Italian Centre for Research on Universities & HE Systems

Institutional mechanisms among European universities as a response to national policies: differentiation, university governance and decision-making processes.



A research project commissioned by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR), in cooperation with the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI)

Processes of reform of the national higher education system involved all European countries in recent decades. However, if there are some common features at the origin of these processes of reform, the ways in which the re-organization of higher education systems have been implemented tend to diverge.

Our research hypothesis deals with the idea that outcomes and effect of processes of reform largely vary between countries, as a result of different policies and styles of policy-making, but also within countries. In the latter case, a central role is played by the institutional and organizational structure of the universities and by the university’s leadership.

The research focus is on four main institutional and organizational processes, also called the dependent variables:

a)   processes of internal differentiation (among universities of the same country)

b)   changes in the system of university governance

c)   variations in the internal organization of universities

d)  changes occurring in the domain of decision-making, with particular attention to some crucial processes for the functioning of the university (e.g. recruitment, teaching and research)

Three are the main elements at the basis of the processes of reform that involved all European systems of higher education, elements that are common to all the national systems and in a certain way related each other. The first one is the transition from the model of an elite university to a mass system of higher education. The second is a common perception (it does not matter whether scientifically proved) of an increasing importance for the economic development of training and research carried out by universities. The third one is represented by the fiscal crisis of the state, which can no longer sustain the costs of a mass university, moreover considered as a crucial tool for economic development.

Together with the increasing cultural hegemony of the new-liberal market approach, translated into action by New Public Management prescriptions, that aims at transforming public services in quasi-markets,  the above mentioned three elements forced governments to re-organize national higher education systems according to principles of efficiency and effectiveness, of performance assessment, internal competition, transparency and accountability.

Yet, if the analysis of the tools and ways in which the reforms have been implemented in different European countries (or in different regions, as in Spain and Germany) might help explaining national or regional differences, it is generally observed that universities belonging to the same country or region often show different trajectories of re-organization.

New-institutional and organizational theory suggest that the basis of such differences might be traced back in two different directions. The first one refers to the phenomenon of path dependence,which indicates the tendency of institutions to maintain their characteristics even when the original conditions which determined them -and under which they emerged as efficient organizations-, already varied. According to this perspective, institutional and organizational structures of universities, pre-existing national reforms, will affect the outcomes and impact of the processes of reform itself. The second direction refers to the role played by the key actors, the role of agency. The different cognitive and interpretative frameworks, power resources and the abilities of institutional learning owned by the top leadership, by definition vary across universities, and may explain the preference for different solutions, although within a constrained environment of possible alternatives.

The research team is associated with a group of researchers from the University of Bergamo, coordinated by prof. Stefano Paleari, General Secretary of CRUI and Board member of EUA.

The universities involved in the project are:


University College of London

University of Manchester

University of Leicester


University of Munchen (LMU),

University of Dusseldorf

University of Stuttgart


University of Strasburg

University of Paris South

University of Nice


University of Amsterdam,

University of Leiden

University of Maastricht


University of Barcelona (UB)

University of Valencia

University of Vigo

Expected end of the project: fall 2013



A research project commissioned by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR), in cooperation with the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI)




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