University Autonomy in Europe II:

Shifting Paradigms in University Research?

Duration: 2003

University Autonomy 2

Sponsor: Magna Charta Observatory (Bologna)

Project collaborator: Ulrike Felt; Michaela Glanz


Autonomous universities in knowledge societies: The impact on research

Over the last years the topic of knowledge production and its importance for society and for the economy has been discussed extensively, not only within political areas but also within academia, as the universities are increasingly getting attention as both producers of knowledge as well as of knowledge workers. While in the first report we were discussing the major shifts in the domain of university autonomy at large and in particular concerning decision making structures and human resources management, we are now concentrating on the (potential) impact of these reforms on one of the universities’ ascribed main tasks, namly that of research. The main questions arising were that on the consequences of the changes in the legal system for universities, in the funding structure and the debate on the commercialization of research findings on the freedom of research, as a core feature of academic knowledge production. To go into the issue of research autonomy within the university in particular was rewarding as we could observe tensions between the individual freedom of the researcher or the research group and the university itself, which ought to take considerable effort to develop an institutional research profile.
In our report we explore the issue of universities’ research autonomy in ten European countries along three key questions we identified throughout our analysis. First we discuss the question of priority setting and profile building as strategies by various actors to reposition the university, an issue which is closely related to very different funding systems for universities’ research. Our second question we go into is that of changing conceptions of knowledge, which also imply changes concerning models of knowledge transfer and of intellectual property rights. The third issue we identified is that of accountability and of quality assessment, where we noticed a considerable shift in responsibilities in order to monitor the quality of academic research activities.
Our analysis brought up several key features of the national university research systems which – though rather differently handled - seem to be of relevance in any of the countries investigated: the importance of multiple negotiatiated partnerships, the role of the paymaster, the difficulty of positioning the university within the national and international landscape of research institutions, a counter-movement of centralisation and de-centralisation in the organisation of research, a decoupling from the teaching base of research at universities, the question of property of research findings, procedures and criteria to ensure the quality of research and finally the cost of flexibility in terms of institutional autonomy vs. researchers’ individual freedom.