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Universities threatened by new governance models

Portrait of Sten Widmalm photographed outdoors

In the book Det hotade universitetet, Sten Widmalm, among others, describes how the creativity which has characterised universities is threatened by new governance models.

In the last two hundred years, governance models applied to universities allowed scope for researchers’ own commitment and curiosity. But now researchers claim in a new book that both universities and all of society are threatened by a change in the governance of academic research.

In the book Det hotade universitetet (‘Universities under Threat’), fifteen writers take up the threat posed by the changed governance of academic research, both to universities and to the rest of society.

“We wrote the book now as we are in a time when the raison d’etre for universities is under great pressure,” says Sten Widmalm, professor at the Department of Government and one of the editors of the book. “In the last two hundred years, universities have been one of the pillars of democracy, prosperity and development because of the freedom given to researchers to seek out new knowledge.”

The creative environment within academic research by was built up by governance models which may be simply described as project and performance based line organisations demanding prompt deliveries. This is now under threat.

“Creativity benefits from a value-based, free and decentralised organisation but these are values which are difficult to reconcile with the governance models which are increasingly taking over academic research,” says Sten Widmalm.

“Creativity is difficult to pin down. There’s no one universal solution to get the best results in every situation. But the situation is definitely not helped when some far distant person is controlling things. Variation is a basic requirement and so is having researchers influencing and controlling activities. These days, researchers are hardly in control of anything at many academic institutions.”

In this context, it is interesting to make a comparison with what is happening in companies. In many sectors, creativity has become a more important driving force in what is called the knowledge economy than such things as rationalisation and efficiency achieved through new types of machines. More and more companies are doing business within the knowledge economy but favouring creativity makes demands upon companies. Many of them have therefore started to abandon line management to give greater freedom to employees. The aim is to increase creativity and thus the opportunity for new business.

“Research shows, for example, that many of the successful applications produced by Google originated during the free time which company employees are allowed.”

There are also examples of companies who have failed to keep up with changes. Research shows that line management was taken to the extreme by pharmaceutical companies in Sweden which led to closures and bankruptcy.

“The present feeling is that companies and universities are like two ships that meet in the night. Companies are progressing towards the creative governance model which universities have traditionally stood for and universities are on their way to line management which companies are giving up,” says Sten Widmalm.



  • The book Det hotade universitetet is published by Dialogos förlag.
  • The book contains contributions from: Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, Li Bennich-Björkman, Stefan Björklund, Lars Engwall, Sverker Gustavsson, Hanne Foss Hansen, Johan Hirschfeldt, Christer Karlsson, Elin Sundberg, Bo Sundqvist, Stefan Svallfors, Sir Keith Thomas, Michael Tåhlin, Sten Widmalm, Sven Widmalm

20 June 2016