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Higher education governance and performance based funding as an ecology of games


To address the problematic situation of higher education affordability, and literacy, President Obama has recently outlined a new strategy to make colleges more affordable for the middle class. While this strategy includes many components, “Paying for Performance” is a core components of this new strategy. In recent years, states have also focused on performance based policies to influence the behaviour of higher education institutions. However, most impact assessment studies have shown that such policies have had a limited effect on the performance of these institutions. Most explanations given for this failure have been on the basis of principal-agent theory, resource dependence theory and neo-institutionalism. All these analyses tend to view universities in isolation of their real world ecology. Drawing from the insights of ecology of games perspective, this paper explains the failure of performance based funding policies in terms of the inherent complexity of the higher education system. Policy design implications like flexibility, symbolic contextualization and decentralized financial governance for higher education governance are also discussed.

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  1. Emphasis in original article.

  2. Emphasis in original article.

  3. Measuring Up is a national report prepared by National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and includes report cards for each state in the following five areas of higher education: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, and benefits.

  4. For a detailed discussion of formal and informal constraints and their effect on institutions, see North (1990).

  5. Mark Lubell has refined this process further by borrowing from the literature on bounded rationality and selective attention from psychology and organizational studies. For further details, please see Lubell, M. (2013). Governing Institutional Complexity: The Ecology of Games Framework. Policy Studies Journal, 41(3), 537-559.

  6. Some of these are based on the analysis of Firestone (1989). Educational policy as an ecology of games. Educational Researcher, 18(7), 18-24.


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I would like to thank Yushim Kim, Ayesha Masood and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable insights and comments on the earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Muhammad Azfar Nisar.

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Nisar, M.A. Higher education governance and performance based funding as an ecology of games. High Educ 69, 289–302 (2015).

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  • Higher education
  • Governance
  • Ecology of games
  • Performance based funding