Van Damme analyseerde in een indringend betoog de ontwikkelingvan het HO naar beleid, oriëntatie en institutionele ontwikkelingvan de voorbije 25 jaar. De rechterhand van voormalig Vlaamsvice-premier Frank
Ruzie over traditionele sturing via geld
Zo wijst hij op enkele opvallende trendbreuken in deontwikkeling van het HO-beleid in ons land: “For historical reasonsthe central state has always been comparatively weak in thiscountry where self-government of local communities has always beenmore important. Recent policies have further decreased the statecapacity for regulation.
But even here, strong interventionist policies, opposing thegovernment and institutions in sometimes rather bitter politicalquarrels, are fought over the more traditional forms of publicregulation such as financing. It will be interesting to see whatthe outcomes of recent government decisions on the higher educationsystem will be. They definitely share more characteristics with oldforms of regulation than with ‘steering from a distance’.”
Dat de NVAO en niet de VBI’s de centrale actor is geworden in deborging van het hoger onderwijs is een thema, dat Dirk van
“Universities have pleaded for the reorganisation of the qualityassurance system, expecting that it would reduce overload and cost.But in fact, by abandoning the old and famous ‘Dutch model’ ofself-regulated quality assurance and by shifting the focus towardsinstitutional audits by the NVAO, universities now find themselveswith a new system which on balance is more characteristic of theold state inspectorate type of quality control than of peer reviewin hands of a self-regulating higher education community. If thehigher education system was really interested in self-regulationand keeping the state at a distance, it would have kept qualityassurance – as one of the most important mechanisms of publicaccountability – within its own realm.”
U leest het volledige betoog van Van Dammehieronder
Autonomy and connectedness: new challenges for highereducation governance
Let me first of all start by congratulating CHEPS for its 25thanniversary! Over the course of the years I have been privileged toobserve – sometimes from a distance, sometimes more closely – thetrajectory of CHEPS. And without even noticing, CHEPS became partof my own life as well. Its research and conceptual work influencedmy ideas and probably also my policy choices when reforming Flemishhigher education. And some of CHEPS staff became very close friendsover the years. The Netherlands should be proud of having such aninfluential institutional with international exposure andreputation.
Throwing flowers, and a pot
But throwing flowers is not what I have been asked to do here.In Flemish Dutch (‘Southern Dutch’ to be compared with regular’Dutch’ according to Van Dale) we have a saying which goes as: “ifsomeone starts throwing flowers, beware of the pots that may comewith them”. Flowers wither, but in a vase one can plant somethingnew. So, hopefully my gift here today will be rather a vase thanmere flowers.
Actually, 25 years is a nice time to look back and evaluatecritically. The risk with maturing adulthood is the loss ofadventure, the arrival of a standardized life-course with children,a house and a mortgage, the desire to organize the return oninvestment, and – maybe the most risky feature – mere fatigue.After 25 years one’s personality and worldview are more or lessformed, consequences of choices become apparent, and the range ofpossible alternative options for the future is rapidly narrowing.The analogy between a person’s life-course and an organisation’slifecycle is defective, but there are some similarities.
When maturing, also organisations tend to standardise, todevelop a narrative, a discourse which secures both internalcohesion and external impact. And also maturing organisations tendto become risk-avoiding. So, the question I asked myself inpreparing this address is the following: is the dominant CHEPSdiscourse – as I perceive it – accurate, realistic and relevant?The first criterion refers to its internal logic and consistency;the second to its empirical truthfulness and the third to itsability to effectively generate policies and strategies that work.With regard to the third criterion: you may very well see thisspeech as a personal reflection on personal experiences in highereducation policy where I have been in a situation testing some ofCHEPS’ main research findings and policy messages.
CHEPS colleagues might object that CHEPS does not have adominant discourse or worldview, since it is a research institutedriven by rigorous empirical analysis. I do believe – and I alsobelieve many will share this vision – that CHEPS does have anarrative, and in fact a rather strong one positively contributingto its identity and reputation. I also think that there is nothingwrong with this. After 25 years of hard work the absence of anarrative would be a serious deficiency. The problem begins when anarrative becomes a closed system, not open to new findings whichcontradict basic contentions of the narrative. But I honestly donot believe that this is the case with CHEPS.
A dodgy thing
Summarizing a narrative is a dodgy thing to do: a definingfeature of a narrative is that it never is completely or definitelytold. But I will do an attempt. It is fair to say that the mostimportant concept driving CHEPS’ work and its narrative isgovernance. A lot of the work done is about the transition – ortransformation – captured by the expression ‘from government togovernance’. The core of the argument is that ideas of New PublicManagement and neo-liberal views on organising the public domainreinforced by globalisation and increasing global competitiondramatically changed the balance between the state and highereducation institutions. Institutional autonomy increased, with thestate backing away from direct regulation, more focused onorganising a level playing-field facilitating self-regulation andorganising the quasi-market dimensions of the system.
Old systems of bureaucratic control and command were replaced bynew forms of steering and accountability involving a large amountof deregulation but with reinforced output steering, performancemonitoring and quality assurance. As a result, more autonomousuniversities improved their internal governance, thereby optimisingtheir internal efficiency and maximising their competitiveposition. Institutional leadership was strengthened, internalmanagement professionalised, but also stakeholder relations andrelations with customers and the wider community werereinforced.
Of course, no one will dispute the validity of this generalaccount of changes in governance in higher education. But I wouldlike to put some question marks to both ends of the equation. Letme first concentrate on the level of the state.
Has the state really retreated from direct regulatoryinterventions in exchange for ‘steering from a distance’ or is theemperor only changing his clothes? It would be foolish to deny thatthe general trend of policy development has been towardsderegulation, decentralisation and an exchange of institutionalautonomy with new forms of accountability. The clearest case forsuch development probably is precisely The Netherlands, in manyareas but also in education. Policies of liberalisation and theintroduction of market mechanisms at the expense of directregulation have been pursued in the Netherlands with quite someperseverance.
Perhaps CHEPS may have put up with a ‘Dutch bias’ in some of itswork. For historical reasons the central state has always beencomparatively weak in this country where self-government of localcommunities has always been more important. Recent policies havefurther decreased the state capacity for regulation. But even here,strong interventionist policies, opposing the government andinstitutions in sometimes rather bitter political quarrels, arefought over the more traditional forms of public regulation such asfinancing. It will be interesting to see what the outcomes ofrecent government decisions on the higher education system will be.They definitely share more characteristics with old forms ofregulation than with ‘steering from a distance’.
A frequently cited example of a new regulatory policy instrumentis output funding. In an attempt to steer institutional options andbehaviour more effectively, many countries have introduced outputor performance-based funding schemes. It would be interesting tostudy in detail the impact of such schemes on institutionalbehaviour, but my hypothesis would be that the regulatory impact ofoutput funding on institutions’ options and freedom of action infact is greater than that of old, input-oriented fundingmechanisms.
Having introduced such a scheme in the Flemish Community ofBelgium myself, I learned that policy makers were convinced of theusefulness of such a scheme, not because it would allowuniversities to become more autonomous, but quite on the contrary:it would allow the government to force universities into certaindesired directions, which would not have been possible with oldpolicy instruments. More sophisticated data-management systemspermit governments to enforce policies more effectively and almostautomatically. All in all output funding has shifted the burden ofdata management and accountability from governments to institutionsand has effectively decreased institutional autonomy.
Another interesting example to analyse more in depth is therecent change in the Dutch quality assurance system. Seemingly thischange is informed by a policy approach characterised by movingresponsibility to institutions. But the actual balance of power hasnot shifted to institutions, but rather to a public agency inbetween the state and the institutions, namely the NVAO. By movingthe actual gravitation in the quality assurance system from theso-called VBI’s – which are closer to the institutions than theNVAO and organise the peer-review of programmes on behalf of theinstitutions – to the NVAO, we might in fact speak about a’étatisation’ of quality assurance.
Universities have pleaded for the reorganisation of the qualityassurance system, expecting that it would reduce overload and cost,but in fact by abandoning the old and famous ‘Dutch model’ ofself-regulated quality assurance and by shifting the focus towardsinstitutional audits by the NVAO, universities now find themselveswith a new system which on balance is more characteristic of theold state inspectorate type of quality control than of peer reviewin hands of a self-regulating higher education community. If thehigher education system was really interested in self-regulationand keeping the state at a distance, it would have kept qualityassurance – as one of the most important mechanisms of publicaccountability – within its own realm.
Blurred picture in Europe
In most other European countries the picture is even moreblurred, with tendencies and policies going in different andsometimes even opposing directions. One can discuss the validity ofthe measure, but in most countries the mere volume of regulatorylaw is not decreasing, but rather increasing. In the FlemishCommunity of Belgium an attempt to synthesize the legal frameworkfor universities and to eliminate redundant regulation is stillunfinished after many years of hard work. It is very hard forpolicy-makers and politicians to give up on old policyinstruments.
Also in France, Germany and the UK universities complain aboutthe fact that new laws intended to give them more autonomy andfreedom of action, in fact seem to have quite adverse results. Thisreminds of the observation by political scientists some years agothat even under the most neoliberal governments of Ms Thatcher inthe UK and Ronald Reagan in the US the actual net ‘weight’ of thestate on the economy and society fact increased rather thandecreased.
This raises a quite simple but in my view very importantmethodological question. Maybe researchers of higher educationpolicy should be less concerned with the stated policy objectivesand intentions – and the conceptual, rhetorical or ideologicalbackings of these – but more with the empirical analysis of theactual outcomes of policies. These outcomes often are contrary tothe expectations or are producing unintended side-effects, whichstrongly affect the overall balance of regulation.
A complicating factor of course is the multiplication of policyactors and policy levels. Universities are increasingly confrontedwith other policy actors than the education ministry. And they needto react to policy initiatives from the local level as well as fromthe international level. For most universities interaction withcity governments, the regional business community, local culturaland intellectual milieus, and other social actors has enormouslyincreased over the past years. But perhaps even much more relevantis the European level. Policy developments on the European levelare well documented and researched, also by CHEPS. My point here isthat the multiplication of European policies has resulted in verydirect effects on institutional choices. In an interesting wayEurope has developed ‘carrot-and-baton’ policies which are at thesame time forcing and seducing universities to specificinstitutional preferences and policies.
Bologna as an example
The Bologna Process is an interesting example. Universities havebeen participating in the policy developments of the BolognaProcess, mainly through their European association EUA, but it isvery clear that the Process to a very high degree was agovernment-led process. The combination of sector support, Europeancoordination and convergence, and national legislation made thetransformation of the system a rather coercive one. Maybe that alsowas the only possible way for effective transnational systemreform. Policy analysts have noted that similar developments inother fields using the ‘Open Method of Coordination’ in fact have alot in common with very strong, coercive policies.
Personally, I have no problem with that and I do think that theBologna Process – with its unique mixture of top-down and bottom-uptransactions – was the only way to pursue certain sociallydesirable policy objectives to which the unorganised assembly ofautonomous universities never would have come to. It is interestingto see that the
This brings me to my conclusion with regard to the state. To putit rather bluntly: I think that all in all policies to shift thebalance of power in the system towards universities have beenrather cosmetic, that it was never the real intention ofgovernments to create quasi-markets in education, and that, whereit might have been the case, such policies were first of allserving ideological purposes and in the end were ratherunsuccessful. Why is this so? Why have public policies in highereducation remained so strong and interventionist?
The reasons in my view are quite obvious: higher educationremains a public policy field because the stakes are so high thatno government is willing to allow universities to depart frompublic policy objectives which are seen as crucial for a nation’sfuture prosperity and progress. Effective and equitable systems ofknowledge production, knowledge transfer and knowledge distributionare key to societies’ progress. The arguments are lacking thatcould demonstrate that the ‘invisible hand’ of a more liberalisedhigher education system would bring the system to produce thesesocial outcomes as effectively as a state-governed system.
Money not the main policy instrument
In almost every single aspect of their functions highereducation institutions have moved to the centre of gravity in 21stcentury knowledge societies. In complex societies public regulationstill is the most effective way of pursuing socially importantpolicy objectives. Developments in US higher education also seem tosupport this observation. A system which has many morecharacteristics of a market that anywhere else in the world hasproduced most of the world’s best research universities, but as asystem it is increasingly seen as not meeting the demands andexpectations of a knowledge system in the 21st century in theleading economy of the globe.
Republican and Democratic governments alike have graduallyincreased federal interventionist legislation forcing highereducation institutions with whatever means possible to betterpursue and more effectively perform socially desirable objectives.In several areas this has resulted in bitter conflicts betweeninstitutions and federal policies. Accreditation is only oneexample.
It can be expected that the public policy rationales forinterventionist policies in higher education will further increasein the near future. The economic and social significance of theknowledge society is so high that modern states simply cannotafford it to give up. Contrary to the expectations of universities,money will not be the main policy instrument. Governments willincreasingly deploy alternative policy instruments to maximise thesystem’s output and they will not accept it that institutionalautonomy provides an excuse for low system effectiveness. Thedemand for more efficiency and effectiveness will definitelyincrease on all fronts.
Let us now turn to the other side of the equation, theinstitutions. What has happened at their side? In nearly allEuropean countries higher education institutions have seen theirinternal policy capacity increasing: more autonomy in takingfinancial decisions, in running academic and non-academic affairs,in human resources policies, etc. Countries which used to regulatehigher education curricula on a central level have shifted theauthority on curriculum design towards institutions or intermediatebodies. In some countries universities can lend money on thefinancial market (debt which is still counted within the perimeterof national budgets). Others have allowed universities to taketheir personnel outside the civil service.
But all this is happening within rather narrowly definedboundaries, with a lot of supervision, monitoring and risk control.Except the UK, all European countries strictly definedegree-awarding powers of universities by law and degrees have noother value on the market than the one derived from their publicnature defined by the state. In most countries the state alsocontrols programme planning and access and the minimumqualifications for academic staff.
Legitimately, universities have tried to maximise their field ofplay. In some cases they tested the boundaries of their authorityversus the state. Unclear boundaries and weakened monitoring andcontrol systems in some cases gave way to experiments whereinstitutional strategies moved beyond the borders of what waslegally or even ethically acceptable. The Netherlands has seenseveral of such cases happening over the past years. In suchcircumstances the state, often supported by the public opinion,quickly returns to old modes of regulation in order to reinstatethe rule of law.
Multiplication of university bureaucracy
But such ‘accidents de parcours’ are perhaps not what shouldinterest us most. More relevant from the perspective of overallsystem efficiency is the multiplication of internal bureaucraciesin universities. Many universities have professionalised theirmanagerial staff, but at the same time also increased internalbureaucracies. The space created by less detailed state regulationhas been very efficiently been filled with much more detailedinternal rules and regulations, resulting in a bureaucratic burdenfor academic staff and departments at the end of the chain whichprobably never has been as high.
The field of quality assurance again provides an excellentexample. What is meant to be an open, transparent system of peerreview for improvement has been transformed inside universitiesinto a carefully organised system of window-dressing, paper-fillingprocedures and reputation management. Internal quality managers donot seem to see the deepening of an authentic institutional qualityculture as their main mission, but rather the effective stagemanagement of reviews for the better of the institution’sreputation.
Members of peer review panels increasingly complain that theyare confronted with professional gate-keepers and window-dressersinstead of having an open conversation with their peers based oncritical exchange between colleagues. In general, complaints aboutbureaucracy in academia are abundant and should be taken seriously.An organisation which main functions are knowledge production,innovation and creativity – therefore should have flexibility asits main institutional characteristic – is very vulnerable forbureaucratic overload.
It is not exaggerated to say that universities seem to haveinherited the old vices of bygone state bureaucracies. Internalmanagement systems in higher education institutions often are moreof the kind of traditional command and control systems than ofmodern professional self-regulation. University leaders easilycriticize academic self-governance, and often rightly so, but theytend to replace collegial academic self-governance withadministrative command and control, not with professional models ofregulation based on responsibility and trust.
The price paid for institutional autonomy is that, by distancingfrom large state administrations, universities have notparticipated in major public management reforms which mostcountries’ public services have gone through in the past ten years.Reforms in human resources management including performanceevaluation and reward systems, for example, in general have beenmuch more thorough and better managed in ministries and publicagencies than in most universities. Clientelism and patronage arestill important phenomena in universities. The assumption that withmore institutional autonomy and by operating in a moremarket-oriented environment universities would almost automaticallymove to the best possible managerial culture and internalgovernance model which best suits their needs, probably iswrong.
Difficulty of strategic choices andprofiling
A more sensitive example of failing internal management andgovernance system can be found in the area of strategic managementand leadership. Universities have a very difficult time in definingtheir strategic challenges, in profiling and in making difficultchoices. Most experts – including those of CHEPS – will agree thatstrategic management probably is the field where universitiesreally can improve. Short term reputation management, satisfyingthe immediate desires of internal staff and external stakeholders,seems to prevail over careful long-term planning with strong toughstrategic decisions. Closing a department or discontinuing aprogramme are decisions often too hard to take in academia. Theconsequences are clear: mission overload, sometimes even realmission drift, and lack of efficiency and effectiveness.
I will certainly not be the only one having heard Europeanministers off the record voicing serious reservations on thequality of university leadership. One of the main reasons why thefinancial complaints of universities – which are very real – arenot sufficiently heard and understood by education ministers is thegeneral conviction that universities have failed in the past tomake the appropriate long-term strategic decisions. In importantpolicy initiatives such as the Modernisation Agenda of the EC onecan read, hidden under the surface of more general reform rhetoric,a rather strong criticism of present-day university leadership.
In a more dispassionate way one can ask whether academicgovernance still offers the best possible conditions for effectiveleadership in increasingly complex and demanding environments. TheNetherlands is a country where university leadership and managementstructures have been modernised, but in many other countries thathas not been the case. The consequences of institutional autonomyfor internal governance and leadership are not always fullyunderstood.
Two concepts of liberty
Insecure leaders in a demanding environment tend to concentratetheir efforts on image-building and reputation management, not onefficiency and transparency which normally should go hand in handwith market conditions. And that’s exactly what seems to behappening in higher education. University leaders are fascinatedwith the negative dimension of autonomy: keeping the government asfar away as possible.
I am referring here of course to the famous ‘Two concepts ofliberty’ of Isaiah Berlin. The negative concept of liberty is analmost territorial attempt to define a space where externalinterference is prohibited. It seems fair to say that in theirquest for autonomy university leaders have concentrated on thisnegative dimension (freedom from), neglecting the more importantpositive concept of liberty. The positive concept of liberty(freedom to), applied to university governance, could be defined asthe institutional ability and capacity to pursue and achieveself-defined goals. It is not exaggerated to say that preciselythis capacity has not sufficiently developed for a quasi-market toperform well.
Indeed, I believe that for a quasi-market to operate well in apublic sphere strong institutions are needed which do primarilydefine their autonomy in terms of positive liberty and who developthe institutional capacity to fully fulfil the promises ofautonomy. At a system level such a quasi-market would becharacterised by three main qualities: collective action,transparency and trust.
Higher education is not doing well on all three qualities.Institutional autonomy has severely reduced the scope forcollective action which goes beyond the mere short-term defence ofcommon interests against a common enemy. Rectors’ conferences inEurope have weakened significantly and university associationswhich blossomed in the early days of international mobility andcollaboration are facing hard times, with one or twoexceptions.
Transparency equally is at a historically low level. Systemhomogeneity steered by state legislation produced a kind of forcedtransparency. Deregulation and increased institutional autonomyrequire the development of new forms of transparency. Ifinstitutions have a shared interest in keeping a quasi-marketfunctioning, it would be rational for them to collectively developtransparency tools which would allow competition to producebeneficial effects. I don’t think we can see this happening inhigher education. A
bsence of transparency has created a vacuum which has beeneffectively filled by rankings and other non-native transparencytools. If university leaders take their often loud criticisms ofrankings seriously, they should devote much more energy and givemore support to endogenous transparency tools such as the Multirankinitiative or OECD’s AHELO project. Good old quality assurancesystems equally enhance system transparency by increasing the levelof information in the system, by correcting problems of asymmetricinformation and by organising system feedback loops. As alreadynoted, the decreasing support from institutions for genuinecollective quality assurance indicates a lack of interest intransparency and, ultimately, a lack of belief that awell-functioning quasi-market in higher education is possible.
Trust is essential
Finally, trust is a consequence of institutional autonomy and anengine driving autonomy. A quasi-market system in the public spherecannot function without a high level of internal and externaltrust. Institutions operating at the margins or even beyond themargins of what is legally or ethically acceptable of coursecorrupt trust. Misbehaviour in academia such as plagiarism is notan isolated phenomenon to be found exclusively among German defenceministers.
Peer review in research and education functions far fromperfectly. The impact of commercial partners on scientificdiscovery and patenting sometimes goes far beyond what isacceptable from an academic perspective, which has sharingknowledge and publication of research findings in the community asone of its most important principles. There are many more exampleswhich deserve to be better documented and researched. Trust is afragile quality, which needs to be secured every day. The generalpublic and the political body have the impression that universitiesare allowing compromises on trust.
Thus, the higher education system in Europe is not functioningwell as a quasi-market. Contrary to many of my colleagues who prayfor a radical increase in institutional autonomy and marketisationin order to liberate the potential of contemporary universities, Ibelieve that without strong interventionist governments the systemwould rapidly evolve into a situation of market failure.Universities are continuously providing many excuses forgovernments to maintain strong interventionist and regulatorypolicies. A much more likable scenario than radical liberalisationconsists of the smart use of market mechanisms within awell-regulated public space with governments directly interveningor steering from a distance according to needs and levels oftrust.
The narrative about deregulating states and more autonomousinstitutions operating effectively in quasi-markets definitelyneeds to be thoroughly revised. But maybe it is primarily aquestion of which concepts to use to best understand the reality.Concepts such as liberalisation, deregulation and autonomyinsufficiently grasp the many realities, complexities andcontradictions of contemporary governance trends and challenges. Inan interconnected world full of interdependencies and competingrationales we may need other words.
In more recent CHEPS publications concepts such asconnectedness, network governance, multilevel governance, and thelike increasingly feature as crucial categories. They have not yetdeveloped into a coherent theory of higher education governance orinto an alternative narrative, but they definitely open a window toa better understanding of reality and promising research.
So far, I have been rather critical of present-day universities.But at the same time I do also believe that their governancechallenges is near to impossible to manage well. Conflictingdemands and the obligation to serve many masters seriouslychallenge governance and leadership. Connectedness to variousnetworks urges institutions to engage in very complex and difficultgovernance roles on multiple levels. Universities are alsoconfronted with many more rationales than institutionaldevelopment. Some of these rationales support and reinforceinstitutional performance, but others run counter to them. The waythe global science system is operating for example partlystrengthens institutions, but the organisation of scientificresearch in very flexible global networks also underminesinstitutional coherence.
It is no surprise that university leaders are so concerned ofinstitutional coherence. A university is a system floating apart inall directions. CHEPS research even shows that the two crucialdimensions of the knowledge nexus in universities, teaching andresearch, are increasingly falling apart. Orchestrating these manymelodies that academics like to sing into a coherent andwell-sounding symphony is quite a challenging task. Institutionsare the necessary intermediate nodal point in multilevel networkswhere different rationales interact and where different storiesfind their meaning.
Ladies and Gentlemen, my review of the governance narrative ofdistancing governments and more autonomous institutions operatingin quasi-markets has important implications for future highereducation research. After 25 years we definitely should leave thediscourse of the eighties behind.
Recent attempts to reformulate the research agenda – such as theHigher education looking forward agenda of the European ScienceFoundation, to which CHEPS has contributed – rightly stress socialchange, connectedness, network governance, diversity andmultifunctionality as the main conceptual tools for futureresearch. A situation of fluidity needs different concepts than onof rigidity. Maybe we need the equivalent of quantum mechanics inphysics and fuzzy logic in mathematics in higher educationgovernance research.
The future in unclear, but that shouldn’t prevent us fromburying the past. I sincerely believe that we even should breakmore radically with the old ‘state-versus-market’ paradigm ingovernance research. Let that be my main message for today.
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