Academic freedom: autonomy in higher education

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Astana, capital city of Kazakhstan

Alison Johns, Chief Executive, Leadership Foundation reflects on the successful Kazakhstan Leadership Development Programme and the importance of autonomy in higher education. 

February 14 2017 was a momentous day for higher education in the Republic of Kazakhstan. For the first time, 12 of the county’s higher education institutions were given some degree of autonomy. The government approved new regulations that allowed those high-performing universities to manage their own affairs in a number of crucial ways, from admissions policies and developing degree programmes, content and assessment to defining academic job roles, qualifications and salaries.

Autonomy in higher education is usually understood to mean “academic freedom”, with universities enjoying freedom of discovery, inquiry and the teaching and learning of their students. Higher education leaders in the UK, which is renowned for its institutional autonomy, would no doubt be horrified at the very notion that any of the functions newly acquired by their Kazakh counterparts might be controlled by government.  In the UK, qualifications have long been managed from within the sector itself and research funding policy follows the Haldane Principle which separates government (and potentially politically) driven research agendas from funds distributed by the UK research councils for “general research”.

Its autonomy is something the UK higher education sector protects fiercely. The Higher Education and Research Bill – which became an Act in April 2017 – was firmly challenged for encroaching too far into the autonomy of the sector. There was particular concern that the new Office for Students, under the direction of the secretary of state, would assume responsibility for quality and standards from current sector-led arrangements, and even (in early drafts) allowing the secretary of state to direct courses of study. This power was removed in subsequent amendments to the bill in order to protect institutions’ freedom to teach whatever courses of study they wish.

But, while it is clear why institutions themselves will want to promote autonomy, is it really the best approach for the education system as a whole? The evidence suggests it is. A key message in a 2010 report for the European Commission was that basic autonomy and flexibility with regard to staffing policy, financial autonomy and selecting their “academic community” is a hallmark of the most efficient education systems. The report also highlights adequate levels of public and private resourcing, the capacity to meet supply and demand, and attract and retain qualified staff as the enablers or the “right conditions”. This combination of “basic autonomy” and “right conditions” helps tertiary education sectors contribute to the educational attainment and research productivity of their countries. In the UK, universities generate more than £73bn a year for the British economy, contribute nearly 3% of UK GDP, and support more than 750,000 jobs. Relative to the country’s size it has the most efficient research system in the G8 and is second overall only to the United States in terms of research publications.

For the past three years the Leadership Foundation has worked with the Kazakhstan education ministries and higher education institutions in their quest for university autonomy. The Kazakh approach was to provide the leadership development and capability building upfront and then to enact autonomy legislation when capacity had been demonstrably built to operate in this different way.

Our programme focused on the leadership of higher education research, learning and teaching, and entrepreneurial and adaptive universities – helping to enable universities to function more effectively as autonomous entities and within sound governance frameworks, building the capacity for accountability through developing appropriate relationships with the Kazakhstan Ministry of Education and Science and various stakeholders.

The desire of countries to shift to greater autonomy in their higher education systems is a common strand in the leadership development work we have undertaken in more than 30 countries in recent years.  However, a key challenge for a number of countries is that, while they aspire to modernise their higher education sectors, existing regulatory and legal frameworks are not set up to support growth and innovation. It is a challenge to ensure that any ambition for change is aligned with national structures and legal systems because if they don’t develop hand-in-hand, this tension can stop development in its tracks.

In the UK, a combination of competition and autonomy, as well as priority research and development agendas with funding pots, has driven growth and excellence. These in turn have been supported by robust in-sector regulatory checks and balances: quality assurance, the Research Excellence Framework, financial health reports.

At the heart of this is both sector and institutional autonomy – and as universities operate in an increasingly globalised market place, levels and types of autonomy, and how these contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of tertiary education systems, have never been more important.

Since 2007 the European University Association has been undertaking a Europe-wide Autonomy Survey and developed an Autonomy Scorecard in 2011. The Scorecard focuses on four broad dimensions to benchmark the autonomy of European countries’ systems: organisational, financial, staffing and academic. Organisational autonomy relates to the selection criteria and procedures for institution heads, oversight of the appointment of external governors, and the capacity for an institution to decide on its own academic/organisational structures. Staffing covers recruitment procedures; salaries; dismissal and promotion processes. Financial autonomy looks at the types of public funding; ownership over estates; borrowing money and holding surpluses; and the mechanisms for tuition fee and student funding. And, finally, academic autonomy relates to quality assurance, student numbers, design and delivery of degree programmes and admissions procedures.

From these measures alone – even before adding in each country’s unique internal and geopolitical environments and “starting point” in their higher education development journey – it’s clear how complex and varied sectors can be in their range of autonomy across the dimensions.

We’ve seen how Kazakhstan has taken steps to align legal frameworks with institutional capacity building. We hope and trust its reforms will be a success and that, over time, Kazakhstan’s objective of autonomy can be extended to a wider pool of universities.

About the Kazakhstan Leadership Development Programme
Click here to read our international case study on the programme supporting the ongoing education reform in Kazakhstan

About the Leadership Foundation’s International work
We provide a range of programmes, interventions, relationship building and networking activities to the global market. We are uniquely placed as the only higher education specific leadership, governance and management development provider in the world. To get a small snapshot of our wide-reaching services, click here

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