Higher education – democratic minimums, managerial maximums?



Too little democracy, not too much democracy, is today a major problem in Higher Education Institutions

I start, in this effort to summarize the condition of higher education institutions (HEIs) and their governance, from the thesis that an institutional model of a management type is being consolidated, highly formalized and rationalized, less democratic, with less academic freedom to professors and researchers, but with more institutional and management autonomy for top managers and their advisors, or “technostructure”.

This is an observable trend on a global scale, certainly with multiple specificities, which occurs through the action of transnational and supranational political orientations, not independent of State reform and the introduction of complex “governance” devices, gaining the support of several governments. national and also academic authorities. It does not manifest itself, in any case, in a mechanical way, independent of regional and national contexts, the configurations of the State and public policies, nor the concrete action of teachers and researchers.

The managerialist canon and the hyper-bureaucratization of HEIs

Driven by New Public Management, which defends the transfer to the public domain of the principles of private business-type management, what I call the managerialist canon includes the following main dimensions: culture and ethos business type; the defense of privatization, whether in the full sense or as a management method to be introduced in public organizations, namely through the creation of internal markets within them; the praise of individual leadership and the respective vision and project, as an expression of the “right to manage”, free initiative and entrepreneurship in public administration; effectiveness and efficiency defined according to economic rationality; free choice, in a competitive market or quasi-market environment, in a frame of reference that places the client and consumer at the center of options considered rational; the clarity of the organization's mission and the objective and measurable definition of its objectives, scrutinizable through complex and rigorous evaluation and quality assurance processes.

The managerialist reforms of public education, in several countries, although with varying impacts and diverse appropriations, have, according to available research, highlighted a vast set of dimensions, including: centralization of policy formulation and decision-making processes, although systematically invoking decentralization, devolution and autonomy; the decentralization of certain competencies, although mainly of a technical and operational and, often, financial nature, expanding sources of financing to private entities and placing increasing responsibility on families and students themselves, in certain countries that are increasingly indebted; less relevance attributed to processes of democratic control and participation in decision-making processes, as well as growing distrust towards collegial bodies, generally seen as sources of lack of accountability, with a composition considered numerous and paralyzing, with cumbersome and slow functioning; strengthening the power of managers, advisors and other technostructures, to the detriment of the influence of professionals, teachers and researchers, as well as the community and the diversity of its organizations and interests, generally replaced by the intervention of restricted representatives of interested parties, by control of customers, through partnerships with economic and business power; evidence-based governance and political decisions, instituting mercantile-type forms of regulation; reinforcement of vertical management structures and concentration of powers in the formal leader.

Presented and legitimized as a “post-bureaucratic” alternative, managerialism often reveals itself to be more management for less democracy, being responsible for an exponential increase in certain dimensions of bureaucracy, or rational-legal authority, studied by Max Weber, but also of less rational dimensions and more coinciding with the pejorative and common sense meaning.

The exaggeration of the features of bureaucracy results in a radicalized, expanded bureaucracy, or, as I prefer to call it, a hyperbureaucracy (LIMA, 2012), in fact induced and reinforced by new information and communication technologies, which emerge as a kind of new source of centralized, electronic and apparently diffuse control, but nevertheless powerful, always present at every moment and in every place, that is, of a totalizing and, at times, almost totalitarian nature.

Among the dimensions theoretically associated with hyper-bureaucratization, the following can be mentioned: the replacement of collegial leadership by unipersonal leadership, which, in certain cases, lacks the loss of the elective character to approach what Weber called “monocratic bureaucracy” or a just boss; the centralization and concentration of decision-making powers; the return to online organization, greater hierarchy and the division of labor between managers and academics; the growing relevance of the expert knowledge of deputies and advisors, of bodies specialized in the provision of technical services; the obsession with effectiveness and efficiency, with optimal choice and competitive performance; the centrality of quality management, evaluation and measurement processes, under neopositivist inspiration (rankings, external evaluation, standardized tests, standards, etc.); the processes of computer centralization and Taylorism Online, with the diffusion of new mental categories, reproduced without dispute, and more or less naturalized concepts.

Attention is drawn to the use of new information and communication technologies, in the service of accountability, evaluation and quality assurance processes in competitive environments and on an international scale. Francisco Ramirez (2013) observed how the practices of accountability, evaluation, production of rankings and even the annual reports of professors in American universities, have contributed to accentuating the image of the University as a formal organizational actor.

The processes of educational isomorphism are based on the search for new bases of legitimation, such as standardized rules, internationalization, differentiation, evaluation routines, international comparisons, resulting in a rationalized and performative HEI, an entrepreneurial HEI, which that author associates with phenomena of “ intensification of rationalization”.

Institutional hybridity

The withdrawal of certain public organizations from the restricted state sphere and from traditional tutelary and hierarchical control logics, introducing new forms of customer orientation, internal markets, competitive budgets, contracts signed based on results to be achieved, generally corresponds to what has long been It was designated as a form of “reinvention” of government and public administration.

In Portugal, it tends to coincide with the “rise of managerialism”, visible from the mid-1990s onwards. The creation of organizations of a business nature, or style, the adoption of a ethos competitiveness and a business environment, associated with the idea of ​​innovation and organizational reform along the lines of the private sector, represents, today, an orientation considered rational.

This is one of the reasons why HEIs have been described using predominantly industrial and economic language, representing public educational organizations as if they operated in the free market and were endowed with the same type of autonomy as private sector organizations. The creation of new legal-institutional models, of the public foundation type with a private law regime, along with other partnerships between the public and the private, as alternatives to the university/polytechnic-public institute, represents yet another hybrid type configuration that is no longer of a state type, but still public in nature; adopting private law in several areas of activity, but referring to public law in others; avoiding certain micro-normative governmental and central administration injunctions, but not failing to respond to political supervision; enjoying certain prerogatives and freedoms in terms of financial and asset management, but remaining subject to the action of the Court of Auditors and the Official Accounting Plan for the Education Sector, for example.

The hybridity of this “new type of institution”, as it has been called by the legislator in Portugal, is not only visible in the complex forms of articulation between State, market and civil society, or even in the increasingly fluid boundaries between public and private, but also with regard to the governance model adopted, especially the foundational model.

In Portugal, following the recommendations presented by the OECD (2006) and the approval of the new regime for institutions, approved in 2007 by the XVII Government, a foundational alternative was established. The founding regime established a board of trustees (composed of five individuals appointed by the government, upon proposal from the institution), as well as the possible adoption of the individual work regime for new professionals to be hired in the future, the possible appointment of directors of faculties and departments , the significant concentration of powers in the rector/president, as well as the strengthening of the powers of other single-person bodies.

These are significant examples of adherence to managerial logics and modes of operation considered typical of the private sector. It is in this context that the rector or president emerges as a chief executive officer (CEO), or general director, endowed with a vision, a project, a team of top and middle managers, advised by a technostructure he trusts; The “right to manage” the institution must be recognized with wide margins of freedom, making it responsible for its actions, namely through new accountability mechanisms and the supervisory action of the board of trustees and the general council. This results in a considerable concentration of unipersonal powers, with weak institutional checks and balances, justified by the search for sustainability in a competitive environment.

But this search for sustainability in a competitive environment presents ethical, political, cultural and educational limits that cannot be ignored. And that is why economic determinism, pure adaptation to the competitive environment and the search for sustainability subordinated to the management paradigm could erode the foundations of HEIs and precipitate an unprecedented crisis, a situation in which the principles of competitive sustainability would reveal the true limits of logics of rivalry and emulation, or what could then be called unsustainable and corrosive competitiveness.

In this context, if increasingly functional and better adapted to the environment, socially and normatively immersed – more than politically and axiologically inscribed –, HEIs will no longer be of any use to us and will certainly be replaced by other more effective and efficient organizations, truly mercantile and functional, certainly more reliable, productive and obedient; perhaps by agencies of academic capitalism, or by knowledge, training and innovation companies, producers of content, ideas, goods, services and artefacts.

Erosion of democratic management

In a very precise synthesis, Vital Moreira (2008, p. 131), one of the defenders of the 2007 higher education reform, after calling for the rationale of New Public Management, stated: “[…] I would say that we will have fewer bodies, fewer elections , less collegiality, greater external participation, more responsibility towards the outside. If anything will change profoundly with the reform, it is clearly the government system.”

This, from a formal point of view, was the situation found through the analysis of the first statutes of fifteen university institutions and a third of polytechnic institutes that I published in 2012. The organizational and management structures showed clear options for greater internal centralization and concentration of executive powers in rectors and presidents, unprecedented in the Portuguese history of higher education in democracy.

From this point of view, higher education in Portugal seems to have been definitively included in a more general framework of reforms where there is a tendency towards a hyper-bureaucratic institutional management pattern: centralization, vertical structures of power, standardization, instrumental rationality, technical competence and meritocracy, technostructure power, measurement, internal competitiveness.

Currently, a new and more powerful category of institutional managers is emerging who, although continuing to be recruited from academics, are able to undertake a break with academic culture. It is a break with the values ​​of democratic collegiality and academic power, in favor of a ethos management, combining a minimum of academic representation (democratic legitimacy) and a growing appreciation of the power of the technostructure (technical legitimacy), made up of senior specialized officials.

In either case, the aim is to free institutional management from the culture and influence of academics. Rectors and presidents now have a new role of intermediation between the State and the market, between the demands of stakeholders and the demands of academics and other workers; They are also a type of new “connection links” between academia and management, between the General Council and management units and subunits.

In the Portuguese reform, the managerialist canon has not yet reached the vigor that it has revealed in other countries, especially in its more mercantile aspects and linked to the neoliberal reform of the State. But it is impossible not to notice its growing influence, in addition to the signs it has revealed over the last decade. It is the managerialist ideology that, at this moment, supports a complex process of hybridization, already highlighted in other countries: a process resulting from the simultaneous presence of dimensions of democracy (in the process of loss and resistance in institutions) and dimensions of expertise (in the process of strengthening in institutions).

In Portugal, to the influence of collegiality and democratic management inherited from the 1974 revolution (University of the Constitution), as well as the more recent strength of the managerialist canon and business culture (Management University), we must add the power of a state bureaucracy, centralized and hierarchical (typical of a Governmental University).

What is clear in the Portuguese reform is that never before have democratic collegiality and academic values ​​been so questioned and challenged as they are at this moment, based on a framework of management rationality and a project of modernization and Europeanization. The Salazar-Caetano regime also revealed distrust and fought against academic freedom and democratic management, but it did so based on a non-democratic political ideology.

However, at present, the increase in institutional autonomy, which is talked about so much, could result, paradoxically, in a reinforcement of the power of managers and the technostructures that support them, without guaranteeing greater freedom, whether for academics or students. On the contrary, it may even ensure managers' control over more or less alienated, or subordinate, academic work.

Democratic minimums, managerial maximums?

 The OECD report (2006) on higher education in Portugal proved to be quite influential in the 2007 reform, even admitting that some important recommendations were not adopted, or were followed partially and without being mandatory for institutions: the generalization of the status of public foundation under private law; the appointment of rectors or presidents; the appointment of directors of faculties and departments; the majority of external members in the highest governing body of the institutions; the loss of civil servant status for teaching and non-teaching staff; the non-application of public accounting rules to institutions.

However, the OECD proved to be much more influential in relation to other proposals adopted in the Legal Regime of Higher Education Institutions (Law no. 62/2007): loss of influence of collegiate bodies, predominantly referred to the status of consultative bodies; concentration of executive powers in the rector or president; presidency of the general council by an external member; strengthening individual leadership in units and subunits; reduction in the number of governing and deliberative bodies; reduction in the number of academics participating in government bodies. In general, the reform adopted an “entrepreneurial” conception of higher education institutions.

It also adopted a new governance and management paradigm, recommended by the OECD (2006), although the government had initially preferred to place it as an alternative only for institutions that met certain conditions, namely their own financing: the public foundation under private law , then introducing the board of trustees. This solution has been defended, in recent years, by several Portuguese politicians and former ministers of education, since the collegiate standard was represented as an obstacle to the effective management of the individual leader (Crespo, 2003) and the action of “strong leaders, almost always based on the leader’s innate characteristics” (Grilo, 2005, p. X-XI).

This belief in the “effective executive leader”, which resumes a consensual and efficient tradition of management theories, from the Theory of Human Relations in the 1930s, with Chester Barnard, through Management by Objectives and the work of Peter Drucker, has contributed , in several countries, to de-emphasize academic governance, collegiality and democratic management, and also the subunits where academics organize themselves.

The General Council became the highest body, although much reduced in terms of democratic participation and representation compared to the previous University Senate. It is composed of fifteen to thirty-five members, including professors and researchers (necessarily more than half of the members), including students and, eventually (but not necessarily), non-teaching employees, and also at least 30% of co-opted external members, a of whom he will be the president of the body (article 81).

The General Council, being the highest governing body, is responsible for electing the Rector, approving changes to the statutes, assessing the management acts of the Rector, or President, and the Management Council, and proposing initiatives for the proper functioning of the institution , does not interfere in day-to-day government and management, which are the responsibility of the Rector (university subsystem) or the President (polytechnic subsystem). These are the true leaders of the institutions, concentrating a numerous set of responsibilities (article 92), part of which was attributed to the University Senate in previous legislation. The Academic Senate, which was created optionally, is now a consultative body, with the previous deliberative Assembly disappearing.

It is concluded that individual leadership gains great centrality in terms of government, even in the case of most of the competencies exercised by the General Council, which are the approval of the most important plans and strategic documents of the institutions, but always on the proposal of the Rector or President, body responsible for “conducting the institution's policy” (article 85, paragraph 2). It is also responsible for appointing the members of the Management Council (executive body), as well as its presidency.

Guaranteed, in minimum terms, participation in the “democratic management of schools”, this constitutional category is not even named in the Law, giving protagonism to the concepts of management autonomy, consortium, foundation, quality, among others. On the other hand, nothing in the 2007 Law guarantees the election of directors of units and subunits, not even the mandatory existence of collegial bodies representing faculties, departments, research centers, etc.

The law only admits their existence and, in that case, gives them the power to elect the director. But faculty or department directors are no longer just presidents of collegial bodies, but now have the status of single-member bodies, with their own reinforced powers, no longer being elected by the entire teaching, research and non-teaching staff of the respective unit or subunit.

The legally established structure is quite rigid, contrary to what is stated in the 2007 Law, only granting institutions the possibility of opting for small morphological variations regarding government bodies, being much more open with regard to advisory bodies. The degree of institutional freedom and choice of management structures only becomes greater if institutions opt for foundation status. In this case, however, there are no guarantees of collegiality, democratic management and the election of some managers at intermediate level; Not being legally prevented, they did not represent a priority for the legislator, who did not attribute mandatory status to them.

The analysis of the statutes approved by the fifteen public universities and by a third of the public polytechnic institutes in Portugal revealed exactly the impact of the new governance standard, as well as the consequences on their management structures. Despite the different forms of institutional reception of the 2007 Law, especially with regard to the option for foundation status (only in three institutions in the first phase), very similar structural options were registered.

The composition of the General Council varied between a minimum of fifteen members (in one university only) and a maximum of thirty-five members (in two universities). Two thirds of universities opted for General Councils made up of between twenty and twenty-nine members (the average was twenty-five members). Only two universities did not include the participation of non-teaching staff representatives in the General Council, although in twelve, out of a total of thirteen, they were only represented by one member.

The founding statute did not reveal any privileged relationship with the smaller number of members of the General Council (between nineteen and thirty-three), nor with the lack of representation of non-teaching staff. It was, however, in the three initial foundations that the units (faculties or departments) without their own management bodies and with directors nominated or designated not only by election were most concentrated, contrary to what happened with most other institutions.

Although not preventing, in some cases, more democratic and participatory solutions in terms of governance, the legislator and other organizational actors have been preferring less democracy than taking the risks of what seems to them to be too much democracy, which leads them to opt for democratic minimums. In this way, they preserve the minimum democratic requirements that are a constitutional requirement in several areas, while at the same time adopting procedures typical of a democracy in crisis, formalism, or a post-democracy, as Colin Crouch (2004) called it.

Post-democracy is consistent with the adoption of democratic minimums, coexists well with passivity, with the crisis of participation and active citizenship, adopting as a reference the “entrepreneurial spirit”, the logic of concentration of powers in the leader, the promotion of meritocracy. That's why she supports the maximum level of minimum participation, as Crouch wrote. It is not surprising, in such a context, the crisis of participation and some of the obstacles that are presented to democratic practices (such as the election of rectors and presidents outside a restricted electoral college), the strong hierarchization, the emergence of new forms of control and scrutiny, certainly reinforced by phenomena of chronic underfunding, precariousness and deprofessionalization, the induction of unbridled competitiveness that proves to be an inhibitor of cooperation and solidarity, the forms of government by numbers that, apparently, impose themselves, naturalizing certain solutions and depoliticizing HEIs.

Final note

The profound crisis of democracy in HEIs, which must be overcome, is incompatible with the ethical and political responsibilities of educational organizations and the production and dissemination of knowledge that take cognitive democracy seriously, democratic education as a public good and, from the outset, a most of the values ​​that are statutorily assumed in their missions and objectives, especially as we have known for a long time that democratic purposes require democratic structures, rules and processes. And for this reason, too little democracy, not too much democracy, is today a major problem in HEIs.[I]

*Licínio C. Lima He is a full professor at the Institute of Education at the University of Minho.


CRESPO, Vitor. Win Bologna, win the future. Higher education in Europe. Lisbon: Gradiva, 2003.

CROUCH, Colin. Post-Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

GRILO, Eduardo M. Preface. In: PEDROSA, Júlio; QUEIRÓ, João (Org.). Govern the Portuguese university. Mission, organization, operation and autonomy. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2005, p. VII-XIV.

LIMA, Licínio C. Elements of hyperbureaucratization in educational administration. In: LUCENA, Carlos; SILVA JÚNIOR, João dos Reis (Org.). Work and education in the 21st Century: international experiences. São Paulo: Xamã, 2012, p. 129-158.

MOREIRA, Vital. Legal status of higher education institutions. In: AMARAL, Alberto (Org.). Higher education policies. Four topics under debate. Lisbon: National Education Council, 2008, p. 123-139.

ORGANIZATION FOR ECONOMIC COOPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT (OECD). Reviews of national policies for education: tertiary education in Portugal, 2006. Examiners' report. Lisbon, 13 Dec. 2006. Available at: http://www.dges.mctes.pt/NR/rdonlyres/8B016D34-DAAB-4B50-ADBB-25AE105AEE88/2565/Relatório.pdf>

RAMIREZ, Francisco O. World society and the university as formal organization. Sisyphus, Lisbon, v. 1, no. 1, p. 125-153, 2013.


[I]Text that served as the basis for the intervention carried out in the General States of Science and Higher Education, Lisbon, November 12, 2022, and which revisits several issues that have been the subject of analysis in works published by the author: Patterns of institutional management: Democratization, autonomy and the managerialist cannon. In Guy Neave & Alberto Amaral (Eds.), Higher Education in Portugal 1974-2009. The Nation, the Generation (pp. 287-308). Dordrecht: Springer, 2012; Management University: institutional hybridity and adaptation to the competitive environment. In Vera Jacob Chaves, João dos Reis Silva Junior, Afrânio Mendes Catani (Eds.), The Brazilian University and the PNE: educational instrumentalization and commodification (pp. 59-84). São Paulo: Xamã, 2013; The ‘best science’: the academic-entrepreneur and the production of economically relevant knowledge. In Afrânio Mendes Catani & João Ferreira de Oliveira (Orgs.), Higher Education and Knowledge Production: utilitarianism, internationalization and new social contract (pp. 11-34). Campinas: Mercado de Letras, 2015.

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