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Spanish Chamber of Commerce joins the debate with European university system reforms

In the last decades many European Union countries have reformed the governance of their University systems. To obtain a more detailed view of the reform processes, the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, the Conference of Social Councils of the Spanish Universities and the CYD Foundation have jointly promoted a study on governance reforms in University systems in six countries European countries.

The study analyzes in detail the cases of Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Portugal, countries where significant reforms have been implemented in the field of Higher Education, the impact of which can already be assessed.

As general tendencies of the University reforms carried out in the last decades, the study detects:


  1. A growing autonomy of universities. The increase in the autonomy of the University is justified by the greater linkage of University activity to the needs of society as a whole. In this regard, a clear definition of the objectives by governments and parliaments regarding the role of universities in the national strategy for economic and social development seems important.


  1. Increase of the weight of external agents in the highest governing bodies of government. The growing autonomy is not confused with greater self-management and which is expressed through the creation of governing bodies that incorporate people outside universities and, in many cases, appoint the Rector and others internal management positions. There is also a limitation of the power of collegiate bodies in the management of the University.


The reforms in the six countries indicate that one of the biggest problems is to strike the right balance between professional and collegial management. The solutions given are very different, although in all of them there has been an advance of the professionalized management to the detriment of the collegiate. While in the Netherlands a radical choice is made for professionalized management, in France the weight of collegial bodies remains important. Hybrid solutions of various types are introduced in the other countries.


  • A greater professionalization of institutional management and the application of management principles of a more entrepreneurial nature that lead to overcome the fragmentation of the internal management of universities in faculties, departments, etc. In this sense, in all countries analyzed there is a high degree of involvement of external persons in the management of universities, usually in supervisory or administrative councils, which assume relevant competences, such as the approval of the budget, the strategic objectives of the institution and appoint the Rector.


  • An element of many structural reforms is the change in the status of academic staff, moving from civil servant to working, and granting more flexibility to universities in hiring staff. The growing autonomy of universities is reflected in the management of staff. In Austria, Finland and Portugal, the employment status of University staff has changed from civil servant to labor contractor, and staff management has been granted to universities. In Denmark, since the 1970s, they are hired workers and in the Netherlands there is a hybrid status between the two (in these two countries universities have long had a great deal of autonomy in the management of their personnel policies). In contrast, in France, the status of University staff has not changed, it remains a civil servant, granting universities a very limited autonomy in the management of their staff.


  • There is a trend towards greater accountability, that is, towards regulation of the system, for example through funding mechanisms by objectives or quality assessment procedures.


  • Quality assessment. All countries analyzed have quality assessment mechanisms. Their introduction is not often tied to governance reform, but accountability mechanisms seem to facilitate the granting of more management autonomy to universities.


  • Restrictions on the public budget encourage universities to diversify their sources of income, which increases the relative importance of private and international funds.


  • Allocation of public resources through performance indicators. This model often implies that institutions with the best indicators receive more resources, resulting in a vertical differentiation between universities.


  • Increased competition between universities. The best expression of this increased competition is the expansion of competitive research funding, coupled with the growing importance of agreements, for achievement of objectives in core funding via unconditional global transfer or program contracts.


  • Process of mergers between universities, which have also included research centers in some countries.


The reform processes carried out in the different countries share that a clear definition of the objectives by the governments in relation to the role of the universities in the national economic and social development strategy is essential, in order to evaluate their performance of the best possible way. It is also important to find the right balance between state control and institutional autonomy.

The analyzes show that the Spanish University system presents notable differences with respect to the general characteristics that define the reformed University systems in other European countries. Thus, this work will also be useful for the future actions to implement in Spain, in aspects such as the configuration of the governing bodies, the selection process for academic leaders, the financing model, the evaluation and accreditation system or the policy of mergers and alliances.

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November 7, 2017

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