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Evaluation and self-evaluation of universities in Europe: The actors of evaluation and the decision to evaluate

The configurations between the actors are crucial for the results and the outcomes of evaluation, for the organisational change and learning. Two criteria can be used to elaborate typical configurations: the initiator of the evaluation process and the system of the authority, power, dependency or autonomy between the key actors. The key-question is the type of connection between the evaluation, decision, negotiation and action.

Controlling evaluation, the most often, is initiated by the public authorities and is compulsory, its aim being to elaborate or legitimise decisions of financial, statutory or organisational nature, which are made by the initiator on behalf of his position of authority. Autonomous evaluations result from an initiative by the evaluees themselves (university, faculty or laboratory, local actor).

Hybrid situations, conjugating controlling evaluation and autonomous evaluations, are a lot. This contractual form is highly unstable, as it combines contradictory elements: devices which correspond to the logic of controlling evaluation, such as the use of quantitative indicators triggering off automatic decisions of resource allocation on a global basis along with the approaches which favour negotiations on a project.

The case studies demonstrate several experiments in "benchmarking" between two or several universities, co-operative initiatives (bilateral or federate). These experiments have been based on joint initiatives of two or several universities providing interesting examples of participatory "cross-evaluation". Bilateral configurations allow an opportunity to establish a climate of confidence, especially if universities are not competing with one another. However, the problem of means is left open. Horizontal multilateral co-operative forms of the federate type make it possible to disconnect evaluation from decisions, which means a less threatening process for the evaluees.

At last, it seems that a combined set of evaluation initiatives is not the most frequent situation, but an uncontrolled accumulation of evaluation ventures, launched independently by the various actors and/or bodies.

Three problems result from the situation:
- A problem of priorities,
- A problem of timing (calendar), and
- A problem of co-ordination (coherence).

But, it may happen that an initiative triggers off another initiative, or is strengthened by another initiative; central initiatives in the field of evaluation are not necessarily a hindrance to the development of the initiatives at the level of the universities.

In the case of a central initiative, the evaluation can be delegated to the administration of the Ministry, to official evaluation bodies of their own standing, to a consulting firm, to the university itself. In the case of an initiative coming from the leadership of the university, the operation may be commissioned to an agency set up by a Rectors’ conference, to a management consulting group, to an internal body. There are several problems connected with the commissioning processes: the initiator has difficulties to make the complex terms of reference sufficiently explicit for the commissioned agency, or for the commissioned agency to the experts; there is a risks of bureaucratisation of the agency, especially if it is established on a long-term basis; the commissioned agency or experts may lack responsibility if they are not considering the consequences of the evaluations they produce; this can lead to irresponsible and decontextualized evaluations or to loose, unstructured and consensual evaluations which are not very useful.

Concerning the institutionalisation of the evaluation at the university level, the case studies demonstrate the crucial importance of permanent structures, ensuring coherence and appropriate timing of the various evaluation procedures in the university, and maintaining continuity. They can provide support for de-centralised initiatives. They seem to be efficient only if they are tightly linked with the direction on one side and with the faculties on the other.

The degree of participation in the evaluative process has an effect on the acceptance of the results, on the fate of actions or decisions, which can be taken, and on the conditions of long-term learning processes. The quality of participation is also different if the decision is seen as an open one to be taken on the basis of the results of the evaluative process, or if the evaluation appears to the actors as being set up to legitimise a decision which has already been taken.

The link between evaluation and decision varies a lot according to the model of evaluation. Controlling evaluations may become destructive if the complex field of negotiations and political decisions is eliminated by automatically connecting the indicators to the decisions. The contractual model acknowledges the importance of negotiation on the basis of the results, linking it with a negotiation on the project, which is being set up by the university in exchange for allocations. Nevertheless, the link to actual decisions is an important component of motivation among the evaluees, as well as a factor of responsibility for the experts.


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