HE institutional autonomy is under siege across the world

A small group of international university and quality assurance experts met for an informal virtual conversation in June 2021. Our topic was the all-important question of institutional autonomy.

Why this conversation again – and now? After all, this has been a much discussed topic in higher education for many years. A prime example is the Council of Europe’s Global Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Future of Democracy, held in 2019, and the Declaration that followed.

We have come together because, in our view, we are witnessing a worrying increase in the forces that curtail this autonomy in different countries. And from our point of view, too, this situation requires a strong response from us in the university community. All over the world, nationally, regionally and internationally, institutional autonomy is under siege and is an increasingly pressing issue.

What is institutional autonomy?

UNESCO defines “institutional autonomy” as “a degree of self-government that is required for universities to make effective decisions about their academic working standards, their management and related activities”. Institutional autonomy in its long-term and idealized form is, for example, well captured by the Magna Charta Universitatum 2020, which states: “… intellectual and moral autonomy is the trademark of every university and a prerequisite for its responsibility to society”.

More specifically, the European University Association deals with four dimensions of autonomy: organizational, financial, human and scientific. These include the autonomy to determine the university’s internal organization, its internal financial affairs, its administration, salaries, staff recruitment and admission policies, and its academic content, including its programs, language of instruction and quality assurance.

As our group focused on this autonomy, we examined topics such as:

• Why has institutional autonomy continued to erode in so many countries – although the higher education community continues to point out the importance of maintaining and strengthening this autonomy and, in some cases, is taking significant action to address it?

• What are the multiple forces that limit institutional autonomy and how does higher education counter them?

• Is the long-term design of autonomy less suitable for the future? While many in the higher education community are appropriately committed to a traditional and longstanding view of institutional autonomy, does this traditional concept of higher education need to be changed in the 21st century?

• How could the higher education community shape a more high-profile view of institutional autonomy in a future where social responsibility and public accountability increasingly affect colleges and universities in countries around the world?

Our group identified three main categories of forces that are now limiting institutional autonomy.

Firstly, this includes political and political decisions by governments that lead to greater authority over the organization, structure and academic activities of a college or university. For example, governments in a number of countries have emphasized vocational education and research at the price of the liberal arts, which sometimes resulted in, for example, humanities or theoretical research staff being cut to make way for vocational training.

Second, the group discussed economic forces, such as public funding decisions that could lead to a decline in teacher recruitment, student enrollments, or changes in research priorities.

Third, our group discussed forces within the colleges or universities themselves, such as weak college leadership and leadership who do not fully meet the challenge of supporting and strengthening institutional autonomy.

This can mean, for example, that universities willingly give up their respective autonomy in scientific decision-making in order to receive funding from different sources or to avoid conflicts with government or corporate interests.

It was a sobering conversation. We examined both the questions and the limitations and asked, where do we go from here? What is the perception of institutional autonomy in the 21st century? And we have come up with three action steps.

We can:

• Design the concept of autonomy in such a way that current demands for more social responsibility and accountability for higher education are taken into account. Twenty-first century autonomy is about more than academic freedom and the freedom to manage our own internal affairs. It’s about using our freedom of action to address vital social problems, community and country needs, and to expand our service to students.

When it comes to accountability, we must recognize that the authority of our institutions is never devoid of obligations to government and society. The challenge is to identify the range of constraints that we are willing to accept and face, and the constraints that go too far and threaten the autonomy of our universities.

• Question our own behavior within our institutions critically and ask us about the price we pay and are willing to pay if we forego scientific decisions in order to receive the funding we want.

There is no free funding. All resources made available to us are subject to restrictions. Are we accepting public funds that force us to drop or add programs that we believe are inconsistent with our institutional mission? Do we have to accept that governments determine the leadership of our institutions, our vice chancellors, rectors or presidents? Or government decisions that determine the direction of our research?

In some countries there is no alternative but to say “Yes, we have to accept that”. But there are also countries in which institutions have alternatives and can counteract these efforts and where we otherwise contribute to weakening institutional autonomy, albeit unintentionally.

• Discuss how we extend the conversation about the value of institutional autonomy beyond higher education to the public domain by building and promoting a strong case for institutional autonomy, not just for ourselves but for the public and society as well – Students, families, taxpayers, government officials and funders.

How do we describe the value of institutional autonomy for society and our students? Are we talking about the tremendous use of scientists in making scientific judgments, for example measures of success, study requirements, content of curricula and how it helps students and society more if scientists make these decisions than if they were made by others?

Are we talking about how our universities can model responsible autonomy and freedom while serving societal needs and accounting for the use of public funds?

Are we acting as public intellectuals and arguing for the contribution of autonomy to the future growth and development of our countries?

On the way to institutional autonomy in the 21st century

How could we do some of this? Some ideas offered by various colleagues during our conversation are:

• Explore the establishment of benchmarks of institutional autonomy of the 21st century that can be applied globally.

• Bring colleagues together to identify acceptable limitations on autonomy (e.g. social responsibility and reasonable accountability) and develop tools to take action against limitations that affect this autonomy e.g. B. restricted by state actors or others.

• Make institutional autonomy an even more important issue for international organizations, perhaps through a declaration on institutional autonomy for the 21st century.

• Reducing reliance on public funding for higher education with a greater emphasis on private fundraising, tuition fees and foundations.

• Develop capacity building programs to strengthen university management and governance efforts to protect institutional autonomy.

The rapidly growing forces against institutional autonomy demand an urgent response. It is vital that we formulate a version of this autonomy for the 21st century, strengthen our own practices to maintain autonomy rather than contribute to its weakening, and present the public with a strong case as to why this is important.

Judith Eaton is President Emeritus of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), USA, and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic is a former University Director of UNESCO and a former advisor to the CHEA President. This article is based on the first of a series of virtual conversations between international higher education and quality assurance experts initiated by the authors.