by dr. Michael von Boguslawski
I completed a university management study programme at Tampere University during 2018-2019. Below, I would like to share some of the insights that the program offered. Universities have their own characteristics, compared for example to the private sector, which need to be taken into consideration in their management. For example, academic autonomy needs to be nurtured while the university simultaneously needs to be successful in a performance-based funding model. I also briefly discuss some reasons for the tensions that may arise between administrative staff and faculty.
How are the studies organized?
For over ten years, Tampere University has offered a continuing training study programme, currently 40/50 ECTS, in Administration and Management of Higher Education. The main target groups are managers and administrators within the higher education sector, such as universities, government institutions, and student organizations. The programme is organized by Tampere University’s Higher Education Group that also provides a Master’s degree programme in Research and Innovation in Higher Education, 120 ECTS, and doctoral degrees. (TUNI, 2000). I completed the programme during the academic year 2018-2019 (the programme can also be spread over two academic years).
The programme covers all central aspects of management, however, approached from a university point of view including but not limited to management theory, strategic steering, financial theory, quality and development, law, and staff well-being. The usual form of course examination was a small-group written seminar assignment (on a topic agreed upon with the lecturers through a 1-page abstract) with an accompanying presentation for the group (the odd course employed a written test at the end of the course.)
With “a university point of view”, above, is intended that the programme’s structure is permeated by a both wide and deep emphasis on research in the development of the university and society (and their interaction) historically, the academic ethos, and the role of the university in society as an institution. Thus, the approach is unquestionably academic and management theory is viewed through this lens, while not excluding practical examples and mini-exercises. This structure successfully accomplishes two things. First, a research and critical thinking approach entails that the programme remains engaging for an academic audience throughout the course. Second, it ensures that the theories and themes discussed remain relevant for the university setting, as opposed to, say, venturing too far into “pure business” theory which would perhaps be neither interesting to, nor readily applicable by, the organizations and institutions represented in the audience. I will return to the latter point shortly.
Below, I will highlight some (of many) interesting issues discussed during the programme.
Organized anarchy at universities since the 1970s
First, the way a university operates in practice has in research literature (roughly since the 1970s) been described as organized anarchy (or, more academically, loosely coupled systems). A classic overview is available e.g. in Clark (1983). This intends that the university cannot be described as a mechanism, e.g. where a lever operates a pulley attached to a rope which turns a gear in order to produce a circular motion (for whatever purpose). Rather, the university is something of a black box: you can craft a very meticulously defined input signal for it, but still be very surprised by the largely unintended outputs. For example, a performance-based funding (PBF) model with differently weighted indicators can lead some universities to completely cease with activities not perceived as heavily weighted in the model (an effect not intended by the model). A second example is found within the universities themselves, where this phenomenon of organized anarchy is usually even more prevalent. This is mainly due to the (often informal) internal hierarchical structures, to academic autonomy, and the organizational separation of those legally responsible for the university’s activities to the government (upper management and administration) and those responsible for the university’s academic activities (faculty staff, teachers and researchers). An engaged and charismatic university lecturer or professor can carry more authority in their department than, say, the voice of the dean of the faculty or the rector of the university. This can result in organizational changes (large or small) being minimally or over-enthusiastically implemented at departmental level, or completely ignored.
Academic autonomy, without which a university loses its credibility overnight, coupled with the requirement of academic expertise for a university department to be successful, entails that management of a university needs to be necessarily different from that of, say, a private share-holder company with much narrower goals (however commendable the activities of the company are or are not), namely profit and share prices. In recent years, this has not prevented some policymakers from facilitating business-jargon to seep into universities. Business jargon has also sometimes been endorsed within the universities themselves.
Entangled complexities in university management
In higher education management, one must not lose sight of the general picture – why universities have become integral to society in the first place, and what their purposes are. Take for example the performance-based funding models in use in Finland for universities and universities of applied sciences (OKM, 2019). By their very function (determining the amount of yearly state funding for each university) it becomes both a framework for planning a university’s operation, and evaluating its performance. The old saying “you get what you measure” is valid also in this case – PBF models might lead to universities streamlining their activities so that they become more similar, instead of preserving and nurturing their differences to the benefit of broader scientific activity.
The models may also introduce a negative substitution effect, as outputs that are not “priced” in the PBF model are de-prioritized in the HEIs. (Vartiainen, 2019). However, the models do not measure how well any given university performs what I believe to be one of its most fundamental and essential tasks – developing and maintaining the level of education of a society, in order to ensure its resilience on the one hand, and its capacity for positive change, on the other. How the university can successfully perform this task while simultaneously performing well in the given PBF, is left as an exercise to the university. (Proponents of the PBF could maintain, that performing well within a well-structured PBF should guarantee at least an acceptable level of positive influence on society in the long run, but that argument can be easily challenged, which however is left to a later post.)
A final pervasive but not often discussed issue can be mentioned. Namely the fact, and almost a paradoxical one, that for universities change is a prerequisite for constancy and stability in society. Tirronen (2018) notes how the only way that a university can uphold its characteristic dynamism, is by ensuring permanent academic values and norms. At the same time, he notes, a university needs to adapt to a changing world in order to avoid becoming rigid and turning inward, which would hamper its potential for renewal. This interplay creates flexibility tensions, not in the least because the university is a constructed institution that needs to be constantly created and changed in and over time.
Lastly, the issues described above raise difficult coordination and decision-making questions for university management and faculty staff, and have been the subject of a plethora of research and development activities in order to shape the higher education institution towards a more coordinated whole without sacrificing academic autonomy and its free-spiritedness – for an overview see for example Maassen & Stensaker (2019.) Despite these newer models and developments, the nature of universities as organized anarchies refuses to waver. These are also some of the fundamentals that lie at the root of the tension between the administrative and faculty staff at universities. Blame for this tension is often directed (and sometimes perhaps rightly so) at poorly implemented or communicated structural changes in universities, or legislative changes by governments. Such changes might for example include the terms of a university’s funding, but the underlying reason for this tension – the separate legal and organizational duties of faculty staff and management – are often unfortunately forgotten when discussions get heated.
In the famous words of Rector and Chancellor Emeritus Kari Raivio: “Managing a university is like a moving a graveyard – you rarely receive assistance from those inside.” Thus, we can conclude that management studies from an academic perspective are more than necessary for higher education professionals because they offer insight into the complexities of university management. The programmes offered by Tampere University perform this duty excellently.
Clark, B. R. (1983). The Higher Education System: Academic organization in cross‐national perspective. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Maassen, P., and Stensaker, B. (2019). “From organised anarchy to de‐coupled bureaucracy: The transformation of university organisation.” Higher Education Quarterly, vol. 73, issue 4. Available on-line: https://doi.org/10.1111/hequ.12229 Accessed 13.10.2020.OKM, (2019).
“Korkeakouluille uusi rahoitusmalli”, Opetus- ja kulttuuriministeriö, 2019. Available on-line: https://minedu.fi/-/korkeakouluille-uusi-rahoitusmalli Accessed 13.10.2020.
Tirronen, J. (2018). Lecture slides Länsimaalainen Yliopistolaitos – muutos, idea, ja tulevaisuus, 2018. Lecture given in the autumn term 2018 during the course “Korkeakoulut ja Korkeakoulutus Tutkimuksen Kohteena” (HALKOS 21) in the program Administration and Management of Higher Education, Tampere University 2018.
TUNI, (2000). “Higher Education Group.” Tampere University, 2000. https://www.tuni.fi/fi/tutustu-meihin/higher-education-group Accessed 13.10.2000.
Vartiainen, H. (2019). Lecture slides Yliopistojen Rahoitus, Kannustimet ja Rakennekehitys, 2019. Lecture in the spring term 2019 during the course “Korkeakoulujen Rahoitus ja Talous” (HALKOS 24) in the program Administration and Management of Higher Education, Tampere University 2019.