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Free to Compete!

This week’s news reports, which suggested that some of Britain’s new universities are doing well in the world rankings though others have slipped, also indicate that the new foundations in Asia are strongly competitive. While in Europe strains on the public purse have led to lower levels of spending per student between 2008 and 2012, in China and India governments have been investing in an ever-growing share of public expenditures in higher education.

Of course, in the complete university rankings, Britain still does extremely well. But Britain’s lead, where our universities have punched above their weight historically, cannot be taken for granted. What in the past has helped UK institutions take a lead has been freedom and autonomy allowing research and teaching to flourish, and especially blue skies thinking. The point has been made by the Astronomer Royal, Professor Martin (Lord) Rees that UK universities attracted scholars and scientists from across the world because they gave them freedom to follow a ‘hunch’.

In a new book, University Adaptation in Difficult Economic Times, in which I and a number of colleagues, consider the evidence, we find that the institutional autonomy of universities has become a key policy aim in higher education in Europe. In an agenda of global modernization sweeping through the university landscape, autonomy is now associated with the dramatic redistribution of authority between different levels of governance. The policies are aimed at strengthening the institutional autonomy of universities and creating organizational buffers to protect them from tightened central control.

For example, in the Nordic countries, the story is no longer one of centralized state control and uniformity. National governments have delegated to universities important strategic policy decisions, autonomy in personnel policy and financial management. In Denmark, Norway and Finland, university autonomy has been central for policy reform since 2001. In Finland, for instance, university staff in public universities are no longer civil servants but employed by the university. In Finland, in 2010 fundamental changes with respect to the autonomy of Finnish universities were introduced. These reflected the overall reform to move policy decisions on personnel, financial administration, overall strategy and ownership, from the state and its structures, to the universities themselves.

In Denmark, Finland and Norway, increased autonomy and freedom are intended to enable the universities to compete with the world’s best universities. This is part of a globalization strategy. The strategy also has a sharp focus on higher education as an engine of growth and human knowledge.

For greater institutional autonomy, central governments must be committed to equipping universities with the tools to act as strategic organisations in a global market. National strategies of globalisation that treat university autonomy as a source of innovation are better placed to help universities adapt in difficult economic times.

England remains in – and for – Europe, an inspiring model for successful universities as much as for public sector innovation and reform. Indeed, in many areas of policy, decentralization marks the introduction of new governance changes and public management reforms. Yet in the universities there is a different trend. If anything, state centralization seems at odds with the historic traditions and achievements in higher education.

Other countries continue to learn from England as they step up their public investment in higher education despite the economic crisis. If the British governments are to contribute more effectively to the European debate and the future success of universities, they too might treat institutional autonomy as vital to global success. Not only would this help shape the future European agenda of higher education, but it would once again bring to policy some of the conditions which have made for success in the past.

*Dr Paola Mattei is the Associate Professor in Comparative Social Policy and fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College Oxford. She is the editor and co-author of University Adaptation in Difficult Economic Times, just published by Oxford University Press

Dr Paola Mattei

Dr Paola Mattei is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Milan. She was co-author for Politeia of The State, National Identity and Schools (2017, with New Direction).

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