From performance to conformance: Formal and informal research governance dynamics at Australian universities

Stream: Panel 23 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Higher Education – Policy, Performance and Research Impacts
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 11.30 am – 1.00 pm


This paper explores some of the links between formal and informal governance dynamics at Australian universities, with specific attention to university-based research activities. Empirically, this paper draws on analyses of interviews conducted with academics (n=50) from twelve Australian universities, and analyses of these universities’ performance management policies. In terms of formal dimensions, this paper investigates convergence patterns in how the research work of individual academic staff is formally measured and managed within and across Australian universities. In terms of informal dimensions, the focus is on reconstructing those strategic activities that academics typically resort to in order to subvert or circumvent attempts to formally control and measure their work. Analyses of policies suggest that there is considerable convergence in how the research work of academics is formally governed at Australian universities, with key processes being ‘managerial’ rather than ‘professional’ in design, and key performance measures conforming to national research funding mechanisms. Furthermore, the interview data highlights how performance management systems may run into problems once subjected to the concrete realities of organizational and academic life. In some of the investigated institutional settings, performance management systems were apparently maintained mainly for ‘ceremonial’ purposes, and had little perceived effect other than adding to administrative overload. Where these systems were taken seriously, however, they appeared to stimulate a range of strategic responses as a result of which the associated performance assessments lose purpose and traction. This paper concludes with outlining specific trajectories for further research into some of the issues identified.


Peter Woelert (Presenter), University of melbourne
Dr Peter Woelert is a postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the University of Melbourne.