Institutional autonomy and the social contract: How higher ed must leverage uniqueness to improve quality
- When the Magna Charta of the European Universities was signed in 1986, a primary concern for the participating universities was expressing the need for institutional autonomy while making it clear to stakeholders that autonomy is not just a privilege, but a privilege for a purpose.
- As institutions in the EU, U.S. and the rest of the world continue to grapple with negotiating that autonomy, Sijbolt Noorda, the chairman of the Magna Charta Observatory who spoke during the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s annual meeting, said it is important to emphasize the need for autonomy to give different answers and provide different models of excellence to different populations.
- In both the EU and the U.S., there are “many, many examples where … outside groups are making statements about what the universities should be doing,” he said, and this has compromised institutional autonomy as governments, corporations and philanthropists demonstrate “a strong wish to steer in higher education in certain directions.”
Noorda said institutional autonomy is a constant debate on the social contract, one in which higher education leaders must engage — “maybe even fight” — with all relevant stakeholders to ensure their institutions are able to serve society.
“The main risk when you talk about the need for autonomy is that we want to please … we want to do what our environment seems to be demanding and seems to be rewarding,” he said during the conference. “The excellence delusion is one of the most [dangerous] diseases of higher education. [Every leader of every institution is] pretending to serve the same community, doing excellent work with excellent quality, though almost none of them [are] succeeding at actually training students in a way that would have been able to prevent the financial crisis.”
There is a need for institution leaders, but especially policymakers and the general public, to recognize the importance of mission and the idea that not every institution is serving the same type of student. “Quality assurance very often is about how we do higher education, how it is organized, how we do this and that, and it very often leaves out the matter of what we are doing and why we are doing it — why we have chosen this particular profile and why we are serving this particular community,” Noorda said.
“In general, in higher education, we need to celebrate variety much more than we do," he continued. "We need many, many types of institutions of higher education .... working within the space together — there’s not one way right in all situations, it’s very much dependent on the requirements of the community, of the specific educational path that you want to serve.”
Higher education as an industry, he said, is not going to survive when institutions are striving for uniformity and accreditors and governing bodies are pushing them to all fit into a similar model. And the various world rankings entities, Noorda argued, compound the issue.
“Most of the world rankings start from an implicit model of what higher education should be and what it should model, and it’s a poor representation [that favors the research institutions, which constitute] maybe 2% of the 30,000 universities we have — and it’s not a good model for all of us,” he said. “That’s why we need autonomy — we need autonomy to give different answers under different conditions to different purposes.”
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