Floris van Berckel Smit on the need of a historical perspective in understanding models of governance

Over the past few decades, efficiency and output of higher education, the role of ‘managers’, and new budgeting systems have become increasingly contested. The debate about how to govern and control higher education has seen new impetus with college admission bribery scandals in the United States (US), while in the Netherlands the committee-Van Rijn is proposing an overhaul of how universities and polytechnics are funded, introducing more state control. Are these cases indicating a turning point for new public management (NPM) in higher education? How can we understand these debates from a historic perspective?

New Public Management in the public sector
NPM originates from the Anglo-Saxon world, and was inspired by good practice in business and industry. These practices were soon adopted by other countries, including the Netherlands, especially in the years of the Lubbers’ and Kok’ cabinets, 1982-2002. The two subsequent Ministers of Education Wim Deetman (1982-1989) and Jo Ritzen (1989-1998) played a key role in introducing changes in higher education, particularly through their restructuring of how higher education was publicly financed, leading to an increased focus on (financial) information knowledge, efficiency, and an increasing demand for measurability and an emphasis on output.  

New Public Management in higher education
The two cabinets and their education ministers promoted what can be called the ‘managerial university’ where decentralized decision-making and self-regulation was combined with output control and accountability, e.g. of numbers of students, papers, patents, and numbers of doctorates. Competition between universities increased as they had to secure (part of their) funding through competitive research bids and recruitment of students. At the same time, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) was established in 1985 to counterbalance the large institutional autonomy of universities and promote more cooperation between Dutch universities.  

NPM was considered successful for a time. However, after 2000 and especially after the fall of the Kok II cabinet in 2002, management, and neoliberalism in general, was increasingly criticized. In 2012, a committee led by Senate member Roel Kuiper concluded that market mechanisms introduced to improve public services were not effective across all sectors. Although the committee hadn’t evaluated the impact of NPM in the Dutch higher education sector, the report marked a turning point in unequivocally accepting NPM as the preferred model of coordination and improvement of public services. However, although support waned as early as 2002, many more NPM-inspired practices were implemented, for instance policies to improve universities’ international orientation to recruit more students. Even recent criticism of NPM and excesses, such as the US admission scandal don’t seem to be able to turn the tide on NPM in higher education.

An often overlooked explanation for the dominance of NPM in HE lies in our understanding of new public management and how the model is interpreted; both now and in the past. Over time, NPM has had different meanings and practices which also vary according to the field in which it is studied: educational science, business administration, public governance, organizational sociology, and organizational management. We need to critically rethink higher education governance by combining insights from various disciplines to understand what we mean by NPM, how our understanding of NPM has changed over time and the potential effects and unintended consequences of the model. A new study will provide such insights.


Floris van Berckel Smit MSc MA is an Assistant Research Associate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). His research focuses on the history of higher education governance and management, the history of finance, and European populism. His research is embedded in the research group of Political History of the VU and the research group Governance of School and Education Systems (VU). Floris participates in various projects in which he collaborates with historians, political scientists, educational scientists, and public governance experts. Together with Ab Flipse and Ronald Kroeze he is currently working on the history of New Public Management at Dutch universities.

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