Italian Centre for Research on Universities & HE Systems

Different models of University governance at peripheral level: the role of departments, faculties, schools in organizing teaching and research in Europe


Giliberto Capano and Marino Regini



1. The problem

Since 1980, Italian universities have a dualist structure of governance at the peripheral level: departments are the basic unit (usually on a disciplinary basis) in charge of organizing scientific activities and managing research funds, while faculties are larger units (usually multi-disciplinary) in charge of organizing curricula and all levels of teaching (only very recently some doctoral schools have gained some autonomy). One should add that it is faculties that recruit professors at all levels, although departments informally have a strong say in the decision and also in the actual organization of teaching. Professors then have a double affiliation: to the faculty and to a department.

The recent bill under parliamentary discussion aims, among other changes, to end this dualism, by giving all functions to departments. These must be large (minimum size varies depending on total number of students) and will not only organize research but also recruit and organize curricula and teaching, although they may be coordinated by faculties or schools for this purpose.

While ending the current rigid dualism was an objective initially welcomed by most observers, increasing doubts are arising on entrusting all functions, especially the one to organize curricula and teaching, to the departments. Most likely, the law that will be eventually enacted will leave some autonomy to individual universities to decide on this. It is important, however, that universities use such autonomy being aware of the different institutional solutions practiced by European universities; of their actual working when faced with a series of problem; of the ways in which the dynamics of the decision-making process influences the strategic decisions; of the pros and cons of each solution.

2. The objective

The objective of our work, within the constraints of time and resources available, is to produce an empirically-based typology of University forms of governance at the peripheral level, by studying how they work (more or less effectively) in a small non-random sample of European universities. On the basis of such typology, the Italian Rectors’ conference might suggest appropriate solutions to help universities use their autonomy in an informed way.

For reasons that we have argued elsewhere and will not deal with here, we will focus on eight European universities, two for each of the following countries: the UK, Germany, France and The Netherlands. Ideally, in each country we want to study a large, multidisciplinary, urban university with a very good reputation and a smaller, non urban one. Again ideally, for each university we would like to study a professional faculty or school (such as law) and a more academic and research-oriented one (in the hard sciences or social sciences). Where such faculties or schools include different departments or institutes, we would want to study at least four of these sub-units in each faculty/school.

Tentatively, we have selected the folloowing 8 case studies:

UK: Manchester and Leicester

Germany: Munich or Freie Berlin and Kassel

France: Lyon or Grenoble and Bordeaux

The Netherlands: Amsterdam (UVA) and Twente

For each university, we need first to collect some quantitative data:

–  University size: no. of students by level (BA, master, PhD) and by fields; no. of staff (teaching and research, teaching-only, research-only, administrative)

–  Number of study programmes by level (BA, master, PhD)

–  Budget by macro-items

Then we need to conduct about 12 interviews, one for each of the sub-units as said above plus a couple with top managers, on the following topics:

a)  Institutional/organizational history in the last 10 years;

b)  Formal decision-making structure at the peripheral levels;

c)  Functions assigned to the organizational sub-units (institutes, departments, colleges, faculties, schools);

d)  Actual distribution of roles, competences and dynamics in the following areas:

–   recruitment (tenured faculty, teaching- and research-only staff, visiting professors)

–  incentives and careers

–  decisions on new curricula or their re-design

–  organization of the post-graduate/doctoral level

–  organization of life-long-learning activities

–  decisions on double/joint degrees

– services to students (tutoring, international mobility, welcome services, monitoring of careers, etc.)

– external relations

–  management of research projects, funding, results

– responses to assessment outcomes

e)  Reconstruction of the vertical relationships between the peripheral sub-units and the central university administration, including the allocation of resources to the former by the latter

f)  Reconstruction of the whole typical decision-making process, involving both peripheral and central governance structures, on 2-3 concrete issues on which decisions have recently been made, such as:

–  decision to open a new study programme or to revise an existing one

–  recruitment to a post-doc position

Which levels of the university have been involved in the decision-making process, which actors play a leading role, which set of constraints and resources, which formal procedures and actual dynamics.

g)  Pros and cons of the current governance structure according to the interviewees

For each university, a report and an executive summary should be produced in English by the end of June.




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