Toward Outcome-based Approaches in Higher Education in Two Nordic Countries



Giuseppe Grossi, Eva Lovstal, Sara Giovanna Mauro, and Lotta-Maria Sinervo


Performance has become a buzzword in the public sector over the last several decades, as the object of a complex process of conceptualization and implementation. Accordingly, performance measurement and management have been claimed as priorities in the agenda of public sector organizations worldwide. It is widely accepted that the development of New Public Management (NPM) has significantly contributed to this scenario by introducing “managerialism” to the public sector, attempting to reinvent the government, and reinforcing the adoption of performance measurement and management systems (PMMS) (Hood 1995; Osborne and Gaebler 1993). Over time, beyond establishing the main interpretation of performance in terms of efficiency and effectiveness as inspired by NPM, the academic debate has reflected on the need to adopt a different perspective and broaden the boundaries of performance, even if this has always been a challenge (Smith 1995). In this regard, new public governance and public value management have emerged as reform logics that emphasize the respective relevance of inter-organizational governance and service processes and outcomes (Osborne 2010), and of public value creation providing high-quality services, achieving desirable outcomes, and supporting a high level of trust between citizens and governments (Moore 1995).

These trends have significantly influenced different areas in the public sector and various public services, including higher education. A significant corpus of studies has investigated the transformation of

In Hoque, Z. (ed.) (2021), Public Sector Reform and Performance Management in Developed Economies: Outcomes-Based Approaches in Practice, New York: Routledge (Chapter 12).

universities as inspired by several reform movements, especially NPM (e.g. Barcan 2013; Christopher 2012; Craig et al. 2014; Parker 2002; Pianezzi et al. 2019), and the academic debate in several disciplines (management, education, and accounting) on this topic is still growing (Argento et al. 2020; Grossi et al. 2020). Indeed, universities are a relevant and significant context of study in light of the numerous changes that have occurred in the field of higher education worldwide.

First, increases in the internationalization and marketization of higher education (e.g. Ferlie et al. 2008) have reinforced competition between institutions beyond national borders (e.g. Alexander 2000; Parker 2002) and have commodified and commercialized the academic world (e.g. Flumphrey and Gendron 2015). As knowledge-intensive public organizations, universities now act within a proper knowledge market (Czarniawska and Genell 2002; Grossi et al. 2020), where increasing attention is paid to guarantee quality assurance and consequently develop PMMS.

Second, decreases in the funds and resources allocated to higher education (Alexander 2000; Parker 2002) have contributed to increasing the massification of higher education systems (HESs), and have paved the way for the introduction of performance-based funding mechanisms that link the governmental funding of universities with the assessment of results (Geuna and Piolatto 2016; Guthrie and Neumann 2007). Consequently, this approach requires universities to develop PMMS suitable for measuring and communicating the results achieved, to gain the needed resources, and increase legitimacy.

In this context, in order to be internationally attractive and competitive and be able to gain resources, universities are interested in positioning well in national and international educational rankings (Dixon et al. 2013), whose proliferation has nurtured an evaluative culture (Espeland and Sauder 2016). New tools and rankings have thus been developed to measure and communicate performance, with contrasting consequences (Agyemang and Broadbent 2015; Boitier and Riviere 2013; van Flelden and Argento 2020). Journal and university rankings, citation indices, and student satisfaction surveys are examples of performance tools that are used to monitor results, support decision-making, and reinforce accountability, whose development has recently been further supported by digitalized governance systems (Norreklit et al. 2019).

These trends have taken place across national boundaries, shaping the reforms adopted by different countries. This chapter focuses on two Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, which represent a particular context of analysis given their long tradition with performance measurement systems in the public sector and their democratic and dialogic approach to it. The university sector and the performance measurement systems in the university sector in these two countries have undertaken a process of reform consistently with international trends. The chapter investigates the extent to which PMMS in the field of higher education in Finland and Sweden have defined, measured, and managed outcomes, effectiveness, and quality over time.

This research is based on documentary analysis of official and secondary data. The data include research articles and official documents concerning the Finnish and Swedish university systems, recent university reforms, and national performance evaluation systems within each country’s university sector. Documentary data include regulatory and informational documents from governments, national university agencies as well as other university-related organizations. Besides, some official documents from separate universities were collected and analyzed in order to understand how performance evaluation systems on a macrolevel were reflected and practiced at a local university level. The data sources were the official websites of governments, national agencies, and universities. Flaving a longitudinal approach to the empirical study, official documents from different time periods were used to capture reforms and changes in each country’s performance evaluation system.

This chapter is structured as follows: the next section introduces the issue of measuring performance in the field of higher education, with a specific focus on the outcome, through an analysis of the research articles published on the topic. The third and fourth sections focus on the experiences of performance evaluation in universities in the two Nordic countries of Finland and Sweden on the basis of the documentary analysis carried out. The last section presents a summary of the results, along with some comparative discussion and a future research agenda.

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