Steered by Numbers: How Quantification Differentiates the Reform of a German University

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

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Steered by Numbers: How Quantification Differentiates the Reform of a German University

  • Michael Huber Department of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany

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Abstract:  Quantification theories assume that numbers govern and steer a policy field or an organisation. In order to steer successfully, however, the local interpretation of numbers takes centre stage as the meaning of numbers—and thus the way how actors respond to them—varies between systems or sectors. Empirically, this article reviews how a German university makes sense of political numbers and their implicit steering signals, and how quantification alters its organisational structures and reshapes the roles of academics. The article analyses the translation process distinguishing between three levels: the political discourse on university reform; the organisational adaptations; and the effects they have on the professional academic role. The article finds that the university has highly differentiated strategies to respond to the ‘governance by numbers,’ and that it has established independent number-based steering systems. We also find that such differentiation of programmes makes the university management more flexible, helping it deal with anticipated goal conflicts and unwanted allocative effects, but it also places serious strain on—and potentially overburns—the coordination provided by the university’s central administration. We also find that academics have started to align their behavioural strategies towards fulfilling their organisational goals and that they tend to deviate from professional expectations. Discussing these differentiated strategies, this article shows how the differentiation of governance approaches also contributes to the university becoming an ‘organisational actor.’ These preliminary findings suggest the need for and potential direction of further investigations.

Keywords:  organizational reform; quantification; university management; university studies



© Michael Huber. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.