Guest blogger: From performance to conformance: The ‘coercive’ effect of performance-based governance systems
Dr Peter Woelert is a Research Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He has training in sociology and philosophy. His research interests include current trends in university and research policy & governance, organizational change within universities, and organizational forms of university autonomy.
Over recent decades, many governments have sought to comprehensively reform the system-level policy and governance arrangements for their public universities. One central element of this reform has been the strengthening of performance-based funding mechanisms, with a growing proportion of public funds being distributed to universities according to the results (or ‘outputs’) achieved by them.
A striking case in point for this trend is the Australian higher education system. Since the late 1980s, various Australian governments have developed a funding system for their universities that places paramount emphasis on the performance-based allocation of funds. Most far-reaching have been the changes to the funding of university-based research activities.
In Australia, all recurrent governmental research funding – as compared to the competitive research grant funding awarded by the two Australian research councils – is allocated to universities on the basis of an indicator-based funding formula. The key performance indicators in this regard are the number of publications, external research income, and the number of students completing research degrees such as a doctorate, and which are applied equally to all Australian universities. While indicator-based public research funds only form a relatively small proportion of the annual income of Australian universities (in between 5-10%), they are taken extremely seriously at the university level, and have had a lasting impact on institutional governance systems.
Most notably in this regard is that within the Australian university system, the reshaping of system-level funding arrangements has triggered a vertical adaptation process as a result of which various organizational levels of the university almost identically replicate the performance criteria that are applied to it from above.
This begins with the executive center of the university, which usually applies the same or nearly the same performance criteria across the university’s organizational divisions that the Australian government uses for the performance-based allocation of research funds across the entire university sector.