Academic and research institutions (ARI) in Europe have been confronted with strong external change pressures since the 70s, which have placed them on fast institutional transformation trajectories. These external pressures are driven directly by society transformations (e.g.; the massification of higher education, the increase in remote communication capabilities or even the transformation of the environments of these institutions), but they also depend on implementing public policies, through reforms or new resource allocation mechanisms. This has resulted in a profound change in the economic model for institutions and the beginning of a process of concentrations and mergers within ARIs or between ARIs on certain geographic sites (mergers or other concentration processes). For example, in France four university mergers have been concluded since 2009, six are announced within two years and at least 20 university sites are involved in concentration projects in the form of “university communities.” This movement of linking university processes of concentrations and mergers is not a French particularity: we also see it in many other European countries such as Denmark, Estonia and even Finland.

Because most of them respond to a rationalisation goal, these external pressures produce a certain convergence around a “reference institutional model” based on the triptych of autonomy, disciplinary completeness and (strategic) guidance capability.

And yet in practice, in spite of the relative convergence of public policy goals, the transformation of the ARI landscape is just as much a process of differentiation as a process of convergence. This differentiation is expressed through the levels of appropriation and instantiation vis-à-vis the aforementioned “reference model,” which will vary from one country to another and from one institution to another.  In fact, this is the logical corollary of autonomy! This differentiation can also show up within the same institution, through different levels of appropriation of the organisation model adopted by the institution, from one component to another.

Differentiation comes about in particular through the choices institutions make in the following two areas:

  • On three interdependent issues: the relationship between teaching and research, multidisciplinarity and regional ties, including both the ties with local economic development and the ties between academics of different institutions located on the same geographic site.
  • On the institutional and organisational structuring:
    • At the scale of a geographic site, through the processes of concentrations and mergers implemented: mergers or other processes to consolidate institutions as well as components within the institutions
    • At the scale of an institution, through the structuring into levels of authority and levels of autonomy (e.g.; the creation of an intermediary level between the central level and the faculties in Strasbourg, Aix-Marseille and even Bordeaux)
    • At the scale of an institution, through the intra- and inter-level negotiation systems

This differentiation process reinforces the diversity of institutions’ profiles and operating procedures, as well as the change trajectories followed. It also makes it harder for people with management responsibilities to guide these changes by introducing an additional level in the complexity already inherent in these institutions.

Universities (French in particular) are characterised by a weak link between the components (old faculties), which are quite isolated from each other, and a relatively weak governance with an executive authority whose overall skills and its leadership skills are weak (Weick; Minzberg). Strengthening universities’ governance tools runs into this autonomy of professionals. Depending on the local contexts, this confrontation can lead to different organisation choices and therefore help drive the differentiation. As such we can see components, within the same institution created from a merger, filter quite differently the change and innovation systems one would like to impose on them, depending on the negotiation positions they occupy within the system and, for example, their scientific weight or the resources they generate.

These rapid changes, and the tensions and imbalances they create within ARIs, can render visible operations that are invisible in an “ordinary system.” In a way, institutions’ skeletons and their informal procedures can be laid bare when they are put to the test. Consequently, these university processes of concentrations and mergers can provide especially favourable grounds for studying the operation of organisations beyond a study of the change processes themselves.

A scientific understanding of the differentiation process underway in ARIs, in a global context that aspires to unify, appears essential so the parties concerned by the change processes can cope with and intervene on them.