22 SES 02 D, University Governance: Rankings & Profiles
In the last two decades reforms of higher education institutions have granted increasing institutional autonomy to universities, with the assumption that the more leeway universities hold to intervene in their environment, the more strategic they will become. By becoming strategic universities will then become “more competitive”, i.e. they position themselves against their competitors and find a viable niche (Fumasoli, Gornitzka & Maassen, 2014). However, how empowered universities concretely act strategically and, related, how they become competitive, remains understudied by scholars, as well as poorly understood by policy makers. This is surprising, because the idea that the more competitive a university is the more sustainable it becomes, has been present both in discourse and in public policy for a while.
Indeed successful strategizing and competitive positioning in higher education differ to a great extent from the private sector, where insufficient adaptation in situations of intense competition might lead to the death of individual firms (Barnett and Hansen, 1996; Porter 1980). In academia on the other hand, competition is not a “natural” situation, as competitive forces are less directly threatening in the sense that public universities do not cease to exist when they underperform continuously (Hasse & Krücken, 2013). While it is without doubt that competition is emerging in higher education, for instance competition for external research funding and for reputation, institutional research is still catching up with explaining the novel institutional practices that come along with this new social development (Rowan & Meyer, 2006). An example is the increasing individualization of universities and their understanding of being autonomous organizational actors (Brunsson and Sahlin-Andersson, 2000; Krücken and Meier, 2006; Whitley 2008). This raises the question how strategizing and competitiveness can be understood and how they play out in the institutional context of universities. Hence this paper asks how universities are developing strategic planning and how they are conceiving of themselves as competitive.
In order to address our question, we analyze the case of a German flagship university that has successfully developed its strategic planning in the framework of the Excellence Initiative. We use Hasse and Krücken’s (2013) institutional approach which understands competition as a social construct. They provide a framework for investigating how strategy becomes institutionalized in university practices and how competition is thereby constructed through the Excellence Initiative. Hasse and Krücken (2013) assume that only if certain social framing processes take place, universities and individual academics start perceiving themselves and acting as competitive actors. In fact, competition can be understood as a form of fighting which is not based on a conflict between two adversaries but in which both parties fight individually for a price that is in the hand of a third party (Simmel, 1903 and 2008), that is constructed in a distinctive arena, which is the market. Hence, universities must need resources, be able to strategize and compete under the same rules.
However, an institutional approach also considers becoming strategic and competitive a learning process taking place over time. While funding schemes such as the Excellence initiative may be able to steer university behavior in the desired direction, such funding mechanisms could also trigger opportunistic behavior. That is, as far as the funds are available, universities comply by strategizing and competing. However, as soon as the funding disappears, universities as resilient organizations might bounce back to their traditional behavior. To address this question, we investigate to what extent strategizing and competitiveness become legitimized and taken for granted, which might help to predict how sustainable they are in the long-term. For this we will draw on the methodological approach developed by Colyvas & Powell (2006) which allows us to empirically analyze institutionalization processes.
Barnett, W. & Hansen, M. (1996). The Red Queen in Organizational Evolution. Strategic Management Journal, 17, 139-157. Brunsson, N. & Sahlin-Andersson, K. (2000). Constructing organizations: The example of public sector reform, Organization Studies, 21 (4), 721-746. Colyvas, J. A., & Powell, W. W. (2006). Roads to Institutionalization: The Remaking of Boundaries between Public and Private Science. Research in Organizational Behavior, 27(06), 305–353. Esterhazy, R. (2014). Strategic responses to the German Excellence Initiative - A casy study of Berlin Humboldt University. University of Oslo. Fumasoli, T., Gornitzka, A. & Maassen, P. (2014). University Autonomy and Organizational Change Dynamics. ARENA Working Paper Series Hasse, R., & Krücken, G. (2013). Competition and actorhood: A further expansion of the neo-institutional agenda. Sociologia Internationalis, 51(2), 181–205. Krücken, G. and Meier, F. (2006) Turning the university into an organizational actor. In G. S. Drori, J. W Meyer H. Hwang (eds.) Globalization and organization: world society and organizational change, pp. 241-257. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Porter, M. E. (1980) Competitive Strategy, New York, NY: Free Press. Meyer, H. D., & Rowan, B. (2006). Institutional analysis and the study of education. In H. Meyer and B. Rowan (eds.) The new institutionalism in education, pp. 1-13. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Simmel, G. (1903). Soziologie der Konkurrenz. Neue Deutsche Rundschau 14, 1009-1023. English translation 2008: Sociology of Competition. Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 33, 957-978. Whitley, R. (2008). Constructing universities as strategic actors: limitations and variations. In L. Engwall and D. Weaire (eds.) The University in the Market, pp. 22-37. London: Portland Press.
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