This article is more than 4 years old

Institutional mission is critical for good governance

Only a clear purpose will cut through the noise. Working across Indonesia and the UK, Elisa Brewis provides an international perspective on current debates about governance.
This article is more than 4 years old

Elisa Brewis is a researcher in higher education based at the UCL Institute of Education.

For an outsider more familiar with the Asian and African context, what is striking about the debate on governance in the UK is the absence of the key words, “institutional mission” or “institutional values”.

Governing bodies are increasingly described as a battleground. A tug of war is taking place, with one group pulling in the direction of academic/professional ideals, and the other group pulling in the direction of a market logic and corporate ideals. Here lies a concern of competing interests – whose interests are we governing in? At the same time, there is a push to “professionalise” higher education governance, amidst concern that there is a lack of transparency or even competency. In all these framings, the critical elements of institutional mission and values are missing. Without a strong sense of institutional identity, it is hard to build a governance team capable of creating value and sustaining impact.

A tale of twin systems

A few examples from Indonesia are helpful here to illustrate this point. The Indonesian higher education system is made up of two very different sectors – the state and the private – which have each had to respond to their own pressures. The state sector has traditionally been tightly controlled in a financial, managerial, academic and even ideological sense. In the post-Soeharto period of democratisation, this sector has had to respond to new pressures from the academe, a reformed ministry, as well as civil society groups and student activists.

Meanwhile, the higher education system has expanded rapidly over the past two decades mainly thanks to a growing number of private institutions. The private sector now accounts for over 90 per cent of institutions and absorbs two-thirds of the six million or so student enrolments. The private sector has also had to adjust to shifting state higher education priorities in favour of greater public accountability and quality controls. At the same, they enjoy greater autonomy (they are run as not-for-profit foundations) and benefit from flexible and experienced governing bodies.

Often, they are governed by a larger religious organisation or educational branch of an enterprise that has a portfolio of colleges, academies and institutes. As they rely on tuition fees as their main revenue source, they also need to be acutely sensitive to demographic and labour market trends that determine student enrolment. For both these sets of institutions, having a strong sense of institutional mission and values is a key asset. In other words, a clear institutional identity, ethos or brand helps to build lasting impact amidst ever-shifting external pressures.

Institutional identity in private higher education

Private higher education institutions enjoy managerial and financial autonomy. Some institutions flounder in this situation. Perhaps they prioritise profit at the expense of demands from the academe and student body for academic excellence and well-being. They float along, closing and opening new degree programmes as the market dictates, but never really garnering much impact. In contrast, the more successful private institutions are the ones who place their institutional mission and values at the core of governance.

As a start, the mission involves a niche field – for instance, not just health care but community-embedded healthcare, not just IT but IT as applied in creative arts and design. Additionally, their values basis determines the personal attributes they wish to foster in students, and the educational philosophy chosen to address that aim. Perhaps they focus on holistic development and personal transformation, or work-readiness and professionalism. Ultimately, their educational value translates into market value.

Academic directors with first-hand knowledge of the operational context harness the commercial expertise and market insight of their non-academic governors to help them refine and update their institutional strategy for reputational growth. In the case of the institutions run by religious foundations, a shared values basis (such as social justice, betterment of society) permeates all arms of governance, serving as a constant reminder of the common goal.

At the same time, private institutions have to face the state’s demands. Every country undergoes this same struggle to find a balance between enough autonomy to foster innovation and diversity in higher education, and enough control to set minimum standards. Low-end private providers of dubious quality continue to pose a threat to the system in Indonesia. Accordingly, the government has enhanced control over private institutions in the name of public accountability. For instance, they are subject to many of the same legal requirements as state providers in academic domains (such as teaching quality, curricular standards) and managerial domains (such as transparency requirements for accounting). While many private institutions are trusted partners in the shared project of higher education development, the need for some state intervention reminds us that not all foundations will magically produce high-quality higher education when left to their own devices without oversight.

The case of state institutions

In post-Suharto Indonesia, governance of state universities shifted from being an accepted form of political co-optation, to a policy problem. Entrenched in the authoritarian regime for three decades, the senior management and academic senates had become bureaucratic, risk-averse, insular and self-serving. In response to this, the government introduced a corporate governance structure for selected universities, intended to make universities more responsive to external pressures, and innovative in terms of teaching provision and research productivity. Yet, entrenched cultures are hard to overcome. In most of the eleven cases where the governance reform was implemented, it has been business as usual. For example, one rector in East Java was accused of misusing university funds allocated to build a new teaching hospital.

In contrast, a few of the universities have mobilised their new-found autonomy under this new governance model to do something innovative and public-oriented, as envisaged by the reformers a the ministry. In fact, these higher education institutions have used their autonomy to pursue a community outreach mission. In West Java, three universities have established branch campuses in rural districts offering degree programmes relevant to the local economy, thus expanding much-needed access to higher education for citizens of the province. One of these universities is training doctors for free in a scheme whereby students agree to practice in their hometowns upon graduation, rather than heading to the capital for lucrative jobs at private hospitals. Setting up such schemes has been dependent on newly-granted managerial and financial autonomy to negotiate partnerships with local governments and private donors. This would not have been possible under the traditional bureaucratic governance model. Yet it was the revitalisation of the university mission that led to these schemes being devised in the first place and being implemented in practice. Without such a strong sense of institutional identity, many of the reformed institutions have failed to deliver on the governance reform’s intended outcomes.

Clear mission creates effective governance

The global higher education landscape is undeniably growing more complex, and this often brings a sense of threat and uncertainty for higher education management. But whether the tide is turning in favour of a corporate model, further state intervention, or a democratic model with a greater student voice, university governance should place a clear internally driven mission at the heart of its strategy. Those institutions with a clear sense of their own direction will always have somewhere meaningful to head towards regardless of the political noise in the background.

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