Universities as strategic actors and the changing academic field

The dramatic growth of the higher education sector has transformed the way in which universities operate. It has urged them to accommodate increasing numbers of diversified students, to carry out different types of research activities to achieve academic excellence and impact, to strengthen services to their communities and legitimise themselves as economic, technological and innovation engines locally and regionally (Van Vught 2008; Toma 2012; Van Vught and Huisman 2013). Equally, universities have been required to diversify their funding streams to face stagnating or shrinking public resources and to act in a more integrated fashion in order to compete appropriately in the markets of their choice (Bonaccorsi 2009; Rossi 2009b; Paradeise and Thoenig 2018). Under the pressure to participate in the construction of the ‘knowledge society’ universities have also undergone several reforms aimed to make them more efficient, effective and sustainable (Krücken and Meier 2006; Bleiklie and Kogan 2007; Laudel and Weyer 2014; Seeber et al. 2015). These on-going transformations have been mostly considered external pressures endangering the university’s missions and autonomy. More recently though the scholarly debate has turned to how universities themselves are able to develop organisational capabilities allowing the selection of a course of action and the modification of the niche in which they are located (Fumasoli and Huisman 2013; Cruz-Castro et al. 2016; Paradeise and Thoenig 2016). University positioning has consequently become a central issue for higher education researchers, policy makers and institutional leadership (Marginson 2007; Klumpp et al. 2014; Marginson 2015; Shadymanova and Amsler 2018). In this paper, positioning is intended as the process through which higher education institutions locate themselves in specific resource niches within the higher education system (Fumasoli and Huisman 2013).

Against this backdrop, scholars of organisation and higher education have analysed the processes of strategic positioning–strategic planning and decision making, sense-making and sense-giving in strategic change and branding and identity construction (Pedersen and Dobbin 2006; Frølich et al. 2013; Mampaey et al. 2015; Stensaker 2015; Seeber et al. 2019; Paradeise and Thoenig 2018). Equally, outcomes of strategic positioning have been investigated to make sense of how universities locate themselves in the academic field according to their educational portfolio, research output, technology transfer and regional development (Bonaccorsi and Daraio 2008; Ljungberg et al. 2009; Vuori 2016; Seeber et al. 2019; Barbato and Turri 2019; Barbato et al. 2019).

However, while processes and output of university strategic positioning are being widely debated, their determinants have been essentially overlooked. Implicitly, some authors assume external pressures compelling universities to react in rather pre-defined ways (Van Vught 2008; Vaira 2009), while others posit room to manoeuvre of the university leadership in redefining missions, activities and markets to engage with (Martinez and Wolverton 2009). Empirical evidence suggests further scrutiny, as mixed results have given way to articulated explanations that reflect rather idiosyncratically the data at hand instead of providing more general explanations to such heterogeneous findings.

To shed light on the determinants of university positioning this paper, firstly, presents a literature review from a theoretical, analytical and methodological angle. Secondly, the paper points to the further development of a conceptual framework by integrating the organisational dimension (Selznick 1949; Clark 1983; Paradeise and Thoenig 2013; Fumasoli 2015) conceived as a meso-level intervening variable between the macro variable (the environment) and the micro variable (the management).

The paper is organised as follows: in the next part, the literature review on the determinants of university positioning highlights existing gaps in our knowledge. In the third part, we develop a conceptualisation of the organisational dimension for analysing the drivers of strategic positioning and we generate sets of relevant hypotheses. In the final section, we discuss how the conceptual contribution of this paper can foster new research into the changing higher education sector.

Literature review


In order to grasp the scholarly debate on the determinants of university positioning, a literature review has been carried out, based on different bibliographical databases, specifically, Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar. As we aimed at the broadest possible search, we have looked up several keywords, namely ‘Positioning’, ‘Institutional positioning’, ‘Strategic positioning’, ‘Market position’ and ‘Profiling’, in connection with ‘Higher Education’ or ‘University’, ‘Diversity’ or ‘Differentiation’. After having noticed that several publications referred to the marketing literature, the keywords ‘Marketing’, ‘Mission statements’ and ‘Branding’ have been included in the literature review to ensure the largest possible coverage of relevant themes. Since the object of analysis is the institutional positioning of universities, publications that investigate positioning at the level of either degree programmes or higher education systems are not included in this literature review.

In the first stage of the literature review we have focused on titles and keywords, and gathered almost 600 publications. In the second stage, we have looked at either their abstracts or full-texts in search for relevance to our research question, i.e. how can the determinants of university strategic positioning be understood. Following this selection, we have eventually considered 108 publications (Table 1). Articles published in scientific journals (88) have been found in journals on Higher Education (60), in Economics and Management (20), Sociology (2) and in Organisation studies (5). The remainder comprised 18 book chapters or books as well as 2 conference papers. Sixteen of the 108 publications are conceptual works, 31 empirical studies, whereas the remaining 61 are both conceptual and empirical. Moreover, 44 publications present a qualitative methodology, 40 a quantitative analysis, and 5 a mixed-methods approach. Finally, we observed that 60 works have been published after 2010, 41 between 2000 and 2010, while 7 before 2000. This underlines the recent increasing attention towards university positioning. For detailed information about the 106 publications of the literature review see Table 1 in the appendix.

Table 1 Classification of the publications of the literature review based on several characteristics


Our literature review shows that two theoretical frameworks are mostly used: the environmental determinism perspective and the managerial rationality approach. We outline hereafter the both perspectives and their contribution in explaining university positioning.

The environmental determinism perspective

Neo-institutional theory claims that university positioning is generated by the quest for legitimacy in order to comply with the external pressures of the surrounding environment (Van Vught 2008). Legitimacy is ‘more important than efficiency in sustaining organizational survival’ (Mampaey et al. 2015, p. 1181), thus making universities heavily influenced by the exogenous pressures of the organisational field since adaptation and compliance provide resources and ultimately survival (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).

Legitimacy can be described as ‘a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, within some socially constructed system of norms, values and beliefs […]’ (Suchman 1995, p. 574–575). The system of norms and values is expressed by the institutional environment of higher education systems (Brankovic 2014). Neo-institutional theory illustrates the isomorphic nature of institutional pressures, characterised in coercive (pressures from political power, i.e. government, evaluation agencies), mimetic (imitating the most successful organisations) and normative (norms of conducts and values from professionals) (DiMaggio and Powell 1983). Whereas compliance towards these isomorphic forces strengthens the societal legitimacy of universities, distinctiveness is perceived to be a consequence of irrational behaviour (Toma 2012).

Secondly, population ecology theory focuses on the influence of competitive environments downplaying agency for single organisations (Fumasoli and Huisman 2013). The initial assumption is that organisations, as organisms in nature, fundamentally rely on their ability to acquire resources necessary to thrive, such resources are given by the environment (Morgan 1986). When resources are scarce, organisations face competition that will select only those organisations able to obtain a resource niche and ultimately survive (Hannan and Freeman 1989). Hence, the nature, number and distribution of organisations in a given space is dependent on both resource availability and level of competition, making competitive environments the main critical factor in shaping the position of universities over time (Van Vught 2008; Lepori et al. 2014). This correspondence between environmental conditions and organisations’ trajectories is depicted by Hannan and Freeman with the term ‘structural isomorphism’ (1989, p. 62). The lower the diversity of environmental conditions are (i.e. availability of resources), the higher is the similarity of universities’ positioning, since each organisation will tend to position comparably in order to secure the scarce resources (Birnbaum 1983).

Despite the different characterisations of the environment, both neo-institutionalism and organisation ecology converge in contending that the increasing homogeneity of organisations is an outcome of deterministic processes (Morphew and Huisman 2002; Van Vught 2008; Morphew 2009).

Empirically, Maassen and Potman (1990), show how Dutch universities tend to display legitimacy-seeking behaviours when conditioned by coercive (from the government) and normative (from academic communities) pressures to enhance distinctiveness of their institutional profiles. Pietilä (2014) and Silander and Haake (2016) share similar results: they find that strategic profiling is used symbolically to comply with coercive and mimetic forces, in other words universities thrive through legitimacy without introducing any actual change in their core activities.

Brankovic (2014) demonstrates that private universities in Western Balkans emulate their public competitors (mimetic isomorphism) in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their fee-paying students. Rossi (2009b) presents similar findings: facing growing levels of competition, Italian universities do not differentiate their positions but strengthen their specialisations in more popular disciplines and meet the preferences of the student population.

Finally, mission statements and strategic plans provide empirical evidence confirming the university’s quest for legitimacy. Investigating UK universities, Davies and Glaister (1996) argue that the relevance of mission statements seems to be perceived in terms of meeting the demands of external stakeholders rather than offering the opportunity to develop shared aspirational goals within the institution. Hartley and Morphew (2008) and Wæraas and Solbakk (2009) similarly show that, despite some attempts to position themselves distinctively against their own competitors, universities systematically communicate widely accepted institutional values to gain legitimacy leading to a sort of ‘conformity trap’ (see also Mampaey 2018, p. 2). Finally, Pizarro Milian (2017) analyses the marketing practices of Canadian universities, illustrating how both teaching-oriented and research-intensive institutions seek to emulate the same institutional template as a result of mimetic and normative pressures. Hence, even under increasing competitive pressures, legitimacy still appears to be a crucial determinant in affecting significantly how universities characterise themselves (Sauntson and Morrish 2011).

This said, more recent strands of research (Quirke 2013) seem to question conformity as the only option available for organisations to obtain legitimacy, due to the multiple institutional logics and stakeholders at play within the academic field. Pizarro Milian and Quirke (2017), investigating promotional profiles of Canadian For-Profit Colleges, prove that these low-status institutions behave beyond the mere mimicking of traditional public research-oriented universities and draw on different discourses about their modernity, and the practical and employer-oriented nature of their degrees.

The managerial rationality perspective

A managerial rationality approach posits purposiveness and actions of the senior management as the main determinant of institutional positioning (Fumasoli 2018). According to the strategic management literature and other sociological approaches (Resource dependence theory; Resource-based view), the environment cannot be treated as a ‘set of intractable constraints’ (Astley and Van de Ven 1983, p. 249), but it can be altered according to the actions and goals of the top-management (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978; Porter 1985). Managerial rationality is thus characterised as a strategic process, comprising intents and actions at the same time (Fumasoli and Lepori 2011).

Institutional positioning as a strategic process assumes a twofold meaning (Mintzberg and Waters 1985; Mintzberg and Rose 2003). On the one hand, positioning can be described as the result of a deliberate intent and planning process of the management. On the other hand, it can also be characterised as ‘emergent’, in other words, a dynamic process resulting from the on-going relationship between the organisation and the opportunities and constraints available in the organisational environment (Ahmed et al. 2015; Fumasoli 2016, 2018). Institutional positioning becomes thus the result of deliberate and emergent management’s attempts to deal with the external competitive environment in order to create a competitive advantage for the organisation (Porter 1985; Martinez and Wolverton 2009; Toma 2012).

Differently from the environmental perspective, where universities mirror each other’s actions in search for legitimacy, the managerial rationality approach contends that universities’ ability to engage in competition and foster distinctiveness (or competitive advantage) drives organisational success. Competition derives from scarcity of resources and the need to acquire them (Deiaco et al. 2009), creating the essential premise for distinctive positioning (Cattaneo et al. 2018). Along this line Mahat and Goedegebuure (2016, p. 226) underline how the core dimension of positioning is ‘to understand and cope with competition’.

Concerning the outcomes of the positioning process, only the ability to differentiate themselves from competitors, through the creation of a unique and non-reproducible profile, allows universities to achieve competitive advantage (Mazzarol and Soutar 2008; Martinez and Wolverton 2009; Fumasoli and Huisman 2013). As described by Bonaccorsi and Daraio (2007) (see also other microeconomic research by Warning 2004, 2007; Olivares and Wetzel 2014), a unique position is built through inputs (mix of resources employed) and outputs (activities provided) and effective and efficient processes. The inherent assumption in this perspective entails the ability of senior management to design and implement the most suitable combination of input-process-output.

Studies on the outcome of positioning processes focus on measures of country-level differentiation over time (Bonaccorsi and Daraio 2008; Bonaccorsi 2009; Fahy et al. 2010; Ljungberg et al. 2009; Van Vught and Huisman 2013; Bonaccorsi 2014; Huisman et al. 2015) and aim to demonstrate how competition enhance systemic diversity (Bonaccorsi and Daraio 2007; Huisman et al. 2008; Tammi 2009; Rossi 2010; Teixeira et al. 2012). Several studies focus on internal processes, instruments and approaches adopted by the institutional leadership (Finley et al. 2001; Lowry and Owens 2001; Harrison-Walker 2009). These studies are based on the five forces model (Huisman and Pringle 2011; Mathooko and Ogutu 2015), the role of institutional research (Klemenčič 2016), the analysis of ranking indicators (Hou et al. 2012), the development of organisational capabilities (Lynch and Baines 2004; Bobe and Kober 2015) specific analytical techniques and management tools such as strategic group analysis (Wilkins 2019), growth-share matrix (Haezendonck et al. 2017) and operational models like that of the European Foundation for Quality Management (Mashhadi et al. 2008) or the ‘Model for Metropolitan Universities’(Brown et al. 1993). Finally, in the marketing literature, research focuses on the impact of students’ preferences (Bakewell and Gibson-Sweet 1998; Maringe 2006; Niculescu 2006; Mourad 2010; Dorozhkin et al. 2016; Kayombo and Carter 2017). Yet, in these papers, the determinants of positioning are mainly tacit while universities are assumed to be able to choose their course of action in a rational fashion.

A few studies highlight more explicitly the role of the management. Rossi (2009b) shows that, despite a highly institutionalised environment, some Italian universities were able to prioritise either research or teaching actives. Fumasoli and Lepori (2011) illustrate how the positioning patterns of three Swiss higher education institutions result to both deliberate and emergent strategies, even if with different degrees of success. Similar results can be found in Mahat (2015) regarding the distinctive positioning attempts of medical schools in Australia. Naudè and Ivy (1999) illustrate how ‘newer’ UK universities use marketing services to identify alternative niches and differentiate themselves vis-à-vis ‘traditional’ universities.

Jamieson and Naidoo (2007) outline how an English elite university, as a result of its strategic evaluation of external challenges, decides to position itself by broadening the portfolio of doctoral education. Lastly, a group of empirical studies analyse strategic plans (Brandt 2002; Strike and Labbe 2016; Morphew et al. 2018), mission statements (Hartley and Morphew 2006; Bevelander et al. 2015; Leiber 2016), branding activities (Opoku et al. 2008; Furey et al. 2014; Çatı et al. 2016; Rutter et al. 2017) and institutional images (Ivy 2001) in order to investigate how universities leverage on external constraints and opportunities eventually building unique profiles.

The variety of these studies illustrates the increasing scholarly interest on how competitive forces trigger strategic responses by university top management and their quest for positioning by differentiation.

Attempts at balancing conflicting hypotheses

Once we focus on the empirical findings, we find mixed evidence to support either hypotheses of environmental determinism or managerial rationality. On the one hand, several studies show distinctive strategic processes in highly institutionalised contexts (Bonaccorsi and Daraio 2007; Rossi 2009b; Mahat 2015), where convergence processes are expected (see also Kraatz and Zajac (1996)). On the other hand, emulative and compliant behaviours are observed in increasing competitive contexts (James and Huisman 2009; Silander and Haake 2016; Pizarro Milian 2017).

MacKay et al. (1996) find a weak and unclear relationship between increasing managerialism and distinctive responses of UK universities towards external competition, whereas Erhardt and von Kotzebue (2016) depict a low level of horizontal differentiation in German higher education in spite of a ten-year growing competition.

A number of scholars highlight that it cannot be taken for granted that competition increase systemic diversity since there are other factors that mediate this effect. For example Rossi (2009a, 2010) argues that students’ preferences for social sciences and humanities influenced over time subject mix choices of Italian universities, leading to an increase in the number of courses within these two faculties. Consequently, despite growing competition for students, a closer look at their demands reveals growing homogeneity of educational portfolios, as also illustrated by Shadymanova and Amsler (2018) in relation to the Kyrgyz higher education system. Similar results are presented by Teixeira et al. (2012, p. 350) who show that the effect of increasing competition on programme offer is mediated by ‘student demand and regulatory effectiveness’ and also varies significantly between public and private universities.

On the other hand, Lepori et al. (2014) find in their longitudinal study of Swiss higher education institutions that both convergence and differentiation forces co-exist at the same time (see also Hartley and Morphew 2006, 2008; Wilkins and Huisman 2019). Cattaneo et al. (2018) highlight how Italian universities balance imitation and differentiation depending on the different levels of local competition.

Our literature review also indicates how some empirical papers have addressed these mixed evidences. Drawing from the works of Oliver (1991) and Deephouse (1999), who use jointly strategic management, resource dependence and neo-institutional perspectives, positioning is conceptualised as a ‘balance’ between legitimacy and distinctiveness. Since higher education systems have become both more institutionalised and increasingly competitive, legitimacy and distinctiveness might indeed be crucial assets for universities.

Deephouse suggests that distinctive positioning can only be ‘as different as legitimately possible’ (1999c, p. 47). A university needs distinctiveness to secure resources, but it cannot ignore field norms, or it would lose the support of its main stakeholders (Mampaey et al. 2015) and in particular of its funders (Morphew et al. 2018).

This conceptualisation opens up for potential polymorphic results (Pedersen and Dobbin 2006; Paradeise and Thoenig 2013), given that despite similar institutional pressures, universities can display different responses (Oliver 1991; Greenwood and Suddaby 2006; Morphew et al. 2018).

By analysing strategic documents, several studies claimed that convergence and differentiation could be optimally balanced within universities, (Huisman et al. 2002; Kosmützky 2012; Fumasoli 2015; Mampaey 2018). Mampaey et al. (2015, p. 11), prove that Flemish universities were able to offset their ‘conformity to macro-level institutional values by communicating organization-specific meanings’ of these values, thus gaining both legitimacy and distinctiveness at the same time.

Kosmützky and Krücken (2015) contend that German universities balance similarity and distinctiveness by positioning themselves in different, but internally homogeneous ‘competitive groups’, which permit them to shield competition from universities with different profiles and push for competitiveness within the same group. Confirming these results, Seeber et al. (2019) argue further that this trade-off depends not only on the institutional proximity between UK higher education institutions, expressed by the affiliation to a specific mission group (Russell group, 1994, Million+, University Alliance, GuildHE), but also on the geographic proximity between them.

Bowl (2018), Jin and Horta (2018) and Huisman and Mampaey (2018) consider age and status of universities and illustrate how older and higher-status institutions prefer not to deviate from historically based institutional expectations, whereas younger and lower-status universities are more prone to unconventional positioning paths.

The organisational dimension

The literature review points to the unresolved relationship between determinants and outcomes of university positioning. Equally, it illustrates the limitations of the ‘balancing’ perspective that conflates environmental and managerial hypotheses, explaining a variety of patterns in positioning through case-specific combinations of environmental determinism and managerial rationality.

We believe that this ambiguous picture can be clarified by introducing an additional variable in the overarching conceptual framework, that is, the organisational dimension. Theoretically, we argue that the organisational variable is the missing link between determinants and outcomes of positioning and would therefore contribute to the further development of more accurate hypotheses.

The organisational dimension is not a new concept. Its relevance has been highlighted since the Old institutionalism. Famously Selznick (1949, p. 10) stated that an organisation, more than a tool in the hands of management, ‘has a life of its own’. Drawing on Selznick’s work, March (1962) characterises organisations as ‘political coalitions’, underlining that negotiation and bargaining between internal participants are the ordinary modus operandi within organisations. In doing so, March provides a more nuanced view of organisational dynamics in contrast with a limited focus on superordinate goals and missions of leadership and/or ownership. In other words, each organisational subunit holds its distinctive values and vision about themselves and the external environment in which they operate. In higher education research Selznick’s student Burton Clark has described universities’ main organisational characteristic as ‘bottom heaviness’ (Clark 1983), explaining that history, traditions, professional identities and disciplinary loyalties combine to produce complex and resilient organisations that exist quite separately and autonomously from their institutional leadership. More recently, Paradeise and Thoenig (2013) have used the concept of ‘local order’ to argue that universities should be treated as potential meso-level orders and action levels. In this way, ‘it is possible to break free from the all-pervasive global or one-size-fits-all standard’ (Paradeise and Thoenig 2013, p. 196).

We put forward that the organisational dimension acts as an intervening variable against the effects of both environmental pressures and managerial rationality. In doing so, our characterisation is twofold: firstly, the organisational dimension acts as a filter from exogenous pressures (A); secondly, it shapes opportunities and constraints for senior management to engage towards the environment (B).

Filtering environmental forces

The role of the organisational dimension as a ‘filter’ has been treated in different ways in the higher education literature. Clark (1983, p. 99), speaking about the identity that characterises each university, calls it a ‘switchman’ able to mediate external pressures according to a unique internal mix of cultural beliefs.

Paradeise and Thoenig (2013, p. 196), referring to ‘local orders’, suggest how a university ‘may incorporate the changes arising from the global standardisation process, while at the same time getting these to fit with all the organisational arrangements, cognitive processes and values that it uses for taking action and making decisions. Although specific standards of academic excellence have achieved global reach, Paradeise and Thoenig (2013) show how different cognitive and normative organisational patterns lead similar universities to conceptualise differently their vision of academic excellence and as a result, to undertake different positioning trajectories.

In a similar perspective, the theory of translation (Latour 1984; Sahlin and Wedlin 2008) also sheds light on the mechanisms at play within organisations. Against this backdrop, environmental pressures are translated internally through the perceptions of the main organisational actors, based on a common historically constructed identity, adjusting macro-level ideas to the local organisational settings (Czarniawska and Wolff 1998).

Put differently, universities reflect cognitive, cultural and normative attitudes that lend them ‘a variable sensitivity and responsiveness to changes taking place in the environments in which they operate’ (Paradeise and Thoenig 2013, p. 202). Consequently, even facing the same incentives and pressures, universities display different positioning patterns, according to how they interpret and internalise the expectations and demands of both their institutional and competitive environments.

  • Assumption 1: The organisational characteristics of a university mediate its understanding and interpretation of the pressures from the external environment.

Shaping the course of action

Each organisation is characterised by its distinctive history, power structure, routines and practices that emerge over time and become institutionalised (Selznick 1949; March and Olsen 1989). These organisational factors provide formal constraints and benchmarks according to which organisational members (including senior management and leadership) fulfil their own tasks and make sense of the external environment. Olsen and March (2006), called this frame of action ‘logic of appropriateness’. In their view, human action is driven by rules of appropriate behaviour that are shaped by organisational values and settings, and these ‘rules are followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected, and legitimate’ (Olsen and March 2006, p. 689). Hence, actors seek to perform their tasks ‘encapsulated in a role, an identity, a membership in a political community or group, and the ethos, practices, and expectations of its institutions’ (Olsen and March 2006, p. 689).

In accordance with this theoretical explanation, universities’ behaviour significantly involves established practices and shared cultural values, more than the rational calculation of consequences from the top management. For instance, several empirical studies highlight how concepts like ‘shared-governance’ and ‘academic involvement’ are core values and rule of action in universities, and therefore managerial rationality cannot be expressed in the way of a top-down and ‘close’ leadership either (Clark 1998; Stensaker and Vabø 2013; Laudel and Weyer 2014; Stensaker et al. 2014).

Consequently, conceiving the organisational dimension as a set of constraints and opportunities ultimately means to describe strategic positioning as an ‘organisational fabrication’(Paradeise and Thoenig 2016, p. 298), or as a socially constructed process, that is made sense of in the interaction between the environmental incentives and the internal organisational rules, frames of actions and cultural values.

In conclusion, a positioning trajectory cannot be intrinsically conceived as the mere will and action of an entrepreneurial leadership, given that organisational rules impact significantly both the direction, coherence and rationality of the positioning effort.

  • Assumption 2 The organisational characteristics of a university affects its management’s rationality to position the university in the external environment.

Operationalization of the organizational dimension

Having conceptualised the organisational dimension as the intervening variable mediating both environmental determinism and managerial rationality, we operationalise it along three components: organisational structure, identity and centrality. We draw on the existing literature in management and organisation studies as well as higher education studies and further develop the three components and their indicators. In doing so, we build a conceptual framework which, on the one hand, articulates organisational structure, identity and centrality, on the other hand, allows us to formulate hypotheses that may be used for empirical research on university positioning.

Organisational structure

The organisational structure can be investigated by looking at governance and task allocation, mission and the size of the university.

Governance can be defined as the set of processes through which decision-making is organised and coordinated within universities, whereas task allocation refers to how roles and duties are distributed throughout the organisation. Governance can be analysed through its degree of centralisation, formalisation, standardisation and flexibility (Maassen et al. 2017). Centralisation refers to the dispersion of authority to make decisions within universities, in other words where the locus of the decision-making is, and can be observed along the continuum centralised–diffused. The collegial and academic oriented decision-making that has traditionally shaped universities has been questioned by managerial reforms that aimed to organise hierarchically decision-making processes, increase the power of executives and leadership and ultimately enhance a stronger leadership (Bleiklie and Kogan 2007). Formalisation concerns ‘the degree according to which communication and procedures are written and filed’ (Maassen et al. 2017, p. 245), implying a continuum between legal requirements and spontaneous intents and actions. Similarly to centralisation, managerial reforms introduce higher level of formalisation through reporting duties, accountability requirements and stronger administrative offices that control and implement central decisions instead of supporting in a piecemeal way the individual initiatives of the academic community. Related to formalisation is the degree of standardisation, or the extent to which decision-making occurs according to rules that are applied invariably to all situations. Equally, roles definitions, requirements and rewards are depersonalised. Standardisation can be critical within knowledge-intensive organisations, where problems and practices have been historically handled ‘ad hoc’, based on the principles of self-governance, academic freedom and professional expertise. Lastly, governance can be studied through flexibility, or the ability to adapt rapidly to exogenous and endogenous challenges. On the one hand, centralisation, formalisation and standardisation might enhance the administrative capacity of universities to position themselves, reducing inertia and enhancing organisational actorhood. On the other hand, flexibility is also crucial, since it allows universities to rapidly adapt and respond to challenges, hence also modifying their positioning. Centralisation, formalisation, standardisation and flexibility, in some combination, are necessary conditions for strategic positioning. In other words, university organisational structures need to display a certain level of all of them at the same time.

The second sub-component, ‘mission’, refers to the functions as well as the disciplinary fields in which the university focuses its activities. University functions and disciplines are, at least to some extent, organised hierarchically, prioritising the importance of some (e.g. research and natural sciences) against others (e.g. teaching and humanities). While teaching and research historically shape the core activities of universities, growingly diversified demands from society, particularly economic sectors and labour markets, exert pressures on universities to change priorities between their activities, as well as suggesting a potential risk of ‘mission overload’ when it comes to knowledge exchange, technology transfer and community engagement. Quantitative scholars have developed a set of ‘positioning indicators’ and techniques on the orientation of universities towards these core functions as well as their relationships (Bonaccorsi and Daraio 2008).

Thirdly, size can be measured in terms of budget, students and academic staff, as well as in terms of scope of the subject mix, making a distinction, for instance, between generalist and specialist universities (Ljungberg et al. 2009; Huisman et al. 2015). The relation between organisational size and complexity affects university governance and decision-making processes, as well as the administrative capacity of universities to position themselves (Toma 2010; Fumasoli and Lepori 2011).

  • Proposition 1a: Centralisation, formalisation, standardisation and flexibility are necessary conditions for strategic positioning.

  • Proposition 1b: The broader the mission, the lesser effective the strategic positioning is.

  • Proposition 1c: The larger the organisational structure, the lesser centralised, formalised, standardised and flexible the governance is, accordingly the less effective its strategic positioning.

Organisational identity

Universities’ identity can be conceptualised as the result of different but complementary sources (Clark 1983): symbolic, cultural and social dimensions (Clark 1983; Stensaker 2015), in other words some unique beliefs and values shared by the internal members of the organisation (Gioia and Thomas 1996) that steer their commitment (Selznick 1957; Aldrich and Ruef 2006; Cruz-Castro et al. 2016).

First, identity is shaped within disciplines through different knowledge traditions, categories of thought, codes of conduct and admission requirements (Becher and Trowler 2001). In this sense, disciplinary identities constitute an element of fragmentation of universities’ identity (Clark 1983; Frølich et al. 2013). Nevertheless, recent ‘managerial reforms’ aimed to create and strengthen the organisational identity as a means of creating more ‘complete organisations’ (Kosmützky 2012). This could be further achieved internally, through collective processes of sense-making (Vuori 2015a, b), and externally, by defining a clear distinctive image through mission statements and branding activities (Paradeise and Thoenig 2013; Furey et al. 2014).

A second source of identity is the university culture (Clark 1983), defined as the membership and identification of internal members with their academic organisations (Aldrich and Ruef 2006). The bonding power of the university organisational identity is affected by several factors such as organisational scale, age, integration and struggle, as well as, importantly, by the competitiveness of the external environment, since such pressures tend to trigger claims of uniqueness and a sense of collective effort. The university culture might be said to be a source of institutional coherence, acting as a risk-reducing device (Fumasoli et al. 2015), supporting potentially both conservative and innovative positioning patterns.

Thirdly, the culture of the academic profession comprises core values such as professional autonomy (freedom of teaching and research) and collegial self-government. These are shared universally, at least across disciplines and universities and (to a certain degree) across national higher education systems. It can then be expected that the academic profession culture, while integrating university fragmented disciplinary affiliations, also pushes towards positioning by conformity. The academic professional culture, described as a normative isomorphic pressure by neo-institutional studies (Rhoades 1990; Silander and Haake 2016), intrinsically strives for homogeneity across universities and national higher education systems, even if recent managerial reforms have challenged its foundations based on collegiality and academic freedom.

Finally, part of the universities’ identity comes from specific traditions and historically based patterns of each national context (Ivy 2001). Beliefs concerning the complementary and/or substitute nexus between teaching and research, the access to tertiary education and employment of graduates are generally shared among universities of the same country, establishing commonalities that uniform the HE system. The national higher education system culture may suggest homogeneous positioning patterns within country borders. However, globalisation and internalisation phenomena, expressed also by global rankings, indicate the ‘nested’ nature of organisational fields, opening to potentially diversified and more complex positioning paths (Hüther and Krücken 2016).

Given these multiple sources of identity, it might be difficult to describe just one overall university identity, while different identities can be balanced within an overarching narrative (Wæraas and Solbakk 2009: Frølich et al. 2013; Morphew et al. 2018). Organisational identity can therefore be conceptualised as a multidimensional variable along a continuum between integration and fragmentation that impacts differently positioning outcomes.

  • Proposition 2a: The more integrated disciplinary, institutional, professional, national identities are, the more effective the strategic positioning.

  • Proposition 2b: The more disciplinary, institutional, professional, national identities are aligned among each other, the more effective the strategic positioning.

  • Proposition 2c: The older the university is, the more resilient the organisational identity, accordingly the less effective the strategic positioning.

Organisational centrality

Organisations are located in specific locations within the organisational field. Against this backdrop, strategic positioning is to be understood as the process of changing (or maintaining and strengthening) a university in the specific niche that is most beneficial in providing the necessary resources for survival and further growth and thriving. We conceptualise the organisational field as a multidimensional space of centres and peripheries that are linked to the availability of material and symbolic resources. This means that more central positions cater for more resources, but are characterised by more competition. More peripheral positions are scarcer in resources, but are less susceptible to competitive forces. Along this line, centrality is the measure of the location of a university along a continuum between centre and periphery. Equally, we consider centrality as encompassing geographical, political, economic and social aspects (Fumasoli 2015).

Geographical centrality indicates the location where a university operates in terms of being in a major city or in the countryside, in border regions or in mainland, in densely or scarcely populated areas (Kosmützky 2012; Mathooko and Ogutu 2015). The resources connected to geographical centrality are infrastructures—public transports and means of communication—large and diversified student bodies and workforce. Political centrality points to the extent to which universities are close to political institutions and public authorities—regulatory and funding bodies. In this way universities can engage with and influence policy processes that affect their possibilities to gather material (funding) and symbolic resources (reputation) (Fumasoli 2018). Economic centrality points to universities operating in economically developed areas—industry, business and technology—where they have access to a broader range of opportunities to initiate public-private partnerships, Research and Development activities, innovation, enterprise and knowledge transfer, as well as contract research, collaborations with employers.

Finally, social centrality characterises proximity to other universities and university-related actors (such as mission and interest groups). While social centrality, too, involves higher competition, it also provides with opportunities for cooperation with competitors (i.e. in a research consortium or a strategic partnership). More in general, universities can activate collaborative relations with other universities, such as undertaking joint teaching, project-based networks, from whose embeddedness universities gain resources, status and critical mass (Gaehtgens 2015; Vuori 2016; Brankovic 2018).

Geographical, political, economic and social centrality are correlated to some extent, hence, by way of illustration, a university in the capital city is more likely to access a wide range of resources such as infrastructures, public and corporate funding, students and staff, as well as status and reputation.

  • Proposition 3a: The more geographically, politically, economically and socially central the university is, the more access it enjoys over material and symbolic resources, accordingly the more effective its strategic positioning.

  • Proposition 3b: The more socially central the university is, the higher the level of competition affecting its strategic positioning.

  • Proposition 3c: The more socially central the university is, the more opportunities for cooperation with competitors and other actors affecting its strategic positioning.

Concluding remarks

The background of this paper is the increasing relevance of strategic positioning of universities, which has become a major topic in the scholarly debate about the current transformation of universities into organisational actors. We have argued that in order to understand better university strategic positioning, the determinants of university positioning need to be uncovered and accounted for.

Our comprehensive literature review has revealed that, although mostly implicitly, two conflicting hypotheses have been used in research so far: on the one hand, environmental determinism contends that university positioning is defined by external forces. On the other hand, managerial rationality posits that universities position themselves according to intentional design by the senior leadership. Attempts at balancing these two hypotheses have been made both in management studies (Oliver 1991; Deephouse 1999) and higher education research (Gornitzka 1999) in order to accommodate the resulting mixed empirical evidence. Equally, determinism and rationality have been partly conflated by arguing that it depends on the external conditions or on the level of analysis whether environmental pressures or managerial behaviour can be used to explain empirical findings.

To advance our theoretical understanding of university positioning, we have argued that the organisational dimension needs to be considered as a meso-level intervening variable affecting both environmental and managerial hypotheses. Hence, the organisational dimension filters environmental forces within the university, as well as shapes the course of action of the university in the environment. Subsequently, we have operationalised the organisational dimension into three components, organisational structure, identity and centrality, that can be systematically applied in future research. Hence, we have provided an overarching conceptual framework that not only accommodates both the environmental and the managerial hypotheses, but also allows for theory-driven analysis on strategic positioning. Such framework explains more coherently what appeared to be contradictory in previous studies. At the same time, we have elaborated on the mechanisms linking different micro-, meso- and macro-levels of analysis by distinguishing the forces at play in the environment, the voluntarist actions of university leadership, and the social structures of the universities themselves.

The three components of the organisational dimension—structure, identity, centrality—have been operationalised for measurement and have generated several expectations that can be tested in further research on university positioning. A promising avenue for empirical studies would be to observe how these three components correlate among each other, for instance, how does organisational structure affect organisational identity and, consequently, strategic positioning? Do universities with fragmented organisational identity position themselves more effectively in more central locations, or can they gather the necessary resources also located in the periphery?

The further examination of our propositions points to two fundamental issues: firstly, the capacity of university management to redesign the organisational dimension according to its strategic positioning objectives. Secondly, the impact of the organisational dimension in the shaping of aspirational strategies that are shared across the university.

Our analytical framework can be used with qualitative and quantitative methodologies, since its operationalisation allows for in-depth case studies where internal processes of decision making, sense making and change management can be focused. At the same time, it can be used in statistical analysis drawing on large datasets featuring standardised university characteristics where factor analysis and cluster analysis can be carried out.

Finally, the organisational dimension holds promise not only to analyse the positioning of universities but could be applied and adapted to organisations in other sectors.