Discursive arena about the role of higher education: what can we learn from mission statements?

In connection with higher education (HE), a large part of the academic discourse is concerned about changes and challenges in relation to globalization, third mission, and technological innovation or even to teaching methods.

All of these inquiries lead to a core question, namely, what is the (changing) role of HE institutions in society. One way of mapping the discourse about the role of HE is to analyse what higher education institutions say about it.

For this purpose, the HEIs’ texts on their missions seem to be suitable materials. However, the literature is divided about the importance and effect of mission statements.

Looking at the relevant literature, we can find long lists of purposes a mission statement could or should include. These are for example, the reason for existing, the commitment to a specific plan, or inspiring and motivating through a shared sense of purpose. However, most of the research dealing with the analysis of HEIs’ missions concluded that they are homogenous, too general or just mirror the policy documents. Therefore, they are not effective enough.

Nevertheless, mission statements have a normative function.

Even their simple existence legitimates the given organization since mission statements are one of the identifying elements of the organizational field. This legitimisation is there even if the content of the missions is not specific enough to reach all the before-mentioned purposes.

Moreover, there is one more important aspect:

mission statements have a discursive power as well.

They have discursive power at the organizational level by thematising certain aspects and leaving out others related to the given institution. Furthermore, they have a discursive power at a general level if we consider the pool of all mission statements of a given sector (for example, all HEIs in a country or one type of HEIs internationally) as one discourse. It can be scrutinized what is thematised in this discourse (and what is left out), what the general topics are, or whether we can cluster the institutions among their communicated missions. Furthermore, this discourse is especially informative about the communicated role of the HE institutions due to the genre of missions.

Therefore, even if the mission statements are not effective enough to move an institution to a given direction, they have the power to establish what is legitimate in this field.

That is, they define what are the relevant social roles and goals, what is general and what is special. The power lays in the identification along these features, through the isomorphism of institutions or against these characteristics, (that is by self-differentiation), which could be important in a competitive context.

That is why FHERC chose the analysis of missions as one of its flagship projects.

by Zsuzsanna Géring