Rapid, centralised decision-making in a higher education emergency

Brigid Freeman, Peodair Leihy, Ian Teo, Dong Kwang Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Purpose: This study aims to explain the primacy that rapid, centralised decision-making gained in higher education institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a particular focus on Australian universities. Design/methodology/approach: This paper draws on discussions regarding policy problems of an international, purpose-convened on-line policy network involving over 100 registrations from multiple countries. It analyses emerging institutional policy governance texts and documents shared between network participants, applies policy science literature regarding traditional institutional policy-making routines and rapid decision-making, and references media reportage from 2020. The paper traces how higher education institutions rapidly adjusted to pandemic conditions and largely on-line operations. Findings: The study finds that higher education institutions responded to the COVID-19 crisis by operationalising emergency management plans and introducing rapid, centralised decision-making to transition to remote modes of operation, learning and research under state-imposed emergency conditions. It highlights the need to ensure robust governance models recognising the ascendance of emergency decision-making and small-p policies in such circumstances, notwithstanding longstanding traditions of extended collegial policy-making routines for big-P (institutional) Policy. The pandemic highlighted practice and policy problems subject to rapid reform and forced institutions to clarify the relationship between emergency planning and decision-making, quality and institutional policy. Practical implications: In covering a range of institutional responses, the study advances the possibility of institutions planning better for unexpected, punctuated policy shifts during an emergency through the incorporation of rapid decision-making in traditionally collegial environments. At the same time, the paper cautions against the normalisation of such processes. The study also highlights key practices and policies that require urgent reconsideration in an emergency. The study is designed as a self-contained and freestanding narrative to inform responses to future emergencies by roundly addressing the particularities of the 2020 phase of the COVID-19 pandemic as it affected higher education. Originality/value: There is only limited research on policy-making in higher education institutions. This research offers an original contribution on institutional policy-making during a prolonged emergency that deeply changed higher education institution’s governance, operations and outlook. Particularly significant is the synthesis of experiences from a wide range of sector personnel, documenting punctuated policy shifts in policy governance (meta-policy), institutional policy-making routines and quality assurance actions under great pressure. This paper is substantially developed from a paper given at the Association for Tertiary Education Management Institutional Policy Seminar, 26th October 2020.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)393-407
Number of pages15
JournalQuality Assurance in Education
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 19 2021


  • COVID-19
  • Decision-making
  • Delegations
  • Education in emergencies
  • Higher education
  • Institutional policy
  • Policy-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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