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The governance shift in higher education policy is often considered to have it brought higher education more in line with public administration more generally (Bleiklie and Kogan 2007). Still the sector is regarded as particularly suited for soft policy instruments (Van Vught & de Boer 2015), consisting of fragmented organisations, loosely coupled and based on activities (research and teaching) that do not easily lend themselves to hierarchic control (Weick 1976). Despite comprehensive reforms the last decades, higher education institutions still create specific challenges to governmental steering ambitions.
One might therefore argue that any policy instrument during implementation becomes subject to ambiguities that call for translation. Michelsen et al (2016) argue that the formation of a policy instrument could be seen as a question of appropriateness, and how they are institutionalised in specific path-dependent trajectories. The argument is that although universities have developed more centralized and stronger internal hierarchies, they are penetrated to varying extent by external relationships that generate new sources of academic power sustaining decentralisation and undermining hierarchic control (Bleiklie et al. 2015). Given the transformation from decentralised, loosely coupled to more managerially integrated organizations, we should expect policy tools to change.
Moreover, the idea of ‘ambiguity’ is well established in the study of organisations and public administration. ‘Ambiguity’ has been an important concept in organisation theory for some time (Eisenberg 1984; Frank 1958; Rizzo et al. 1970), but within neo-institutionalism the concept is particularly linked to March and Olsen’s Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations (1976). Policy reforms tend to become ambiguous when they reach the level of the implementing institution. Universities today, as opposed to the decentralized organisations of the 1970s, have a stronger central leadership, but are at the same time more dependent on the environment for a number of reasons such as more forceful political steering in general, as well as increased dependence on external funding, evaluation, strategy formation, and hiring. Consequently, Bleiklie et al. (2015) suggest that the concept of 'penetrated hierarchies' provides a more adequate conceptualisation of the organisational character of contemporary universities than the 1970s concepts of 'organized anarchies' or 'loosely coupled organisations'.
The Panel welcomes empirical and theoretical contributions to the contemporary discussion of policy, governance and organisational change in higher education. Papers addressing questions related to new organizational and hybrid forms, both within universities and in terms of the political apparatus through which policies are developed and implemented are welcome. Papers focusing on policy and organizational issues related to the ambiguity of core concepts through which higher education policies and university organizations are interpreted, e.g. specialization, academic autonomy, academic leadership and managerial control, are welcome. Papers may pursue more specific strands in the literature aiming to identify: a) forms of organisation through which public policy is conducted, b) the politics behind selection of policy instruments, c) policy instruments as generic types and inventories of policy instruments.