2009

In the discussion on a recent post here there was a brief exchange on German universities. In this I suggested that German universities under-perform in international terms. Indeed if you look at the world rankings issued by the journal Times Higher Education, German universities are not prominent. In fact, Germany’s number 1 institution is Heidelberg University, which comes in at number 57 (actually Ireland’s top university is ranked higher, though I forget which one that is). And the only other German university in the top 100 is the Technical University of Munich at number 78.

There are a number of interesting questions one could ask about this. Why does a country that has the world’s fourth largest economy not score more highly in higher education? Why is the country that arguably produced the model for modern higher education in the Humboldt framework not a torchbearer for excellence? What is it that they are doing wrong, and what do they need to do to correct it? 

I also wonder whether this casts some doubt on one German institutional structure which is sometimes thought to have been a progressive and imaginative initiative – the Wissenschaftsrat (translated on its own web page as the rather clunky ‘German Council of Science and Humanities’). This body is supposed to review and monitor higher education policy and propose improvements and reform. It has a ‘Scientific Committee’ and an ‘Administrative Committee’ – the former looks at broad educational and research issues, but the latter proposes actual measures; and this latter committee is composed not of academics but officials.

Perhaps the lesson is this – or at any rate this is what I am wondering, subject to correction: that Germany has not hit upon the idea of university autonomy, but rather has a centralised system of public and political control (though admittedly devolved to state governments, or Länder). And maybe this underscores again that global excellence cannot be achieved on that model. The chairman of the Wissenschaftsrat recently suggested in an interview that individual universities should find their own niche and specialisms so as to excel; but if that is the answer, it is only achievable by allowing each institution to develop its own special strategy on an autonomous basis, subject obviously to proper accountability.

But as we struggle in Ireland with questions about the appropriate level of monitoring and control, the German lesson may be a valuable one. We have an opportunity to continue to develop our higher education system so that it may punch above its weight internationally and attract both knowledge and investment to Ireland. We should not put that at risk; the German model does not work.

A concordat for higher education?

August 6, 2009

The British Parliament’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee recently produced a report which, at least in some respects, makes for interesting reading. The report is the outcome of an inquiry by the committee into the student experience at British universities, set against practice in other countries. However, it is more broadly based than that objective might lead one to expect, and in fact the committee touch in virtually every aspect of higher education and ask a number of questions. The committee took evidence from a huge array of stakeholders, and the report attempts to distil the answers, and the reactions to these answers, into a coherent set of observations and recommendations. I am not sure whether this has worked – in the sense that I don’t think this amounts to a document that could be used as a reference work for higher education. But it does show how the system looks when one has set it against a set of data and anecdotal observations; and although you mightn’t think so, that has some value. I may come back to aspects of it over time.

For today, I want to focus on one set of observations, on institutional autonomy. In fact, the committee start this section (para. 237) by saying that they would like to look at the related topic of academic freedom, but would leave that for another time, and end it by suggesting that the funding council, the higher education sector and student bodies should draw up what they call a ‘concordat’ (i.e. a formal agreement), which would have the purpose of ‘defining those areas over which universities have autonomy, including a definition of academic freedom and, on the other side, those areas where the Government, acting on behalf of the taxpayer, can reasonably and legitimately lay down requirements or intervene.’

The committee had come to the view that institutional ‘autonomy’ had become hard to identify because everyone has a different understanding of what it might mean and what effect it should have. This is equally true in Ireland, and in fact it may all become more complex still as regulatory pressures increase and budgets reduce (but come with ever more strings attached). Right now we have an ongoing strategic review of higher education, and it might be appropriate for the group addressing this review to consider a similar approach, so that the basis on which universities operate and the extent to which they can decide their own affairs or have them determined by regulation can be clarified. Continuing in the current mists of ambiguity is almost certainly not a good idea.

The role of universities in economic development

February 16, 2009

Three or so years ago a delegation from a major European city was on a visit to Dublin. The mayor was there, several city officials, a couple of businesspeople, two (if I recall) members of parliament for that city, and some others. Their hosts were an Irish state agency. I was invited to address the visitors over dinner, the topic being what Irish universities have done to support economic development.

So I told them a little about the Irish university system, and I described what we were doing to support the economy: from teaching those who would become skilled graduates in important fields, through managing incubation centres, through linking with industry R&D labs, to spinning out companies. I gave some examples from my own university, DCU. I summed up by saying that the two critical ingredients that enabled universities to play this role were (a) the capacity to compete with universities in an inward investor’s home country by having recognised centres of real world class excellence, and (b) strategic autonomy and the ability to be entrepreneurial and innovative. It was clear from the discussion that the universities from our guests’ city would need to be reformed fundamentally for them to be able to do any of this.

Afterwards the mayor, an extremely affable man with a good sense of strategy and a pleasant witty manner, came to thank me for my talk and for the very interesting insights I had provided (he said). I expressed my appreciation and asked him whether he would look again at the conditions under which his universities operated. He looked staggered at the question, and answered emphatically that he certainly would not, that they needed to know their place as agencies of government and not get any notions that they could autonomously develop their own strategies. I told him that he must therefore expect to see the long-term decline of his city (which he had described over dinner) continue.

The idea of universities as educational agencies following a national plan is not an unusual one in Europe, and indeed there are occasional shades of it here in political discourse. The Universities Act 1997 gave universities in Ireland a degree of autonomy, but more than once I have heard politicians musing that this may have been a step too far and should be revisited. But in fact the autonomy of universities – and by this I mean autonomy beyond what we have now – is a vital ingredient for national success and in particular for stimulating the local economy. For example, the role of DCU is generating economic activity in the North Dublin and Fingal area is pivotal. And more generally, universities have been indispensable in virtually every recent bid to persuade major global companies to locate R&D in Ireland. Universities need to be able to move fast in taking decisions and need to be able to deal effectively with corporate and other partners.

Even when our costs have moderated a little due to the recession, investments in Ireland by companies setting up call centres or basic manufacturing units will not return – those days are over. Our hope for the future lies in much higher value investments and successful indigenous start-ups. These require successful and autonomous universities. Our future as a country is tied up in this. We must get it right.