Strengthening the strategic capacity of public universities: The role of internal governance models

AuthorTom Christensen,Nicoline Frølich,Bjørn Stensaker
Published date01 October 2019
Date01 October 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Strengthening the
strategic capacity of
public universities:
The role of internal
governance models
Nicoline Frølich
NIFU Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and
Education, Norway
Tom Christensen
Department of Political Science, University of Oslo, Norway
Bjørn Stensaker
Department of Education, University of Oslo, Norway; NIFU
Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and
Education, Norway
Governments in Europe have emphasized the development of more autonomous public
universities over the last couple of decades. Often, the aim of these reform policies has
been to stimulate to a more competitive and agile higher education sector, where
increased formal autonomy is perceived as a key condition to strengthen the strategic
capacity of universities. These reforms have resulted in considerable shifts in the inter-
nal governance models of some universities, while others have kept their traditional
governance models. In this article, instrumental and cultural perspectives derived from
organizational theory are used as lenses to compare how universities with different
internal governance models organize and structure their strategic development
processes. Our findings suggest that internal governance models have little impact on
the design and organization of strategic processes. In conclusion, it is argued that
changes in internal governance arrangements alone are not enough to drive transform-
ation in higher education institutions, and the issue of formal institutional autonomy is
intimately linked to how various policy instruments at the system level are designed and
Public Policy and Administration
2019, Vol. 34(4) 475–493
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076718762041
Corresponding author:
Nicoline Frølich, NIFU Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, Oslo, Norway.
Higher education, implementation, public administration, public sector reform, strategy
Echoing the general reform wave in public sector governance (Christensen et al.,
2002; Djelic and Sahlin-Andersson, 2006; Pollitt, 2013), the relationship between
the state and higher education institutions in Europe has changed signif‌icantly
during recent decades (Capano, 2011; Maassen and Stensaker, 2011; Paradeise
et al., 2009). Key trends include shifts in the legal status of higher education insti-
tutions, resulting in more formal institutional autonomy being granted to institu-
tions (Christensen, 2011; King, 2015), not least concerning their f‌inancial room to
maneuver, the ways in which they choose to organize internally, and in their
decision-making structures (for an empirical overview, see European
Commission 2010). The idea of formal institutional autonomy in higher education
research has moved from mainly denoting community self-governance and an
emphasis on academic freedom to denoting organizational autonomy of the uni-
versity as a more unitary and strategic actor (Kru
¨cken and Meier, 2006). Analyses
of this trend have noted that despite the convergence in formal governance arrange-
ments around the world (Ramirez, 2006), there are indications that formal institu-
tional autonomy may actually imply less actual institutional freedom (Christensen,
2011), and that governance changes taking place in higher education institutions
are af‌fected by a complex set of factors including path-dependent trajectories and
external constraints (Enders et al., 2013; Frølich and Caspersen, 2015; Paradeise
et al., 2009).
Political interest in increased institutional autonomy is often legitimized by the
argument that increased autonomy will stimulate intra-organizational engage-
ment, creativity, and adaptability to local characteristics, which again will
boost organizational ef‌f‌iciency and ef‌fectiveness (Aghion et al., 2010; Verhoest
et al., 2004). From this perspective, increased strategic capacity is about utilizing
internal resources and organizational characteristics through thoughtful internal
governance processes and designs. In this way, the concept addresses more pro-
cessual aspects rather than the substance of a given strategy (Stensaker et al.,
2014). However, while strong correlations can be found between institutional
autonomy, competition, and institutional ef‌f‌iciency and performance (Aghion
et al., 2010; Enders et al., 2013), there is very little understanding about how
strategic capacity can be developed through careful governance designs. In this
article, we shed more light on the relationship between institutional governance
and strategic capacity. Acknowledging the complexity of higher education insti-
tutions as organizations (Clark, 1983; Frølich et al., 2013; Weick, 1976), we draw
upon both instrumental and cultural perspectives in organizational theory to
develop expectations as to how the relationship between university governance
and strategic capacity may be conceptualized. We then investigate these
476 Public Policy and Administration 34(4)

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