Higher Education Strategy Associates

Autonomy, Quality and World-Class Universities

My colleague Pam Marcucci and I have been spending some time in Jakarta recently on a USAID project relating to improving the country’s higher education system. One of the key issues the project is facing is that of “autonomy.”

If you read the policy literature on higher education, you’ll know that university autonomy is seen as a kind if sine qua non of educational quality: you can’t really have a great university without it. The first paragraph of pretty much any set of recommendations – from an international body on improving higher education in some country in Eastern Europe or Asia – usually contains the phrase “universities must be given greater autonomy.”

But autonomy comes in many dimensions: curriculum, hiring, finances, setting of fees, etc. As a result, there isn’t really one single measure of autonomy; there are lots of ways to be autonomous (the EUA, for instance, has an excellent website showing different arrays of autonomy all across Europe). That actually makes discussions about autonomy somewhat complicated, as proponents and opponents often end up talking about entirely different things.

Regardless of the definition of autonomy one uses, it doesn’t mean anything unless leaders are prepared to use it by taking responsibility for significant decisions. That may sound simple, but it’s really alien to some cultures. The Japanese “Big Bang” of university autonomy reforms in 2004, for instance, was at best a partial success because very few institutional leaders really wanted the responsibility of making decisions on their own. Japan got the form of autonomy but not the substance.

But this kind of leadership, it seems to me, is tied up with cultural understandings about institutions. It’s probably not a coincidence that 78 of the top 100 universities in the Shanghai rankings are from jurisdictions without civil codes (79 if you include McGill, which is a bit of an odd case). There’s bound to be a difference between leadership in cultures that believe you can do whatever laws don’t specifically prohibit, and that in cultures where you can only do what the rules specify is possible.

Being a great university isn’t just a function of pumping out ludicrous numbers of scientific papers; it’s a product of the ability to deploy resources strategically to take advantage of emerging academic opportunities. But autonomy is less a legal relationship between state and university and more a state of mind. It’s why we should be skeptical of claims that large numbers of Asian universities are on the verge of reaching “world-classness.” The financial gap may be closing, but the cultural one may take longer to shrink.


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