• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Top Down or Bottom Up?

For significant change to happen both bottom-up and top-down initiatives will be paramount, and smart management based on transformative governance principles

May 9, 2016

In the last decades higher education has become massified and, in many countries, universal according to Trow’s typology. Access to higher education has improved and multiple studies confirm the benefits of mass higher education to knowledge economies. To manage the high number of students in higher education and as a result of multiple higher education reforms, the organizational decision-making processes of the universities have become more top down across the world. Numerous studies show significant university transformation (Kezar, 2014; Musselin, 2007; Krücken, Blümel & Kloke 2013; Paradeise et al., 2009) whereby universities have become more corporate organizations in the context of competitive pressures that increase in massified higher education systems. As a result of the reforms of the 90s in Europe and inspired by New Public Management approaches,  a consensus about an appropriate organization structure for universities emerged (Henkel, 2016)—bottom-up initiatives must be accompanied by top-down initiatives for change. The university must function as a cooperative entity with common goals and give leeway to academic staff for teaching and research activities and maintain the "protected spaces" where academic freedom can flourish (Leisyte, 2016). 

How can university managers in this context influence teaching and learning? How can they ensure high quality in a context of budget cuts and high number of students in newly-massified systems? And how can bottom up initiatives in teaching and learning change the organizational structure and ensure that professional autonomy and innovation in teaching and learning gets institutionalized? Although these questions have been addressed separately by different studies of organizational change in higher education and others focusing on teaching and learning processes have looked at curricula changes, there has been limited evidence as to how to bring the two functions together. In our recent book we concentrate on the linkages between organizational transformation and its teaching and learning functions. We do so from an international perspective by providing accounts from the Anglo-American, Asian, Australian and European university contexts.

On one hand, organizational structure is a constraint for the behaviour of its individual members. On the other hand, (collective) action of the academics can change the organizational structure. We observe recursive relationships whereby agency is exercised by teachers who are institutional entrepreneurs as well as managers who are involved in transformative governance processes. High levels of specialization and structural differentiation, cultural values and reward systems that promote autonomy and individual achievement combined with weak feedback loops regarding performance and outcomes often make it difficult for universities to promote change (Kezar & Elrod, 2012). At the same time, managerial incentives can shift intrinsic to extrinsic job and teaching motivation (Wilkesmann & Schmid, 2014). The emphasis on quality teaching and student satisfaction in this context is thereby reinforced by university managers.

Different types of organizational configurations can help support teaching so that it matters in today’s university that is more typically driven by research performance and rankings. Thus, under the market logic, we observe that academic work and academic identities are undergoing significant transformation. Competition within the higher education context produces a number of tensions whereby universities have to produce graduates who can succeed in complex and risk-laden environments on the one hand, while curriculum change and teaching-learning practices may stagnate due to the well-documented resistance to change by academics. Ray Land argues that the “market view” of learning as an educational transaction requires a changed relationship between students and teachers. The production of graduates today thus entails different forms of curriculum and student-staff relationships (Land, 2016). However, for significant change to happen both bottom-up and top-down initiatives will be paramount, and smart management based on transformative governance principles (Wilkesmann, 2016) must be coupled with dialogue with institutional entrepreneurs.


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