Dissertation: Ethical agency in higher education and the challenges of structural development


In her doctoral study Hannele Keränen, MEc, examines the fusion of two Finnish universities of applied sciences through the viewpoint of ethical agency. The paper belongs to the field of management and organisation studies.

The author examines the way in which the personnel and management of the new organisation establish themselves as moral agents, such as diligent and hard-working experts or as managers who are able to make tough decisions. The researcher’s position as an expert in the middle management of the organisation opens up a unique perspective on the local effects of the structural development of universities. The study also takes on a new approach toward ethical questions that are usually left without closer inspection when organisations undergo changes.

Hannele Keränen’s longitudinal, autoethnographic study reveals that ethical agency is constructed through interaction and collisions with other agents. It is connected for example to the way in which various agents process autonomy and freedom into salient factors that guide their work. Meanwhile, however, the work of teaching personnel appears to be carefully planned and measured – and quite taxing.

“The study shows how adhering to practices that over-emphasise cylindrical organisation, management authority, management by results, and academic subject-based expertise leads to a situation where agents find it difficult to discern the objectives and purpose of strategic reformation,” notes Keränen.

The author adds that this relates above all to internal competition that is driven by an indicator-based financing model and tight contractual management. This competition prompts the university’s profit units to hold on to established practices. The study also shows how expertise and resource-efficiency leaning on the division of academic subjects are used for resisting the operations aimed at reforming the university.

The study openly points out the contradictions present in the structural development of universities and thereby illuminates Keränen’s conception of herself as an agent in the university establishment. The author notes that at first she upheld her own conception of herself as an expert of development by adhering to the traditional conception of universities.

“I point out that strong bodily experiences in various encounters, such as hands shaking in a meeting or an urgent need to end a discussion that rouses contradictory emotions, made me question myself and my actions,” Keränen notes.

The author also describes how she attempts to sort out contradictory emotions created by the strategic and operative objectives of the university by claiming the agency produced by strategic profiling.

Keränen’s research relates to the general discussion on performance management and strategic profiling at universities, which, according to the results, seem to engender collisions between various agents. The results can be applied to the examination of the contradictory objectives of universities’ basic functions, performance management, and strategic profiling through the construction of an individual’s agency. According to the research, it is important to bring out the contradictions present in the structural development of universities. It is the only way to enable university agents to jointly question the established ways of gaining a conception of oneself, other agents, and one’s own work community. This questioning should not be left solely to the management of universities and to the officials of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Fine-tuning the financing model and inventing new financing instruments to steer universities’ strategic profiling do not solve the problems bearing down on the development of the Finnish system of higher education.

Information on the public examination:

Hannele Keränen’s (M.Ec.) dissertation Discourse, Affect and the Ethics of Subjectivity is publically examined in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Lapland on Friday, 21 December 2018 at 12 noon. The event takes place in Lecture Room 2 on the main campus at Yliopistonkatu 8, Rovaniemi. The opponents are Professor Robyn Thomas from Cardiff Business School and Professor Janne Tienari from Hanken School of Economics. The custos is Senior University Lecturer Pikka-Maaria Laine, Adjunct Professor Pikka-Maaria Laine from the University of Lapland. Coffee and cake will be served in restaurant Felli after the event. Welcome!

Information on the doctoral candidate:

Hannele Keränen (born 1968 in Rovaniemi) graduated from Kolari High School and thereafter worked in Helsinki. She earned a master’s degree in economics at the Helsinki School of Economics in 1993 and has worked in various positions in the field of education since 1995.

Further information:

Hannele Keränen
Phone: 040 1601340

Information on the publication:

Hannele Keränen. Discourse, affect and the ethics of subjectivity. Acta Universitatis Lapponiensis 384. ISBN 978-952-337-117-0. ISSN 0788-7604. PDF: Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 251. ISBN 978-952-337-118-7. ISSN 1796-6310.

LaY/Communications & Language centre/J-EK & AT

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