Markets and Managerialism in Higher Education: enhancing diversity or promoting conformity?

Are markets and ‘managerialism’ inevitable – and also desirable, especially if we want more diversity and excellence in higher education? This is the question I plan to address in my talk to the EAIR conference in Essen in August.

Across Europe the direction of travel seems to be towards a stronger managerial culture in universities as Governments grant institutions greater operational autonomy. There are several reasons for this shift:

  • One is certainly the pressure that State budgets have come under in post-2008 ‘austerity Europe’. The hope is that by devolving management (and budgetary) responsibilities from Ministries to universities costs can be cut;
  • A second reason is the emphasis on universities as entrepreneurial organisations in the wider context of the knowledge society – especially in a competitive global economy in which Europe fears it may losing ground to more vigorous competitors (notably in east Asia);
  • A third reason is the concern that state bureaucracies, and perhaps public systems of higher education more generally, produce too much uniformity. If we want more diversity, institutions must be free to determine their own destinies. The language of the ‘market’ has invaded higher education – niche products, brands, business strategies and the rest.

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Linking research, practice and policy

It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent Euro events that the challenges affecting Irish higher education are tied up with the country’s slow emergence from a financial and economic collapse that saw core expenditure per student decline by 15% since 2008 and a reduction of almost 2,000 in staff numbers. At the same time, total number of learners, including full-time and part-time, undergraduate and postgraduate, have increased, and will continue to rise between now and 2020. This is in line with a projected demographic expansion and labour market demand. Remarkably, despite having experienced over 15% unemployment a few years ago, the requirement for graduates may now exceed the current 69% participation rate.

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Third mission and U-multirank

Universities are seen as increasingly significant sources of knowledge and capabilities in the knowledge economy. Policy-makers and analysts alike have begun to pay more attention to university missions and the ways in which university-based capabilities and activities can contribute to social and economic development in a better way. There is a wide understanding for the two core missions of universities: teaching and research. The two are at the heart of all activities and therefore the engines of system and institutional developments and core elements of the university outputs. However, in recent years, another mission is being considered in order to reflect all contributions of universities to society, what is generally known as third mission or third stream.

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EAIR-ing: Our association’s rich diversity

Allow me the pun on “airing” (as in: exposure to public attention), to kick off a new way of communicating and engaging with you and the broader community of those professionally interested in research in higher education. In sync with the launch of the new web site, the Executive Committee thought it appropriate to start a series of virtual exchanges on topical issues, our annual Forum not being long enough to share what we would like to share …

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