The general public and researchers all around the world try to solve the dilemma of how to operate institutions of higher education. At the global IRSPM conference on public management, a new panel examined the solutions available beyond managerialism. We asked the initiator and president of the panel, dr. Gergely Kováts, Associate Professor of the Institute of Management of the Corvinus University about the lessons of the section.
The size of higher education has increased over the past decades, therefore former operation and management logics have been questioned. ‘In a number of countries, higher education has become so complex, that the state found it difficult to control it properly, so it wanted to transfer much bigger responsibility to institutions of higher education. At places where higher education was fairly independent, for instance in England, the main dilemma was how to make these institutions accountable’, explained the roots of the present challenges dr. Gergely Kováts.
The solution in many countries around the world was that they tried to transform the management of higher education on the model of business organisations. ‘They are trying to force mechanisms and incentive and control systems to universities that imitate the operation of the business sector. There are discussions, for example in Denmark, the Netherlands, England and Australia, about the anomalies this may cause, and dysfunctional incentives may emerge, which may derail universities’, says the expert. The reason is that universities basically do not pursue business activities, and these institutions possess the features of the public sector, too; for example, the performance of the universities is diverse and difficult to grasp.
Think about a situation when an institution of higher education is given more responsibility, but, at the same time, it has to remain accountable, so that it can prove its utility for society. As a result, the management becomes interested in measuring performance, so they work out indicators for that. For example, to define how many Q1 articles a lecturer has published. After a while, the focus is on making sure that the lecturer meets this central requirement. ‘This may derail the operation of the organisation, because the focus will be on quantity, and not on the subject of the research and whether it makes sense’, explained dr. Gergely Kováts.
New conference panel to look for solutions
The researcher of the Corvinus organised this panel in cooperation with his colleagues, because he is confident that there are solutions going beyond managerialism. ‘It is not a good solution to return to the old institution management framework, or to start to operate higher education along business logic only. We need the synthesis of these two. I think that this already works in practice at a few universities, but with our present concepts, it is is difficult to describe it in a way that it could be seen as transferable knowledge’. The conference of a large international organisation like the IRSPM is an important forum of international knowledge-sharing.
You can read about the objectives and the current topic of the 2023 IRSPM conference in our report on the plenary session.
In the history of the conference, there have been only a few independent panels to deal with higher education. ‘The higher education panel was included in the programme of the conference because we and our international colleagues applied for its organisation. This was an experiment for us, we were wondering how open the audience of the conference would be to this topic’, said the initiator of the panel, dr. Gergely Kováts. In the end, the panel commanded interest, and altogether nine presentations were delivered. In addition to Gergely, Danish, Portuguese, Czech and Polish researchers were involved in the development of the panel and the assurance of its professional quality.
The lectures presented solutions that would go beyond managerialism. In his lecture, Jari Stenvall Finnish professor approached institutions of higher education from the direction of organisational paradoxes. For example, it is important for a university that science is self-organising, but it is also important that education and research should be accountable in society. No matter how series the conflicts between these interests may be, both considerations have to be enforced in the organisation. In the researcher’s opinion, it would be worth examining institutions of higher education from this aspect, too, because that could be a new perspective for the management.
Another viewpoint was offered in prof. dr. Martin Kitchener’s presentation, as he approached business schools from the direction of their social utility. He says that if these institutions get preoccupied too much with indicators and with achieving the strategic objectives, they will not see the forest from the trees.. ‘They concentrate on business objectives so much that they lose sight of the social missions of the institutions. The professor offered some solutions to prevent this’, summarised the key points of the presentation dr. Gergely Kováts.
A third alternative approach was described in the presentation of dr. Mária Dunavölgyi, Assistant Professor of the Corvinus University. She defined institutions of higher education as knowledge-intensive organisations, i.e. intellectual centres, the operation of which strongly relies on professional skills. ‘If we looked at institutions of higher education as knowledge-intensive organisations, and applied the management practices valid for those, managerialism would be a smaller problem than it is now’, explained the president of the panel. In his opinion, one of the most important lessons from the presentation was that according to international literature, a knowledge-intensive organisation is successful when there is live connection and cooperation between the management and the employees.
The dilemmas and results achieved so far by the model change in Hungary were reflected on by two presentations. The results of the OTKA (Hungarian Scientific Research Fund) research affecting multiple Hungarian universities and led by dr. Gergely Kováts were also shared with the international audience. The system of performance contracts (the presentations of György Drótos and Éva Révész) and the Hungarian media representation of the model change (the presentation of dr. Zsuzsanna Géring) are also examined in the course of the research, and the objective here is to assess the organisational patterns of Hungarian universities and the related public life discourse, and then compare these with each other and with international practices.
Dr. Gergely Kováts thinks that the panel pointed out that it is important to understand the nature of the problems faced by higher education all over the world, but the responsibility of researchers is not only the strengthening of the critical side, but the presentation of solutions, too. ‘This was facilitated by some excellent discussions about the presentations. The people I talked to basically had good opinions about the inspiring power of the panel’, said the researcher of the Corvinus.
Written by. Tünde Taxner