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After decades of transformative reforms, universities appear more streamlined and effective. However, Bjørn Stensaker argues that it should not be taken for granted that internal restructuring and improved hierarchical governance facilitate internal learning processes.

The problem

Why are some higher education institutions resilient and persistent over time, while others struggle to survive? Scholars interested in researching “Learning Organisations” would probably argue that struggling universities have not been able to release their human potential by stimulating staff competence and engagement in systems thinking – i.e. seeing the organisation beyond their own specific position. Although the “Learning Organisation” is far from the only relevant perspective for understanding persistence and change in higher education, it does provide an insight into key challenges for modern universities and colleges.

Many higher education institutions are embedded in national accountability requirements and reporting schemes. This often implies that external stakeholders decide which results and outcomes matter, and this is not necessarily what is strategically important to the institution itself. The many different cultures, disciplines and units inside the institution also make learning across these boundaries difficult. The idea that faculties, schools, departments, institutes and research centres are “special”  – i.e. inherently different to other units – is a key belief we often find inside our universities.

In addition, the internal configuration of the university is changing; we have become more strategic and hierarchical as organisations. Moreover, university staff have become more specialised and professional. This results in a tighter organisation along the vertical dimension, while our institutions have perhaps become more de-coupled along the horizontal dimension. In this type of organisation, the leadership might learn more, while the staff risk being less involved in systems thinking.

The actions we need to take

How, then, can we stimulate more systems thinking, thereby strengthening staff competence and engagement in developing the institutions they belong to? While “best practices” tend to be in high demand, it is perhaps time to look for the “interesting practices” – those that might stimulate reflection and curiosity.

One possible point of departure is to take a fresh look at our own data. Do we have the data we need to understand the impact of what we are doing? Do we have good data on how students actually learn, and are there similarities across the university? Is it time to reduce the amount of input and output data, and try to open the black box of the learning process? The increased interest in learning analytics around Europe certainly indicates that several institutions are exploring this potential.

Sharing and encouraging mutual reflection and sense-making on the results of more in-depth data analysis should be a natural follow-up activity of a learning analytics approach. Still, while many staff and students are asked to “feed the beast” by reporting metrics and indicators into our systems, it might be worth questioning how good we are at involving our staff and students in interpreting the data coming out of these exercises.

Many other approaches are also possible, but a key requirement for many of these is time and opportunity for engagement. In our reformed universities, we have for decades been obsessed with reducing organisational slack and tightening up our structures, roles and responsibilities. A major risk related to such streamlining is that we have lost some of our flexibility. While universities in the past tended to be labelled as “organised anarchies” – with the implication that this was a rather dysfunctional way of operating – we should take time to consider what we might have lost on our way to becoming de-coupled bureaucracies. Facilitating arenas for informal collegial interaction and fostering new types of collaborative practices is very much a leadership responsibility, and one that should be high on the agenda in the coming years.

A word of warning

To improve organisational learning in higher education, we must understand that there are limits to what formal organisation can accomplish as a governance instrument. In recent decades, we have reformed our universities using exactly this approach, with several benefits with respect to improved strategic capacity. However, there are also some downsides. As universities become more streamlined, we need to make sure we secure spaces for creativity and community-building, and for organisational learning that is open-ended, critical and potentially disruptive.

Note: this article is based on the author’s keynote speech on “The university as a learning institution” at the 2024 European Learning & Teaching Forum.


Bjørn Stensaker
University of Oslo

Bjørn Stensaker is Vice-Rector for Education at the University of Oslo, where he is also Professor of Higher Education. He has a special interest in studies of higher education reform, university governance and organisational change, and he has published extensively on these issues in a range of international journals.

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