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Unpacking emerging hybrid arrangements in Nordic higher education – Discussions on hybridity of universities

On May 10 and 11, the Faculty of Management and Business at Tampere University hosted the first of a series of exploratory workshops funded by The Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NOS-HS) – ‘a collaboration between the research councils in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden responsible for research within the Humanities and Social Sciences’ – on the emergence of hybrid arrangements in Nordic higher education institutions. The participants of the workshop were academics and other professionals from Tampere University, University of Jyväskylä, University of Eastern Finland, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Örebro University, University of Agder and Norwegian School of Economics.

The keynote speakers of the seminar were professors Jarmo Vakkuri and Jan-Erik Johanson from the Faculty of Management and Business at Tampere University.

Today’s hybridity tomorrow’s unity

The workshop started with an interesting and informative keynote by Jarmo Vakkuri and Jan-Erik Johanson, editors of the 2021 Routledge book ‘Hybrid governance, organisations and society: Value creation perspectives’ as well as an active discussion on the concept of hybridity in organisations.

When talking about the concept of ‘hybridity’ one often imagines that there are pure types of something that mixes and then generates a new something else, a hybrid entity. This seems to be the case in biological terms, for example.

However, in social contexts there is more to consider in the concept of hybridity. Stross (1999) introduced the concept of primordial soup at the roots of any social hybridity, where several things mix and originate hybrid entities and hybrid practices increasing its complexity. This. consequently. also increases its challenges, for example because the concept of pure types of something is nothing more than a social construction.

In social contexts, thus, institutional cultures and logics as well as people’s attitudes and perceptions are hybrid. Hence, these need to be added when analysing social hybridity. Furthermore, Vakkuri argues that hybridity always has a temporal dimension,

‘…you can talk about hybridity as a sort of intermediate phase to something more pure, and that’s always the case in societal governance.’, thus, ‘something hybrid today can be something pure tomorrow’

So, the factor ‘Time’ and the idea of ‘continuum’ processes must be considered in the analysis of hybridity, deepening this analysis towards focusing on aspects related with how different things come interconnected at certain moments in time. For instance, universities started as educational institutions and currently the nexus of teaching and research is constituting the university and its academic logic.

Hybridity thus evolves in time and space. It often goes beyond the limits of the spatial metaphor of organisations. In Higher Education, if one only analysis these institutions as organisations, we cannot see the scientific work developed inside these organisations, as well as its societal outcomes and impacts.

Hybridity in the institutional context

Vakkuri and Johanson argue that the above concept of hybridity requires negotiation and compromising processes, where often something needs to be lost in order to generate something new. So, hybridity can be seen as a fluid and evolutionary process instead of a static characteristic of organisations. As such, local adaptations are influenced by characteristics of the individual contexts, making very different formats of hybridity. Thus, there are many variations in how organisational hybridity is translated into practice. In their work Vakkuri and Johanson (2021) identified 4 main forms of organisational hybridity: ownership (who owns the organisation?), logics (from the different stakeholders: are they conflicting on congruent?), funding (is it privately or publicly funded or both?) and finally control (what and how the organisation controls, e.g., professional control, economic control, etc.).

A paper by Tomi Rajala was discussed in the workshop analysing social forms of control and more precisely on felt hybrid accountability of academics. Currently, academics are trying to find a balance between different forms of market accountability, which implies that they are dealing with hybridity within market accountability. Here, the notion of hybridity within the market accountability refers to the mixture of different market accountabilities faced by the academics in their work life. The aim of the ethnographic study is to paint a picture describing how different academics experience the hybridity in market accountability differently in universities. These differences reveal theoretical interesting notions, such as dismantled hybridity, time-induced hybridity, cross-sectional hybridity, tension-building hybridity, synergetic hybridity, wicked hybridity and tame hybridity.

Hybridity of knowledge production

In addition, in the workshop it was discussed the concept of hybridity in the context of the research developed in HEIs and how it is becoming more interdisciplinary over time. This research interdisciplinarity also emerges with challenges (for example, where to publish interdisciplinary research if most journals are disciplinary?), tensions (between different disciplines) an also benefits (as research can become more holistic and look at phenomena from multiple perspectives and following complementary logics) as it evolves. This hybridity in knowledge production can also be considered a mental paradox. If on the one hand, it requires compromise between different sciences and among these and industry, on the other, all people involved make their own interpretations, applications, and presentations, increasing even more its hybrid nature (Rómulo Pinheiro). Thus, from these forms of interdisciplinarity dynamics new disciplines emerge with new purity. Hence, when analysing hybridity, there is always the impact of the researcher’s choice and, therefore, it is fundamental to clearly define the unit of analysis. In the context of HEIs, hybridity might be the traditional university plus something else. Regarding disciplines, we have then pure disciplines (such as physics, mathematics, philosophy, etc.) versus something else that mixes 2 or more of these pure disciplines in varying levels of hybridity.

Hybridity of working roles, performance, management, and organization

It was also brought to discussion the intended and unintended consequences of policy reforms and people’s agency in the emergence of hybridity in organisations. If on the one hand, it is obvious that reforms mean change, and that this change can include transference of policies or practices from other sectors, such as for example insertion of private forms of management into public institutions (NPM) such as universities, on the other hand, it is also expected that this form of hybridity will be influenced by local characteristics and  actors agency which can lead to unintended impacts in the implementation of policies. An example can be the case of new public management approaches to the management of universities, where actors challenging such reforms lead to negotiation processes that resulted in hybrid management outcomes that were not initially thought of.

The presentation by Elias Pekkola, Marjukka Mikkonen, Luiz Alonso Andrade and Jan-Erik Johanson discussed the corporate form of the universities of applied sciences, which sets them apart from the public provision of higher education even in case of purely public ownership and financing. Their format assumes a tension in the goal duality of generating profits to shareholders while aiming for equal and fair public education provision. The composition of these universities’ directing boards is likely to reflect that goal duality, but it is not at all clear how balanced that representation is. Furthermore, board members may as well introduce agendas from additional sources, such as diverse professional ethos, geographical emphasis, and employee influence in the management of educational institutions. The authors draw on data collected from an international survey on HEI directing boards members, a joint project between researchers from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland, Tampere University in Finland, University of Aveiro in Portugal, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and the Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary.

During the workshop the attendees also discussed a (future) paper by Rómulo Pinheiro, Aleksander Avramovic, Pauliina Kettunen & Cathrine Tømte from the University of Agder reflects on the escalating usage of digital technologies in higher education – prior, during and following the COVID-19 global health pandemic. Preliminary assessments by the authors suggest that these developments have contributed to the establishment of new professional roles that seem to affect academics’ responsibilities. For example, third-space professionals such as educational developers and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) staff have become more visible and salient (power) within universities. Given their role as ‘digital experts’, these professionals are increasingly significant for academics who require support to design and deliver teaching in digital environments, as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the authors hypothesize, these developments can lead to power shifts where technical skilled staff have a significant say in defining and assessing student learning, to the detriment of educational experts and digital pedagogical approaches. Building on qualitative datasets from Norway and Sweden (2020-2021) Pinheiro et al.’s paper thus investigates the impact of digital transformations on both established (academic) and emerging (third space) professional roles considering dynamics set in mention during the COVID-19 pandemic, asking the question: to what extent are the digital transformations of higher education affecting traditional academic roles and authority relations within public universities?

In addition, Stefan Lundborg and Lars Geschwind from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology presented a paper that investigate how different internal interests melt together into hybrid perspectives through collective bodies of decision-making and discussion within higher education institutions. Building on a previous study of strategic councils, the planned paper will trace mechanisms of appointment, representation, interaction, and influence within such bodies through interviews with their members. The results are envisioned to provide insights into how hybrid arrangements emerge and spread through the governance, organisation, and culture of higher education institutions – even through the collaboration of traditionally non-hybrid functions.

Hybridity of working practices

Finally, the group discussed actual forms of work hybridity. Although remote or hybrid work was already a practice in the Nordic HEIs, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified these practices and they became the preferred work practice in many contexts by many academic and administrative actors. These practices present slightly different formats of hybridity. While many people resumed coming back to face-to-face work at the office and/or teaching room most days, others maintained a post COVID-19 work routine that translates into rarely going into the office and by developing the majority of work tasks at home. In the middle there are many other ‘shades of gray’ related to the percentage of work developed remotely or at the university campus. These larger varieties of work practices also have implications at the level of the culture developed within departments and at the HEIs in general as well as at the managerial level requiring adaptations of the organisational level which can be well taken by some administrators but also encounter resistance in others.

In this line, the paper under work and presented by Íris Santos, Elias Pekkola, Taru Siekkinen, Harri Laihonen utilizes open-ended questions of a questionnaire to middle- and top-management actors in Finnish universities, as well as a sample of academic staff from Finnish faculties of education to dive into this topic of hybridity in work practices and reveal that while both management actors and academic professionals see work hybridity as an unavoidable reality and welcome its flexibility, they both share some worries about a loss of sense of community and informal networking among academics and are concern with the implications of increased distant teaching, as learning is seen a process that needs direct interconnection among students and among these and their teachers.

Future collaboration activities by members of the workshop

The final aims of the workshops are to co-write a book and to edit a journal’s special issue on the diverse forms of hybridity emerging in the Nordic higher education. The group is also preparing a panel for the conference of the International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) taking place at the University of Tampere on April 16 – 18, 2024.

The next workshops will be taking place at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden in early December 2023, followed by a third workshop at the University of Agder, in Kristiansand, Norway in April 2024.

Íris Santos, Elias Pekkola, Jan-Erik Johanson, Luiz Alonso Andrade, Romulo Pinheiro, Stefan Lundborg, Tomi Rajala