What is the point of the university

The university - a company?

In the higher education policy discussion, the terms "university company" or "scientific enterprise" are being used more and more frequently. The American universities are role models, although no distinction is made in the discussion between private and state-funded universities.

When we talk about universities as a company, it should first be clear what a company actually is. A company is a systematically organized business unit in which material goods and services are created and / or sold. Regardless of the economic system, a company works according to the principles of economic efficiency and uses the production factors labor, operating resources and materials. A university cannot be described at first glance with this corporate term. Does that end the discussion - res judicata, causa finita?

Let us first contrast the concept of a company with the attempt to describe a university: The university forms the organizational framework in which experts decide on the content of research and teaching. Typically, the knowledge is subject-specific, which dictates strong decentralization. The aim of the university is to develop and pass on knowledge. A not inconsiderable budget is regularly used for this purpose, without it being primarily a matter of profits in the material sense - the university as a "non-profit organization". In terms of goals, products and structures, the university and the company are far apart. Nevertheless, both are mentioned more and more often in the same breath. How does this happen?

The public rightly expects the university to achieve its goals economically and efficiently. In this way, the university is a company. Because universities are considered uneconomical, it is suggested that they too should follow the successful path of companies that have become more economical through restructuring. It is correct: Since the budgets are not getting bigger, the universities have to use their resources economically and sparingly, finance new things, dismantle old ones and make all these processes transparent internally and externally. In business terms, the task facing the university is: How does a university adapt to the changed market?

The product of a university is knowledge. The company's purpose is research and teaching, which are inextricably linked. But what about the business terms "market" and "competition"? Do they exist in a university?

In teaching, one would expect competition for the best student. However, the numerus clausus has an anti-competitive effect. To some extent, one can recognize competition in the subjects that are showing increasing numbers of students after the intermediate diploma or the intermediate examination. In research, on the other hand, competition is very pronounced: it focuses on the highly competitive third-party funding area. The appointment and maintenance negotiations are also characterized by competition. Here the universities compete with each other and with the large research institutions such as the Max Planck Society - which in Heidelberg has a particularly distorting effect on competition. Conclusion: The market and competition are an environment in which universities definitely play a role.

The performance of universities can also be measured. The costs are inextricably linked to the services. Part of the public discomfort stems from the fact that most universities cannot be precise about the exact cost of their performance. How much does a physics student in Heidelberg cost? What does it cost in Constance? Are the costs different? And if so, why?

The transparency of costs is one of the most important goals of the "Impulse" project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, which the university is currently carrying out. Based on the "SAP R / 3 System", which has proven itself in the industrial sector, the university wants to introduce a cost-performance calculation and create the necessary transparency in internal and external relationships. In this way, the university wants to find the information necessary to achieve the project's goal - decentralized responsibility for resources: intra-university markets should encourage the institutes to exchange resources and services.

The introduction of cost and performance accounting was decided by the Senate and the Board of Directors three years ago. As of January 1, 2000, all state universities are legally obliged to do so. The state's financial support for the implementation and the status as a pilot university make the changeover easier for Heidelberg University. However, the SAP system has yet to prove itself in the university sector. It causes difficult adaptation processes and requires a high level of commitment from all involved.

Decentralized responsibility for resources - the core of the Impulse project - does not mean foregoing strategic decisions. Because goals are still being set for the universities, for example nationally shortening the duration of study. This implies redistribution processes within the framework of the indicator-driven distribution of funds, including in the student assistant model, where the allocations for students decrease and the number of exams increases. The dynamics of subjects will continue to require strategic decisions. Examples are the expansion of biomedical subjects or the realization of interdisciplinary cooperation in new organizational forms. The performance of individual subjects will also continue to be assessed at the strategic level.

In a company, the management can set the goals for the business units and monitor their implementation. However, a university management seldom has its own criteria for assessing a subject. Due to this lack of competence, it cannot show any alternatives and is dependent on the evaluation and the opinion of the scientific community. If she tries to introduce behavioral or result specifications in the core area of ​​research and teaching, she is - rightly - held up to Article 5, Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law. In addition, the university management has no influence on the composition of its "department heads" and no personnel sovereignty: the university management itself is only "temporary staff".

These few keywords show important differences to corporate structures and cultures. Those who deny these differences fail to recognize that the efficiency and originality of universities have developed from their decentralized structures and flat hierarchies. This does not mean, however, that proven corporate management tools in universities are a bad investment.

Adapting to the changed environment becomes a difficult balancing act for universities. It requires a high degree of flexibility and thinking in unfamiliar categories. For a university that has been proficient in surviving for over 600 years, this is not an impossibility. But it's not a trifle either. 

Romana Countess von Hagen