Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: institutional autonomy

May 18

Electing the President

In developed Anglophone countries, we basically take it for granted that Universities are run by Presidents (or occasionally Principals) who are not only responsible to a Board of Governors, but are also selected by them.  But this is not the only way to select institutional heads.  They can be selected directly by the Ministry of Education (which still happens in many places, including China).  Or they can be elected, which is the case in much of Europe.  Indeed, in much of Europe, the concept of “academic freedom” is tied pretty closely to the “freedom” of a community of scholars to select their own chief executive (i.e. its closer to our notion of “institutional autonomy”).

And, intriguingly, in a couple of universities in Quebec.

These past couple of months, both Université Laval and Université Sherbrooke have both held elections for new rectors (Presidents).  At the former, Sophie D’Amours won a three-cornered race with 50.7% of the vote to become Laval’s first female Rector in its 350 year history.  At Sherbrooke, Dean of Medicine Pierre Cosette beat out three rivals to become the President.

Now technically, these are not campus-wide elections, as does occur in some universities around the globe.  At both Sherbrooke and Laval there are “electoral colleges” which hold the necessary votes.  These are pretty broad in their composition.  For instance, at Sherbrooke, it consists of 13 nonacademic staff members (split across 3 bargaining units), 11 chargés de cours, 30 students, 4 “external members” and 90 academic staff (some of whom also are also administrators).  At Laval, all members of the Board of Governors and Senate have a vote, as to members of three “commissions” for academics, research and student affairs (I don’t completely understand what they do or they fit in the governing structure, but they seem like super-committees of the Senate except they report to VPs rather than the Senate).  In terms of votes, the proportions are similar to Sherbrooke (fewer students, chargés de cours, and non-academic staff, more external members) with the academic representation split 70-30 or so between regular academics and academics with decanal positions or higher.  (Laval has an excellent website explaining its election procedures if you want to check it out).

One thing about this kind of selection procedure: it tends to reward insiders.  Not always: in the 1990s, Francois Tavenas managed to get elected at Laval despite being a Vice-principal at McGill at the time (though he wasn’t a total outsider having spent much of his career there).  But on the whole you’re not going to get outsider candidates like Santa Ono or Richard Florizone using this method (flip side: you’re probably not going to get a Karen Hitchcock either).  It’s a system less likely to challenge entrenched academic interests.  People may legitimately disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.  At a practical level it’s not clear to me that these two universities are actually managed that differently than other Quebec universities (francophone ones, anyway).  Certainly, I’ve never heard anyone in Quebec make that case (though granted I spend a lot less time there than I used to).  After all, they are trying to attract the same staff, dealing with the same government, operating under the same regulations.  Elected and theoretically beholden to their constituencies they may be, but they’re still mostly facing the same sets of incentives as Presidents who are appointed by Board of Governors, so maybe there’s not that much of a difference.

This might be heresy in continental Europe, where internal autonomy over top appointments are sacrosanct (Danish academia has just spent months freaking out over a proposal that government might name Board chairs), but it’s probably worth a deeper dive than I can provide here to find out.  All you higher education grad students out there: there’s a killer doctoral thesis in this.

October 02

Too Big to Fail?

Here’s a serious question: are universities too big to fail?  And if so, what are the consequences of that?

If we had a fully public system, with tight government oversight on budgets, and no deficit spending – sort of like what much of continental Europe has – this wouldn’t be an issue.  By definition, public institutions couldn’t fail (though presumably a government would be free to close an institution should it wish to do so).   But the existence of institutional financial autonomy changes things.  Who, ultimately, bears the responsibility for an institution’s finances?  What happens if things go wrong?

One of the interesting things about the very market-driven reforms in both Australia and England is the assumption that universities are, at the end of the day, on their own.  They can have their freedom – especially to raise fees – but the flip side is that no one’s going to bail them out, either.  That might sound a little crazy to Canadians, who tend to think of campuses as next to immortal, but the fact is they’re not.  If people don’t attend universities, they go under.  It happens all the time with international campuses (think of Waterloo’s venture in the Emirates), and there’s a long history of private universities going under in the US (think Antioch College’s 2008 flame-out).  Even in Canada, we’ve had closures (or rather, closures thinly disguised as mergers – Augustana College in Alberta being the most obvious).

The Canadian view here reflects a very deep ambivalence on the part of governments about the role of markets in higher education.  By and large, governments love it – LOVE IT! – when entrepreneurial universities make money through licensing, or get foreign students to cough up cash for courses, because that means institutions are less likely to come banging on government’s door for money.  They are significantly less enthusiastic about universities getting local students to cough up money for courses, because that means parents come banging on their doors.  And they are positively allergic to the idea that a campus might lose serious money doing something entrepreneurial – or worse, try to cut services in order to make ends meet.

As a result, Canadian governments laud entrepreneurial universities in public, but stifle them in private.  And the reason for this is that governments are unwilling to risk the public opprobrium that would come from a major campus closure.  At the end of the day, governments know they would be forced to step in because universities really are too big to fail.

Only one province is actually honest about the implication of this: British Columbia.  There, precisely because the government feels ultimately responsible for institutional survival, institutions do not have the freedom either to build their own buildings (even if they raise their own cash) or to negotiate independently with staff (the province insists that settlements meet specific public-sector-wide guidelines).  My guess is that over time, most Canadian governments will converge on the BC model because institutions are, in fact, too big to fail, and as a people, we’re scared of failure. But that policy is not without cost: making universities safe can also make it more difficult for them to excel.

It would be great if one day we had a debate where we talked honestly about the pros and cons of institutional autonomy and markets in higher education, instead fumbling around addressing symptoms rather than causes, and dealing in slogans rather than empirics.  But that wouldn’t be very Canadian, would it?

April 25

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.