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Panel discussion. Are universities allowed and capable of planning their research?



Prof. Dr. Peter-André Alt, Freie Universität Berlin
Prof. Dr. Richard Münch, Universität Bamberg
Prof. Dr. Jens Oddershede, Syddansk Universitet
Prof. Dr. Barbara Sporn, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien
Derek Scally, Irish Times (Facilitator)


This discussion focused on the issue of whether universities are allowed to plan their own research and whether they are capable of doing it. It started with a number of introductory questions such as to what extent universities should focus and plan their own research and whether they should be allowed to do this more autonomously, or is that a luxury society can no longer afford? Is there an ideal framework for identifying research areas? Can greater planning, coordination and collaboration increase research success rates?

The importance of foresight for strategic planning

In his opening statement Peter-André Alt stressed that planning research based on the instruments provided by foresight studies is very helpful for formulating an overall university strategy. It is essential for a modern university, since decision-making processes are embedded in two major frameworks: competition and strategic thinking. Options for strategic thinking are needed, and it is crucial to know what will be on the research agenda. Foresight facilitates opportunities for cooperation. However, it should not influence the disciplines themselves but should facilitate bridging the gaps between them. It is not possible to define specific topics in each field but it is necessary to have a framework for a good decision-making process. Therefore, foresight should focus on a metadisciplinary and transdisciplinary perspective. Designing good academic environments needs to be supported by recruitment strategies that depend on the knowledge of the future research fields. Executive boards should provide incentives and fund processes to organise cooperation and facilitate communication. Universities have to develop strategic options, set priorities and define future goals in joint processes with the whole faculty. This is why Freie Universität Berlin established Focus Areas that enable researchers to work together beyond the constraints of disciplinary boundaries. We need knowledge of future developments if we are going to shape the Focus Areas and create a good balance between top-down and bottom-up processes. For all these strategic issues, it is important to embed the strategic approach in future activities to have a strategy that is in-formed by foresight studies.

Conditions for research

Richard Münch stressed that he wants to present a researcher’s perspective, not an administrator’s perspective. His reference point is not an individual university but science as a global system and the advancement of scientific knowledge. From the sociology of science studies we know that knowledge does not progress as an outcome of strategic planning; it just happens and we do not know it in advance. If we want to promote and maintain the conditions for breakthroughs, we need to create conditions to promote autonomous research. It is important to strengthen the idea that knowledge is a public good, not a private good, and one that is independent of external influences. The scientific community is a central body that acknowledges scientific achievement. We need a plurality of institutions, theories and methods. Universities need strong departments to counterbalance the growing strength of university managements. Universities have always been in charge of balancing the sacred core of basic research and the needs of education, professional service and applied research. However, what can be experienced now is a shift in the balance toward external demands on universities.

Studies show it is important to have small research groups in the breakthrough fields and locate them in a diverse environment that provides them with a variety of stimuli. These creative units should receive stable funding and be autonomous in their decisions, and should be under little external control by the university management. Strategic planning is part of the turn to an entrepreneurial university and it is changing this institutional precondition for the flourishing of science.

Challenges for universities in research planning

Barbara Sporn said that universities are being pushed to carry out strategic planning due to growing competition, increased mobility and a scarcity of resources. In view of the scarcity of resources and increasing competition, universities have to find a way to respond to these challenges. A number of important issues should be mentioned in this context, including accountability and differentiation. Funders (state and private donors) are increasingly holding universities accountable as providers of knowledge and graduates. As for differentiation, profiling needs to be mentioned. It is important to be distinguishable from fellow competitors and fellow institutions. Profiling is also crucial for market accreditation procedures that require an area of excellence. It is also worth mentioning the impact of trends like new public management, entrepreneurial university, new governance structures and empowerment at the top level of the institution, all of which preclude autonomy and are connected to the issue of dependence on multiple levels of funding. Universities have to respond to this new environment. When carrying out strategic planning, it is possible to combine both rigour and relevance. Universities can combine emergent strategies (giving a profile, showing the area of excellence) and planned strategies (areas that need to be addressed particularly by public institutions). Such an approach provides a number of benefits: it is helpful for resource allocation; it creates a profile in a competitive market, and last but not least, it helps raise funds.

Funding, evaluation and the danger of isomorphic trends

Jens Oddershede argued that instead of saying we are planning research for the future, we should say that the future is about planning and dictating research. When considering research planning at universities, there are many aspects that could be discussed, but he wanted to focus on the issue of funding. He began by highlighting the importance of multiple funding sources. Competitive funds are very important, but maintaining control over internal funds could become up more difficult. Therefore an important question for research planning is the correct balance between basic funds and competitive funds.

Richard Münch agreed that the crucial question is the balance between basic and competitive funds. Since basic research is not immediately usable, society has to wonder what to do with a growing number of scientists. Measurability and accountability are being introduced to decrease complexity. Research planning is subject to isomorphic tendencies (imitational behaviour), and it is often a reactive process leading rather to normalisation thaninstead of innovation.

Barbara Sporn agreed that there is more convergence leading to the dominance of one institutional model and there is a strong danger of isomorphic trends, i.e. that in the long run all universities are going to look the same. Universities have to be careful not be streamlined and mainstreamed and should be courageous enough as institutions to focus on fields that are not trendy. However, she doubts that there is a crisis in research or a lack of basic research and creativity in the science system. Universities are facing multiple challenges and there is huge dynamics on an institutional level. There are new institutions and new areas of high-potential research that get a lot of interest, including from funding agencies. Support should go to the best, and not just to the fittest and the fastest.

Jens Oddershede drew attention to the impact of evaluation processes and rankings, which in the long term could lead to the preclusion of divergence. Different disciplines are all being evaluated according to the hard science model. Universities serve multidimensional purposes, but the impact of ranking agencies and evaluations has resulted in a trend towards a one-dimensional university. This is a dangerous scenario. Peter-André Alt agreed that we should not accept the influence of the rankings. The additional aspect of planning is connected to competition and the necessity of applying for external funds. So the issue of measuring quality and adequate indicators during the competition process is important too. There needs to be more openness to unconventional methods and more funding lines to support unexpected ideas. Greater flexibility is needed as far as funding perspectives are concerned. Current competition processes are over-bureaucratic and they overburden universities.

Peter-André Alt questioned the idea that external involvement and the need for accountability necessarily mean interference into the research process, since we cannot automatically equate planning with intervening. Independence of research is an unquestionable, untouchable value; however, anticipatory intelligence allowing us to act and not to react can also be beneficial for researchers. Research needs space for action and anticipatory thinking because we need to know what is going to drive us in the future.

Recent European developments

As a reaction to the EU Communication “Supporting growth and jobs – an agenda for the modernisation of Europe‘s higher education systems” (COM(2011) 567 final), Peter-André Alt said that resistance should be the response to the document because it imposes a managerial dimension on universities’ daily agendas. The Communication can almost be viewed as an attack on universities. It tries to heavily influence university structures with respect to both research and teaching, and it should not be forgotten that one element of the success story of European universities is the close link between teaching and research. According to Richard Münch, the Communication is a good example of the impact of the internationalisation of governance in the sphere of education and science. The agents of change are the experts (mostly economists), who view knowledge production and how societies work from a narrow economic perspective.

Institutional diversity and cooperation

Speaking from a German perspective, Peter-André Alt stressed the role of institutional diversity, which he said is an asset. Furthermore, the German Excellence Initiative has provided a strong motivation for the universities to create attractive environments and collaborate with other institutions. It has helped find institutional solutions for better cooperation. Richard Münch emphasised the importance of cooperation between universities and non-university institutes.

Planning and recruitment procedures

During the discussion with the audience, Arthur Bienenstock of Stanford University noted that the difference between the US and Europe is that one makes it the faculty’s collective responsibility to educate its graduate students whereas the other makes it the individual faculty member’s responsibility. When deciding on appointments, the faculty – given that no one can predict the future – decides to go for the very best person they can get. Peter-André Alt stressed that steering processes with the departments called target agreements including recruitment strategies (collective responsibility) and a linkage between the midterm perspective and the recruitment process. Richard Münch emphasised the importance of planning at the faculty level and the strategic role that can be assigned to recruiting new professors. This is an important aspect of strategic planning that is still foreign to the German system. Peter-André Alt explained that appointment schemes are mandatory in Germany. Nevertheless, universities are able to react in certain fields, and they have been able to redefine appointment schemes in recent years.


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