Academic leaders reinterpreting research profiling
National science and higher education policies do not develop in a vacuum. Instead, they are often influenced by global policy ideas put further by rankings and evaluations. Also academic staff and university leaders may with their own activity affect the content and outcomes of policy reforms.
Supranational and intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU, have a crucial role in disseminating policy ideas related to science and educational policy (see, e.g., Erkkilä & Piironen 2014; Moisio 2014). The Europe 2020 strategy of the EU connects the discourse on research excellence with the political attempts to establish knowledge-based economy in Europe (Sørensen et al. 2015). Various policy documents argue that the research profiles in the EU are too fragmented compared to the competitors in the United States and Asia.
Correspondingly, the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland attempts to clarify the division of work in the national higher education sector. Division of work has been justified by the need to improve the competitiveness of Finnish universities. One of the policy reforms in Finland relates to building profiles for universities. At the university level, profiling of research, as implicated by the Ministry of Education and Culture, means giving priority to strong research areas.
When resources for research and teaching are scarce, it is argued that universities should focus more on the fields where they have specific strengths. Research profiling is, however, a controversial theme, because demands for the freedom of research and demands to steer it are contradictory. To understand why institutional reforms succeed or fail, it is important to study the responses of academic staff.
In my study (Pietilä 2014), I analysed academic leaders’ conceptions of research profiling. In the article, I identified two general conceptions of research profiling based on interviews with rectors, deans and department heads working in two Finnish universities. Both of these conceptions were linked to various rationales, by which the leaders legitimated their stand.
Research profiling as instrument of strategic management
Research profiling as an instrument of strategic management portrays universities’ research activities as requiring considerable changes: being successful requires choice-making in the research portfolio and determinate leadership. From the strategic perspective, profiling is seen as a self-initiated change process, although also supported by other actors.
The strategic implementation of profiling is connected with various rationales that leaders aim to pursue. The first, predominant rationale considers research profiling a way to strengthen research and the university’s status as a research university. By highlighting critical mass, research excellence and internationalisation of the research environment, it fits the current political rationality.
The second, economic rationale focuses on the increasing costs of research and the tightening of university budgets. Many interviewed leaders perceived that economic pressures trigger a need to prioritise activities, because units cannot afford to do everything.
The third rationale emphasises the interconnections of science and society, and the responsibility of researchers to tackle societally relevant research questions: decisions that allocate resources to areas that are central to society should be made.
The fourth rationale interprets research profiling as a power and resource game between academic fields. This means that all units have incentives to try to become visible in research policies to secure their position within the university.
Research profiling as symbolic management
In the above examples, focus areas influence the allocation of university’s internal funds and recruitment of staff. However, research profiling may also be interpreted as a symbolic act and research profiles as facades to the external audience. This means that although decisions are made, they do not necessarily affect universities’ internal activities. In this case, leaders rhetorically refer to building profiles, because this is what is expected from them: profile-building is a general norm in Finland and globally, ‘the world we live in’.
The symbolic implementation of profiling is also connected with various rationales. The first centres on the protection of individual orientation of researchers and emphasises the negative consequences of research steering. These include the exclusion of researchers who work in small research fields, uncertainty and fears about becoming an outsider, and problems with work motivation if research is divided into strategic and non-strategic.
The second rationale addresses the incompatibility of research steering with the unpredictable nature of research. Choice-making in basic research is seen as risky especially in infrastructure-intensive areas because of the possible ‘wrong choices’ and the difficulty of changing direction afterwards.
The third practical rationale is based on the view that choice-making is especially difficult in a large, comprehensive university or unit.
The fourth rationale emphasises research profiles as communication channels with actors outside the university, such as potential recruits and students. From this perspective, a broad comprehensive profile may provide an attractive image for various groups.
Global policies of research profiling have made it essential for academic leaders to make sense of the issue and to respond to it in some way. However, the analysis presented in the study (Pietilä 2014) shows not only the variability and richness, but also the incoherence and conflict of leaders’ conceptions and the underlying rationalities. Academic leaders are faced with multiple pressures: they should be able to simultaneously communicate with different audiences, such as the work community, other leaders, policy-makers, students, and funders. To give an example, universities should ideally be focused on fundamental, world-class research. Yet research should be societally relevant and contacts with the society should be intense. Universities should make ‘clear choices’ yet not become rigid but be open for new openings. Research should be narrowly focused, yet students should be widely educated.
As the case of research profiling exemplifies, academic leaders are able to both promote and transform policy reforms by interpreting them in different ways. In some cases, they may act as buffers between the academic community and external pressures.
Maria Pietilä is a doctoral student at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki.
Erkkilä, T. & O. Piironen. 2014. Shifting fundaments of European higher education governance: competition, ranking, autonomy and accountability. Comparative Education. 50(2), 177–191.
Moisio, J. 2014. Understanding the significance of EU higher education policy cooperation in Finnish higher education policy. Acta Universitatis Tamperensis. Tampere: Tampere University Press.
Pietilä, M. 2014. The many faces of research profiling: academic leaders’ conceptions of research steering. Higher Education, 67(3), 303–316.
Sørensen, M.P., C. Bloch & M. Young. 2015. Excellence in the knowledge-based economy: from scientific to research excellence. European Journal of Higher Education, doi: 10.1080/21568235. 2015.1015106.
Text Maria Pietilä