Public universities (including university colleges and short-cycle institutions of higher education) are created by governments to achieve public ends. These include, above all instruction and the certification of learning and basic research, public service, and the creation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. As public entities, these institutions are created, owned, and to widely varying degrees controlled by, and assumed to be accountable to, governments, or to the state.
Public universities—especially the dominant, or flagship, research universities—are often accorded private-like measures of autonomy, at least in comparison with other governmental agencies. This autonomy may be enshrined in a constitution, in a general higher educational framework law, or simply in a politically powerful tradition of university autonomy. But such autonomy extends mainly to the instructional curriculum and to the conduct of faculty research. And such autonomy, important as it is, may exist alongside rigid governmental exercise of authority over, for example: the principal mission of the institution (i.e. whether oriented mainly to research or to teaching); the terms and conditions of employment (i.e. whether the faculty and staff are civil service or employees of the university); the selection of vice chancellors, presidents or rectors by a governmental ministry or by a semi-autonomous governing board; or various restrictions on financial matters, including the ability to own and dispose of assets, to reallocate governmental appropriations, or to charge tuition and other fees.
At the same time, governments in many countries are endeavouring to instil in their public universities more of the attributes of private institutions of higher education such as responsiveness to the needs both of students and of public and private employers, as well as an entrepreneurial drive for other-than-governmental revenue. As the number of colleges and universities grows, especially in already populous and industrialised countries, there is a growing sense that more authority needs to be devolved, or apportioned downward: to provincial levels of government, to less politicized public bodies like appointed councils or governing boards, and of course to institutions themselves through various forms of shared governance involving governing boards or trustees, chief executive officers, deans, and directors, and faculty senates and other faculty and staff advisory bodies.
A major form of such devolution, applicable to many arenas of public ownership and ultimate authority such as municipal power generation, water, sanitation, public health, and transportation as well as higher education, is to a public corporation. The transformation of a public college or university (or university system) from a governmental agency into a public corporation is a means of retaining the essential publicness of universities that are owned and may once have been operated by the state like any other state agency, but to instil in them a greater measure of managerial efficiency, responsiveness, and entrepreneurship. Corporatisation of a public college or university is a devolution of governmental authority to provincial or local levels of government, to publicly-appointed university or university system governing boards, or to publicly-appointed advisory boards, like a university grants commissions, which may have significant influence but which has no legal or managerial authority over universities or the university system.
Governmental control over public institutions and the devolution or lessening of such control is a complex matter, and may be best viewed through looking at the very separate matters or issues over which control or influence might be exercised—or conversely might be given over to, or at least shared with—some sort of publicly-accountable but nonetheless partially autonomous governing board.
Some of such matters important to the operation of a public university, the authority over which is potentially able to be devolved, or delegated, from the state to the university or its governing board are for example,
- the ability to determine and to alter the institution’s fundamental mission and academic degree programmes: that is whether it is to be a classic research university, a specialised university), a degree granting college featuring bachelor’s (and perhaps masters but not doctoral) degrees, or a short-cycle college giving certificates or sub-bachelor’s degrees.
- the ability to hire and fire faculty and staff and enter into employment contracts separate from state civil service laws and regulations (i.e., the institution as its own employer).
- the ability of the institutional governing board to appoint a chief executive officer (president, vice chancellor, or rector) without approval from the government.
In short, an otherwise public university can, at one extreme, be like any other state agency or department—subject to the authority of the ministry and the government on all of these dimensions—or it can be a fully public corporation or, depending on the specific matters over which state authority is to be retained or devolved, virtually all shades in between.
Professor D. Bruce Johnstone is Distinguished Service Professor of Higher and Comparative Education Emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a Fellow at The HEAD Foundation.