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ACA Newsletter guest article by Dr. Ellen Hazelkorn and Martin Ryan, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology

Impact of the global economic crisis on higher education: What are the leadership and management challenges?

Higher education is currently experiencing tremendous change. The ongoing global economic crisis is increasing pressure for higher education institutions (HEIs) to demonstrate greater relevance to, and better value for, individuals and society. The continuing shift to the knowledge-based economy and the rising demand for and costs of higher education are occurring at the same time that many governments face financial strain – with a knock-on effect on higher education budgets.

At the same time, HEIs jockey for an improved position at national or international level as global rankings boost competition, placing issues of quality and performance under intense scrutiny. Faculty are also under pressure; calls for greater productivity and accountability challenge traditional work-practices and values. Many of these challenges were manifest decades ago but the confluence of factors associated with the crisis and the subsequent adjustment to the new economic reality has intensified their impact. Some examples of the challenges currently being faced are shown below.
Current leadership and management challenges:
Are HEIs developing a more sustainable business model which is appropriate to the new environment? What kinds of structural and organisational changes are being made to enhance efficiency and improve productivity? To what extent has the crisis affected the role or responsibilities of higher education? How is the new economic reality affecting the quality of educational provision and how is this being monitored and measured? Have changes been made to academic work practices in order to better respond to the new competitive and fiscally restrictive environment? What effect are these changes having on educational quality and institutional reputation?

In 2010, the OECD/IMHE Conference, “Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing More with Less”, brought together researchers, leaders and policy-makers focused on how the higher education sector could navigate through the crisis. It has now become commonplace to say that HEIs need to “do more with less”, but is the current need to implement change a profound paradigm shift in our model for mass higher education, or simply a temporary necessity? It may be the case that recent developments will expose profound structural deficits in our broadly-accepted model for mass higher education.

There is, however, a lack of deep-level knowledge about what exactly is happening in higher education. To date, much attention has focused on the national policy level with relatively generalised statements describing how individual institutions are coping in different countries. Except for anecdotal accounts, we have a poor understanding about the extent of structural adjustment, the impact on HEI mission, the impact on students and educational quality, on research and engagement, and on the sustainability of individual institutions.

“Managerialism” is a controversial term for sections of the academic literature, variously linked with the loss of university autonomy and the adoption of neo-liberal principles. But, leading an institution in the current climate is very difficult. As a result, university presidents and rectors are adopting a more strategic and professional approach to governance and management. What are the leadership challenges - and what choices are being made - and what can institutions learn from each other? To what extent are the issues common across world-regions and institutional types?

To begin to answer these and many other questions, we are conducting an international study, “The Impact of the Global Economic Crisis on Higher Education: Leadership and Management Challenges” in partnership with the International Association of Universities (IAU). This will be the first comprehensive, in-depth international comparative study on the impact of the global economic crisis on higher education. A number of key themes around sustainability, efficiency, productivity, quality and participation are pertinent to this investigation.

As the first intensive study in this domain, it will draw on the experience of individual institutions using a representative sample of case studies from around the world. Any college or university interested in participating should contact Martin Ryan before August 31st.