Doctoral thesis

Strategy as evolutionary path : Five higher education institutions on the move


226 p.

Thèse de doctorat: Università della Svizzera italiana, 2011 (jury note: Magna cum laude)

English Strategy in universities has been a controversial issue in scholarly debate. On one side higher education institutions have been considered specific organizations whose essential nature hinders strategy and the coordination and control functions thereby entailed. On the other side, new public management reforms requiring strategic capability to be developed have been the object of critical scrutiny with respect to their underlying ideology and their implications for the functioning of academia. Against this backdrop, this research aims at contributing to this discussion by providing an analytical framework in order to observe strategy by presenting the analysis of five higher education institutions. Strategy is conceived as a coherent pattern of actions at the organizational level, which must be recognized as such by relevant actors. This definition allows to look retrospectively at the combination of deliberate and emergent strategies that produce organizational undertaking as a continuous stream of actions that are consistent over time. At the same time, two important dimensions are addressed: internally, actors’ convergence on strategy making; externally, institutional positioning within the national higher educational system. University strategies are investigated by means of an embedded multiple case study based on the Swiss system: five higher education institutions have been selected to reflect variety according to institutional types (three cantonal universities, one federal institute of technology, one university of applied sciences) to size, age, mission, budget and research intensity over a period of twelve years, from 1996 to 2008. Different patterns of strategic actions are observed according to three aspects: first, the five higher education institutions developed distinctive strategies focusing on different core activities. In this perspective, research represents a key area, however, strategies emphasizing education, governance structures and finances have also been detected. Second, strategies reflect different degrees of coherence, measured by looking at the consistency of actions across the different key activities. Strategy as a coherent action is directly connected to the interplay of actors: the five cases reflect a high degree of variety, shaped by governance structures which frame the context within which managers, academics and policy makers take action. However, the relation between actors and governance is reciprocal, as the first may be able to mobilize the second by triggering and sustaining a change of structure in order to support their own interests. The examination of university positioning has portrayed different institutional trajectories: all five schools have changed their position within the higher education system, repositioning in a distinctive niche. In so doing, they have displayed different degrees of agency by transforming strategically their context to acquire resources.
  • English
Education, teaching
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