Sub-theme 57: The End of Academia as We Know It? Challenges to Universities and Possible Reactions

Lars Engwall
Uppsala University, Sweden
Matthias Kipping
York University, Canada
Gili S. Drori
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Call for Papers

This sub-theme explores the current challenges facing universities and academia more generally, which, as some have argued, pose a significant if not existential threat to a hitherto very successful organizational model of knowledge generation and dissemination (Readings, 1996; Ernst & Young, 2012). It asks for papers that examine in some detail at the main driving forces and agents as well as explore possible reactions to these developments.
Universities go back to the Middle Ages with early foundations in Bologna, Paris and Oxford – with many others following these frontrunners over time. Today, according to the Ranking Web of Universities (2017), there are more than 25,000 universities worldwide – demonstrating the popularity of this organizational form. The growth of the university population occurred particularly after the Second World War, driven in large part, it seems, by high expectations of their performance and their contribution to individual development as well as national competitiveness (Gibbons & Johnston, 1974). However, in the 21st century, their hitherto highly appreciated characteristics are increasingly questioned, and even their existence as a unified organization seems under threat (Cota et al., 2012). These challenges to the university model, and academia more broadly speaking, has several origins:
First, the expansion of the university population has implied an increasing competition for students, faculty, resources and, particularly, reputation. This in turn has had the effect that universities are increasingly putting efforts in building their brands signalling to students that studies at a particular university will be a positive experience leading to well-paid jobs in the future. Similarly, they are stressing their creative research environment in order to attract high quality faculty members as well as research resources. In this competition, accreditations, rankings and evaluations have come to play an increasingly important role. Among the effects, there appears to be a stronger focus on short-term performance and accountability (cf., for example, Wedlin, 2006; Whitley et al., 2010).
Second, universities are under competition not only among themselves but also from other organizations whose mission involves the production of novel knowledge and its dissemination. Some corporations have full-fledged research divisions and others have established corporate universities (Crainer & Dearlove, 1999, ch. 9). In addition, there is a vast and growing population of other knowledge-intensive organizations, such as consulting think tanks, boasting of their “research” and academic credentials (Garsten & Sörbom, 2017; Kipping, 2018). As a result, the competition for talent and resources have become even fiercer. On top of that, modern information technology has provided the basis for learning on the web through Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). Commercial providers, many of them multinationals, as well as universities provide platforms for these. These developments drive dramatic changes in the core activities of universities (e.g., in curriculum; Frank & Gabler, 2006), as well as its professional ethos (Macfarlane, 2013), and have led some observers, like the Flemish executive Robert Stouthuysen, to the conclusion that “the classic university is at the point of death” (De Corte et al., 2016: xvii).
Third, the universities are under increasing pressure from political actors to contribute to various political goals such as economic growth as well as gender and social equality. There are expectations that research should to be “useful” leading to patentable innovations that will contribute to national competitiveness (cf., for example, Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 1997). Universities are also expected to both raise and even out the competence of citizens. Governments signal these expectations through various regulations, to which universities tend to respond by lobbying and with efforts to handle compliance.
Fourth, universities are under increasing pressure to act “managerially”. Large corporations have become a role model for other organizations, in particular those in the public sector, universities included – a trend often subsumed under the label “New Public Management” (Hood, 1995). This has had the effect that universities are increasingly forced to adopt a more hierarchical structure and management tools from the private sector. In many universities, this starts at the board level with the selection of persons with managerial and financial background. Likewise, university presidents are increasingly recruited by means of search consultants on a labour market of external candidates rather than the traditional approach of selecting the primus inter pares (Engwall, 2014). All this seems to increase bureaucratization of universities with significant reporting requirements for faculty members, constituted a highly regulative market of higher education (Duryea & Williams, 2012; Palfreyman & Tapper, 2014).
Fifth, and last not least, universities are under strong financial pressures (Sommer, 1995; Bok, 2003; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004; Engwall & Weaire, 2008; Berman, 2011; McGettigan, 2013). In addition to the managerialization discussed above, one reason for this is the cost of equipment particularly in the natural sciences and the life sciences. A second reason is the above-mentioned competition for talented faculty, which means that universities start to resemble the world of sports with costly transfers. A third reason is the strong position of publishers, which are able to charge high subscriptions and submissions fees since researchers are eager to read the published research of others and to publish their own work (while being willing to review and edit for free). On top of that, bureaucratic structures have led to increasing administrative costs. In order to cover all the mentioned costs, universities are seeking various solutions of raising their revenues. In countries with tuition fees, this has led to a questioning of the level of these fees.
Against the above backdrop, the sub-theme aims to shed light on the challenges faced by modern universities and their responses to these challenges by inviting both conceptual and empirical papers. We, particularly but not only, welcome submissions that examine:

  • the increasing competition among universities, including the role played by rankings in these developments

  • the role of various related actors, including but not limited to, consultants, think tanks and publishers

  • political pressures on universities, often in terms of achieving a set of economic and social objectives

  • the managerialization of universities at multiple levels and its manifestations and consequences

  • funding challenges in modern universities, both public and private, including the remedies applied and their repercussions

  • the impact of this sense of crisis on university operations (research, teaching), its social engagement, and its management, as well as on academic professionalism



  • Berman, E.P. (2011): Creating the Market University. How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Bok, D.C. (2003): Universities in the Marketplace. The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Cota, A., Dua, A., Laboissiere, M., & Lin, J. (2012): Rethinking 101: A new agenda for university and higher education system leaders? Report, June 2012, McKinsey & Company,
  • Crainer, S., & Dearlove, D. (1999): Gravy Training. Inside the Business of Business Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • De Corte, E., Engwall, L., & Teichler, U. (2016): From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. London: Portland Press.
  • Duryea, E.D., & Williams, D. (2012): The Academic Corporation. A History of College and University Governing Boards. New York: Routledge.
  • Engwall, L. (2014): “The recruitment of university leaders: Politics, communities and markets in interaction.” Scandinavian Journal of Management, 30 (3), 332‒343.
  • Engwall, L., & Weaire, D. (2008): The University in the Market. London: Portland Press.
  • Ernst & Young (2012): University of the future: a thousand-year-old industry on the cusp of profound change. Sydney: Ernst & Young.
  • Etzkowitz, H., & Leydesdorff, L. (eds.) (1997): Universities and the Global Knowledge Economy. A Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations. London: Pinter.
  • Frank, D.J., & Gabler, J. (2006): Reconstructing the University. Worldwide Shifts in Academia in the 20th Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Garsten, C. & Sörbom, A. (2018): Discreet Power. How the World Economic Forum Shapes Market Agendas. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  • Gibbons, M., & Johnston, R. (1974): “The roles of science in technological innovation.” Research Policy, 3 (3), 220‒242.
  • Hood, C. (1995): “The ‘new public management’ in the 1980s: Variations on a theme.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 20 (2‒3), 93‒109.
  • Kipping, M. (2018): “Consulting Think Tanks: A Tool for Marketing or Hegemony?” Global Dialogue, 8 (2), 18‒19.
  • Macfarlane, B. (2013): Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education. Renewing the Role of the University Professor. New York: Routledge.
  • McGettigan, A. (2013): The Great University Gamble. Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press.
  • Palfreyman, D., & Tapper, T. (2014): Reshaping the University. The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ranking Web of Universities (2017):, retrieved on November 10, 2017.
  • Readings, B. (1996): The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2004): Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Sommer, J.W. (ed.) (1995): The Academy in Crisis. Political Economy of Higher Education. New York: Routledge.
  • Wedlin, L. (2006): Ranking Business Schools. Forming Fields, Identities and Boundaries in International Management Education. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Whitley, R., Gläser, J., & Engwall, L. (eds.) (2010): Reconfiguring Knowledge Production. Changing Authority Relationships in the Sciences and Their Consequences for Intellectual Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lars Engwall is Professor Emeritus of Business Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. He has published widely on institutional change and the diffusion of management ideas, in particular the role of management education and of the media.
Matthias Kipping is Professor of Policy and Richard E. Waugh Chair in Business History at the Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada. He has published extensively on the management consulting business.
Gili S. Drori is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Her research interests include the comparative study of higher education and science; globalization and glocal organization; institutions and rationalization.