Autonomy can be just a 'shifted dependency'

April 26, 2002

As the state relinquishes its grip on universities, other interests are vying for control, warns Ulrike Felt.

University reform across Europe is taking place with different degrees of radicalism. In some instances, the state is backing away from its role as central financier; in others there is greater diversification of funding and an injection of entrepreneurialism; in yet others more flexible employment practices are being introduced, or the curriculum adjusted to the demands of the labour market. Above all, there is a drive towards new forms of quality assessment.

Greater autonomy stands at the core of these debates, associated with new responsibilities towards society, and accountability towards stakeholders. There is a clear trend towards greater deregulation across Europe. But, while the state seems to be partially in retreat, other forces are coming into play to hinder the creation of greater overall autonomy. The arrival of players from the private sector and from society at large is becoming as significant as the relationship between the state and universities.

And not only do formal legal frameworks have to be considered. So too do a wide variety of more or less explicit forces that are just as powerfully at work. Similarities in university reform across Europe are the result of more global socioeconomic and sociopolitical shifts as universities are repositioned as institutions of research and higher education in knowledge societies and economies.

The "virtual" contract, reached in the 1970s between universities and society, is being renegotiated. Forged under particular conditions and based on a specific set of values - among them access for broader segments of the population and democratic decision-making processes within universities - it has undergone fundamental change in the past decades. Its central values have shifted towards cost-effectiveness, favourable input-to-output ratios, close relation to knowledge users and so on. The players taking part in these renegotiations have changed too. Yet, on closer examination, clear national variations across Europe emerge from this apparently homogeneous dialogue on higher education.

They reflect different national histories of higher education and its relationship to the state, widely different political cultures and a variety of positions taken by universities among other knowledge-producing and distributing institutions in a national context. This variety is and will be one of the strengths of European higher education and should be kept alive. Focusing on the borderline between universities and the societies within which they operate can test the degree of the autonomy they enjoy. It is never a strictly defined homogeneous notion. Rather it has quite broad, diversified and negotiable meanings. An increase in autonomy on one level can be matched by a decrease on another. A more finely tuned understanding of what is happening is needed, together with more sensitive mechanisms to observe change in autonomy and its consequences for the universities.

Autonomy is a catch-all notion, used with very different meanings. Understood for a long time as a value underpinning academic identity and a synonym for academic freedom, there is a clear shift towards interpreting autonomy in a very technical sense. It is increasingly seen as an operational tool necessary to run the university, granted formally by the state through clearly defined legal processes.

Greater diversification of financial resources is a second interpretation. Autonomy is to an extent replaced by relative independence achieved through multiple dependencies. Universities with high levels of external funding classically typify this definition. In some reform processes, autonomy means internal decision-making for universities under clearly defined external value structures. Strategic choices are made "outside", and routine decisions are left to the universities. Finally, autonomy can be also seen as a "shifted dependency" from the state with direct influence replaced by mediation through buffer bodies making decisions at the border between universities and society.

Even if autonomy were enshrined in law, universities would have to build up their internal structures and procedures. Autonomy is linked to a strong capacity to adapt to a fast-changing environment while at the same time shaping it. A capacity to reflect the precise nature and meaning of autonomy will be needed, as well as internal risk-managing strategies, to allow for innovation. To achieve greater autonomy, universities will have to strengthen their competence as both learning and learned institutions.

Ulrike Felt is professor of social studies of science at the University of Vienna. This article is an edited version of a keynote speech to the conference of the European University Association at the University of Roskilde.

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