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Modern governance in higher education

The Austrian higher education system has developed organically and today boasts over 70 establishments. The governance of this system is key to its overall performance, and this raises certain questions. How does the higher education system (and/or research) contribute to society, the economy and innovation? Is the overall system properly balanced and calibrated in all its individual sectors?

The Austrian higher education system is healthy

The Austrian higher education system encompasses over 70 establishments, including: public and private universities, universities of applied sciences and university colleges of teacher education. Its structure is broad, and it is diverse. We know it is healthy, as it comes 12th in the U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems, which compares a total of 50 higher education systems spanning every continent worldwide. 24 performance measures are used in the survey, grouped into four categories: resources, policy environment, connectivity and output. Austria excels in connectivity, among other factors, as stated in the rankings Report.

Despite this favourable report, there is still work to be done on the higher education system. Our knowledge economy in general, and the dawn of the digital age in particular, call for strong academic systems. According to the OECD definition, a high-performing higher education system is: “a higher education system where its higher education institutions taken together perform the three key functions of education, research and engagement (though some higher education institutions may not perform all three) to produce outcomes that meet the needs and objectives of students and their families, employers, the economy and society”.

Setting the direction for a redesign of the higher education system

When designing and developing their higher education systems, countries must make fundamental decisions in four specific areas. These relate to:

  1. Governance structures and the relationship between the state and higher education establishments
  2. The mission of the higher education system and the allocation of responsibility for achieving targets among the different types of higher education establishments
  3. Capacity on and therefore availability of courses; the quality and location of courses and services in general, and
  4. Workflow and management practice for day-to-day governance relationships.

The government is responsible to its taxpayers for regularly assessing and reassessing the situation, addressing problems which have arisen and ensuring higher education establishments are in a position (in terms of budget, regulations and targets) to meet the expectations of both government and society.

From the Austrian Higher Education Plan to current university planning

Austria has been working on all these targets for many decades. Since 2008, the Austrian higher education industry and its four sectors, public universities, universities of applied sciences, university colleges of teacher education and private universities, have been considered as a whole. At that time, the government’s legislative programme made it clear that, as a consequence of this, it planned to produce a comprehensive Austrian Higher Education Plan. This was to focus on the following: setting out strategic guidelines, optimising sites, achieving transparency within Austrian higher education, and a creating a balance between preserving regional education and training offers on the one hand, and combining research infrastructure on the other.

Strategic university planning using system targets

This resulted both in initial adjustments to the shape and treatment of the performance agreements with public universities, and in the beginning of Austrian higher education planning as we know it. This planning should therefore also be seen to cover all the existing and future (and redeveloped) higher education governance management tools such as:

  • Introducing a new university funding model (Universitätsfinanzierung NEU) and the associated, impact-based system management process using system targets or target values (indicators)
  • Establishing the legal basis for quality assurance in higher education and passing framework legislation for higher education quality assurance
  • Setting up the Higher Education Conference  to act as a joint decision-making body across all higher education sectors, and
  • Establishing specific governance mechanisms for the university training of teaching staff.

Revising the main strategy documents

The latest development is the Austrian National Development Plan for Public Universities (GUEP), which provides a strategic planning framework for organising the optimisation of Austria’s university system. It was first published in 2015, and is currently being updated. The Austrian University Plan, first published in 2011, is currently being completely reworked.

Cooperation not competition

Of course, none of these revisions change the fundamental direction of travel for the overall higher education system. Austria will stick to its aim of increased cooperation and coordination between all four university sectors, will improve its use of available resources, will jointly agree which academic profiles and priorities to adopt, and will coordinate its continued development of the range of subjects on offer. Our guiding principle should be ‘to distinguish ourselves from one another, rather than becoming more similar and therefore competing’.