Ministers with HE backgrounds ‘improve research performance’

Universities ministers with academy experience boost nations’ standings, research finds

April 24, 2016
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Rocket fuel: ministers for higher education who are former academics boost research performance

Nations with Cabinet ministers for higher education who are former academics or university leaders tend to have “a higher level of performance” in research, according to a new study.

When ministers with a university background are responsible for higher education – and also have political experience – there is a “positive impact” on the number of highly cited researchers and papers indexed in the Science Citation Index and the Social Sciences Citation Index, according to the paper looking at data for 20 European nations, published in Research Policy.

The authors suggest that experience from a university career can give ministers knowledge of concepts including academic freedom and the publication process that might be problematic for outsiders. These skills and knowledge “should lead to a better-functioning ministry and an improvement of the higher education system”, notably in reforms that make a sector more attractive to leading researchers, the authors add.

After examining data gathered for leading research institutions included in Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, the paper’s authors find a “robust correlation between the higher education performance [of a nation’s universities] and the academic experience of the minister”.

Examples of academics-turned-ministers include Jo Ritzen, who was a professor in the economics of education before becoming minister for education and science in the Netherlands from 1989 to 1998 (and later serving as president of Maastricht University).

The authors of the paper are Julien Jacqmin, assistant professor at HEC Management School at the University of Liège, and Mathieu Lefebvre, assistant professor in economics at the University of Strasbourg.

They found that the relationship between previous sector experience and sector performance was “conditional” on individuals accumulating some political experience before landing their ministerial post – rather than going straight from being an academic to becoming a minister.

The authors looked at variables including individuals’ experience in tertiary education, electoral experience, experience in the private sector, age, political orientation and length of tenure as a minister.

After looking at the correlation with the Shanghai ranking data, they found that “an experience in tertiary education is positively and significantly correlated with [positive] results” in the ranking.

Ministers with “electoral experience but no academic experience are negatively and significantly correlated with performance”, the authors add.

They say that the positive correlations applied for two of the six indicators used by the Shanghai ranking – number of highly cited researchers and papers in the citation indexes – but not for others such as number of Nobel prizes.

The authors found that ministers with academic experience did not tend to increase funding for the higher education sector – ruling out one potential explanation for improved performance – instead suggesting that they tend to “implement institutional reforms”.

In conclusion, they say that the findings show that “it is important to consider…past professional background when choosing the cabinet member in charge of higher education”.

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