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MaRIHE Master thesis reader e-book 2016

Investigating the Role of Intermediary Organizations in University Autonomy from Management Perspective: Case Studies in the EHEA

Ruixue Chen


University autonomy has long been conceived as the crucial factor to aid achieve the basic goals of the universities, which normally refer to the creation and preach of knowledge, the impartation of human civilization and the promotion of social development (Zhang, 2012). Therefore, since Medieval era, the academics have started fighting against the public authority for higher degree of university autonomy (Yuan, 2006). Brubacher (1967) described the fight in early time as the tug-of-war between the layman (external stakeholders, such as government, society) and the experts (academics, professors, etc.) for the power in determining the HE policies. Gradually, more players (industries, etc.) joined this game, leading to the intensification of the fight. Intermediary organizations emerged and their roles were developed, during the intangible fight in the HE systems, as the decentralising mechanisms between the educational authorities and the HE systems, concurrently, as the extra buffer to safeguard academic freedom or/and institutional autonomy of the HE institutions to be free of political control (Temple, 2002).

In 1993, F. van Vught (1993) asserted that the relationship between the government and the universities have been changing a lot since the 1980s, partly because the quality of higher education is taking a more decisive role in the economic growth as well as the global competitiveness of the country. As such, the government tends to put the higher education provider, primarily the universities, under their control to assist achieving its political and economic goals (Luanna, 2007). However, the concept of university autonomy has already been growing in the higher education community, and has also gained a common cognition that university autonomy is inevitable for the quality enhancement of the higher education services (Trick, 2015). Thus, tension between the government needs and the university’s proposition of autonomy is sustained.

Since universities depended on state funding, it became not easy for them to retain a complete say in either academic rights or institutional issues such as the ratio of the research to teaching, the formulation of institutional development policies, the management of the fund, and the appointment and promotion of the staff (Clark, 1983). Thus buffer body was created to help coordinate between the government and the universities to establish friendly dialogues for negotiation for the larger jurisdiction of the universities particularly over the issues regarding university governance, as the intrinsic characteristics of the buffers were “understand the institutions” and “sympathetic to their needs” (Clark, 1983, p. 141).

Responding to the reforms introduced by the higher education systems, the intermediary body also transformed in terms of reorienting their tasks (Trick, 2015), extending their existing models from national level to international, or multinational level. During the process, certain flaws of this body become more visible, along with the reality that some intermediary organizations are considered to be the tool of the government control over the higher education institutions (Neave, 1992) although it is understandable in view of their inferior power to the mighty authority of the government (El-Khawas, 1992).

In this respect, it makes great sense to scientifically contrast the performing practices of certain well-known intermediary organizations, discuss their coordinating schemes while facing the underlying tensions which may influence their effectiveness and vulnerability (El-Khawas, 1992), as well as identify key features which make some intermediary organization successful while some do not.

Research question

Responding to this issue, the research questions are formulated as follows.

  • What is the role of the Intermediary Higher Education Organizations (IHEOs) in different systematic levels in terms of university autonomy in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)?
  • In what kind of political, economic and social context do IHEOs function at different levels in the EHEA? 
  • How do IHEOs identify their roles and impact on university autonomy at different levels? 
  • What are the challenges and problems that IHEOs face in relation to university autonomy at different levels? 
  • How do IHEOs at different levels tackle the challenges? 
  • What are the similarities and differences between different levels in relation to the impact of IHEOs on university autonomy in EHEA?

Theoretical background

This study examined two European IHEOs which function in differing levels of higher education systems to explore the possible external pressures that European IHEOs receive in the process of advocating university autonomy, and how they respond to these influences. Two dominant theories - triangle of coordination and institutional isomorphism - were employed to understand and analyse the issues embedded in the research questions.

Higher education system is a combination of several participants, as what described by Burton Clark (1983), basically including three players which are the state authority, the academic oligarchy (mostly refers to the university nowadays) and the market. These three players interact with each other, thus generates forces to impact on each other’s activities. Clark concluded the performance of this sort within the higher education system in a diagram of triangle (Figure 1). This diagram sufficiently substantiated that Triangle of Coordination theory is useful in presenting the fundamental external environment in which IHEOs emerged and function, as well as in underlying the tangible and intangible interrelationships between the intermediary bodies and other players.

Figure 1: Clark's Triangle of Coordination

In sociology, an isomorphism refers to “the similarity of the process or structure of one organization to those of another, be it the result of imitation or independent development under similar constraints (Bolman & Deal, 2016)”. Powell and Di Maggio (1983) noted this unique processing of institutional similarity and proposed two concepts out of it: competitive isomorphism and institutional isomorphism. The former originated from “population ecology” (p. 157), emphasizing the causation between isomorphism and the market competition, while the latter focuses on the importance of legitimacy and the logic of appropriateness in the homogenous process (Chen, 2009) which conforms to providing insights on how IHEOs should prepare themselves for confronting the external pressures.

As the concept of institutional isomorphism is considered to be the useful analytic tool in investigating organizational behaviours (Powell & DiMaggio, 1983), studies on regional integration have the preference of utilizing this theory to understand the fields like politics, education, economics, etc. A paradigm of this is the research conducted by Radaelli (1997) on supranational public policy transfer in the EU. He examined and compared the transfer of monetary policy, tax policy and media ownership policy among the EU member states. When assessing the potential of isomorphism, he found out that the institutions of the EU level are capable of overcoming the problems existing in selective nations by catalysing the isomorphism process which means stimulating the policy transfer of diffusing the EU policy solutions into national political systems. At the end, the author concluded that in the EU, institutional isomorphism serves as a source of legitimacy in certain circumstances. This study is a good example of presenting the application of institutional theory - institutional isomorphism to explain specific issue in the field of the EU public policy implementation.


This research adopts qualitative methodology with two case studies, and data were collected via the combination of website analytics, document review and semi-structured interviews. The cases chosen for this research are two intermediary organizations, European University Association (EUA) and Universities Austria (UNIKO). These two organizations are picked for their consistent promotion of the concept of university autonomy and their constant independence from the government authorities. Additionally, they are the typical examples of the intermediary organizations respectively function in the two currently popular contexts which are the regional/multi-governmental level of higher education system, and the traditional/common model of national higher education system.

Thematic analysis was picked. The same analysis procedure was applied to both the cases, while the analysis was primarily done separately in a way that sorting the data into two different folders beforehand. For either case, the initial step was the completion of transcribing all the interviews, then use the themes extracted from the research questions to categorize the data after carefully read over all the written transcriptions, as well as the notes made during the reviewing of the website and documents. Then O’Connor and Gibson’s (2003) step-by-step guide to qualitative data analysis was employed to analyse the data obtained from the interviews. Following the model, four major themes were sorted out from the massive data, which are social, economic and political contexts, views on university autonomy and its importance, interplay with the stakeholders and actions towards the problems.

Key findings

For the purpose of this study, the paper showcased how the two well-recognized IHEOs in different European systematic levels advocate university autonomy by exploring the possible challenges they meet in delivering this mission as well as how they combat them. Furthermore, this study examined the evolutionary concepts of the university autonomy and the various definitions of intermediary organizations in higher education. Still, there is a need to recapitulate the findings presented in the previous chapters, so as to ensure that all the research questions listed in Chapter One have been adequately answered.

Firstly, the political context was emphasized by all the respondents from both organizations because any change in the higher education legislation plays powerful impact on the intermediary organizations as the universities have to comply with the state regulations. The responses also generally indicated a high consciousness of the significance of a greater autonomy to the HE quality in the European higher education environment, meanwhile, the collaborations between the HE institutions and the industry were increased. Regional variations of the political contexts between the European level and Austrian level organizations were also shown in the responses, that EUA is exposed in the powerful and intense political atmosphere where the EU power games from the political arena are vibrant and influential to other fields such as education and economy while the Austrian ministry maintains relatively harmonious and regular interactions with UNIKO.

Secondly, the respondents from both organizations showed that they have similar perception of university autonomy, moreover, the mission of advocating university autonomy had been embedded in the foundation of the organizations. Though the interview participants are from different units of either organization, they all appointed out that their notion of university autonomy stresses the strengthening of the overall university leadership rather than academic freedom or any autonomy of the individuals in the university. The perception of this notion is compatible with the simple fact that UNIKO is the national Rectors’ conference in Austria and EUA is the association of the European universities aiming at strengthening the universities in Europe.

With regards to the organization's impact on university autonomy, a conclusion could be easily reached from the responses from the interviews, that both organizations have been playing positive effect on university autonomy in their functioning systems though with distinctive approaches. While some intermediary bodies such as the Higher Education Council in Turkey, are criticized by either being an subordinate of the government or performing excessive interference with the autonomy of the universities (Visakorpi,Stankovic, Pedrosa & Rozsnyai, 2008), one respondent from UNIKO made explicitly that they have been keeping away from the universities’ internal affairs, and the organization’s remit has been mainly limited to facilitating the collective view of the 21 member universities.

Thirdly, difficulties exist with respect to the advocacy of university autonomy to both EUA and UNIKO. Some of them are derived from the HE stakeholders such as the education authorities, the member universities, some are brought about by the political turbulences and austerity which sometimes also appear as weighty impediments to the advocacy. However, neither of the two organizations see the difficulties strong enough to hinder what they aim to achieve, though they could be disturbing at certain period such as the situation of austerity in overall Europe these years. Regarding these, both organizations actively react to all the problems emerged and strive to surmount them with the peaceful approaches of communication and cooperation.

Suggestions for future research

Bearing the nature of exploratory and interpretative, it is apparent that this study allows opportunities for future research. In another word, more research could definitely dedicate to improving the methodological construct of this research and further elaborating the study findings. First of all, this research falls short of bringing forward a concrete figure of the impact that the external stakeholders brought to EUA and UNIKO, as well as the influences of the two intermediary organizations play on university autonomy in EHEA and Austrian higher education. Hence, further studies could extend to statistical exploration with the help of quantitative research method or mixed methods, on the basis of the qualitative findings of this study. On the other hand, researchers interested in this topic could maximize the practical value of the study by applying the findings to specific issues that HE stakeholders are concerning about, namely, carrying out practical solutions or suggestions to each stakeholder notably the policy makers, HE institutions, and the IHEOs. Admittedly, given that the angle of this study is the excellent practices of the positive examples among the IHEOs, the research does not include any defective parts or the futile actions of the two organizations have done in terms of advocating university autonomy. Thus, more research could be conducted in this direction. Apart from these, future studies could also attempt to define university autonomy suitable for the HE scenario nowadays, as well as to categorize the IHEOs covering all the notable types in the current higher education globally.


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