The modernisation agenda largely unquestioned?

In the end of January, the European Centre for the Strategic Management of Universities (ESMU) arranged a conference within the MODERN project framework. The conference was themed “Engaging in the Modernisation Agenda for European higher education“. MODERN is a three-year EU-funded project under the EU Lifelong Learning Programme that has an ambition to examine the supply and demand of higher education management programmes, and address the issues that emerge from a fragmented educational landscape in this areas in Europe.

The conference was held in Brussels and the main ambition was to address the newly launched modernisation agenda. ESMU as an organisation itself has a clearly identified focus on the need to modernise higher education governance, management and modes of operation linked to a clearly European identity. As a key theme the conference identified the Commissions statement that “the full potential of higher education institutions is still underexploited. Europe has too few world-class universities and needs a much wider diversity of institutions to address different needs“.

The various presentations and themes of the conference focused on rankings, on strategic management and the linkages between internal governance to external pressures, delivered by an impressive list of speakers including various senior policymakers, university leaders and researchers.

In essence, the conference had a dual focus – on the one hand focusing on the core of the MODERN project that has its focus on the professionalisation aspects of university administration/management (an area relatively under-researched in comparison to the academic profession) and on the other hand the focus was on the implications of the modernisation agenda.

Regarding the first of these two, the information provided indicated a diverse picture in Europe – both in terms of the courses offered, and the requirements within various higher education systems. However, it was emphasized that the requirements for more professional management have to be also set from the leadership side within institutions. Without this being a clear requirement in employment and promotion policies, one lacks a powerful incentive for participating in such training.

When it comes to the courses that are offered around Europe, the data provided within the MODERN survey indicated a great variety – from two-day courses to full degrees. Nevertheless, the conclusions from the survey emphasized the need for further professionalisation of management and the role of institutions in promoting an active culture where professional management is valued and appreciated.

The conference also included input from various clients – from those who had participated in full degree programmes and shorter training courses and it appeared that the overall feedback was positive. In addition, the conference also provided feedback and lessons learned from a peer learning activity within the MODERN project that had turned out to be unsuccessful.

When it comes to focusing on the modernisation agenda itself, there appeared to be an overarching acceptance of inevitability and the taken for grantedness of the grand movement towards an increasingly market-oriented environment with focus on producing knowledge that can be commodified and universities increasngly run in accordance with new public management thinking. Information was provided on the innovation gap between Europe and USA and the emerging countries from Asia. It is quite understandable that the current EU rhetorics in a financially restrained environment is focused on innovation and economic growth, and higher education is increasingly seen as taking centre stage as the knowledge producer and source for qualified manpower.

While it was emphasized that the new modernisation agenda has shifted its focus from “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy” to more clearly focusing on innovation and knowledge through focus on becoming a “a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy”, it was not quite clear where the actual shift is and what kind of new approaches the new Modernisation agenda actually suggests. On first glance it appears that there is still a quite clear normative image of how universities should be like and that this image is quite similar to the previous modernisation agenda, despite the expressions of appreciating diversity and aknowledgement that one-size-fits-all approach cannot be a solution.

What was interesting was that it appears that the Modernisation agenda seemed to be received as largerly unquestioned and taken for given by the audience and there were few critical voices against the underlying assumptions and evidence for European universities lagging behind. Indeed, while one can argue that according to the Commissions own innovation index Europe is indeed lagging behind, one could also say that the various indexes are always dependent on what exactly is being measured and what kind of indicators are included and what is left out. In addition, the relationship between innovation and higher education is perhaps also not as given and straight forward as one might presume.

If one would turn eyes towards the much criticized rankings (which are in most cases used to indicate yet again how European higher education is lagging behind), one could also show a different picture: if one looks at the best university systems in the world, they are in fact predominately in Europe. In a recent working paper, Goedegebuure examined recent rankings and aggregated the results to a national level and see the results proportionally with respect to the size of the system. The results are quite astonishingly different, as the best systems according to Jiao Tong 2010 are thus the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong, Belgium and Australia. This list is quite different from the usual US dominance with occasional UK entrances in the top 10.

Of course, there is a need to see critically how universities are managed and governed in Europe and there is room for improvement, also in terms of the professionalisation of management, and one should aknowledge the MODERN project for putting focus on this. But one could argue that the picture is not as bleak as usually presented in the various policy statements from the EU, and perhaps the higher education systems in Europe are not as dysfunctional as they might seem. While there is a need to critically assess current practices in higher education management, there is also a need for a critical assessment and analysis of current trends that the universities are facing.

by: Mari Elken

The article represents the opinions of the author and not Hedda as an organisation.  

Image: stock:xchng