In recent years, European universities have undergone many reorganizing efforts. Although differing from country to country, the dominant pattern is a centralization of activities and responsibilities (de Boer et al., 2005). Hitherto, higher education research mainly adresses this development from a governance perspective. This stream of research primarily analyses the scope of actions and formal responsibilities of different status and stakeholder groups in (de)central governing bodies (Mora, 2001). Although some organization-economic (Antonelli, 2007) and behavioristic (Cohen et al., 1972) studies exist, the governance perspective is primarily rooted in organization-sociology (Krücken, 2011). Centralization tendencies are discussed rather critical as they might endager the social function of universities (Birnbaum, 2004).
However, the governance point of view – with its focus on (formal) behavior control and allocation of decision rights – is only one among many theoretical frameworks to analyze organizations. Another prominent perspective is the resource or competence perspective (Noteboom, 2004; Williamson, 2000). It directs our attention to the generation of organization specific resources (Barney 1991) like organizational knowledge (Eisenhardt & Martin, 2000; Grant, 1996) or core competencies (Dierickx & Cool, 1989; Prahalad & Hamel, 1990). From a resource perspective, the pooling of activities may support the core activities of teaching and research. In the long run, a centralized creation of common resources might even enhance the institution’s reputation, attracting international students, better scholars, and higher funding. Like governance-focused research, the resource perspective also acknowledges the possible shortcomings of a centralization. They mainly arise from observability and measurement problems of knowledge-based activities (Leitner & Warden, 2004). Thus, there is no such thing as ‘the’ optimal degree of centralization. The pros and cons must be carefully considered and balanced. However, by focussing the development and sharing of organizational knowledge and competencies, resource based studies of universities may provide novel and fruitful insights for the debate on which activities to centralize and which to delegate.
Our current study on University Commons develops a resource perspective for higher education institutions. It might supplement previous arguments made from a governance perspective. We’ll keep you posted..