Chapter 4. Missions, profiles and resource use in HEIs

Portugal has a diverse system of higher education with a mix of public and private institutions, and university and polytechnic institutions. The legal framework of higher education has been re-oriented with the aim of providing wider scope for institutional autonomy and innovation, while reserving a steering role for the government. In practice, however, the nation’s public higher education institutions have overlapping and weakly differentiated missions that are insufficiently aligned to national and regional needs. Institutional autonomy and responsibility have expanded, but legal provisions governing public sector employment, public procurement and financial management limit the ability of institutions to plan and manage their operations efficiently and effectively. Key instruments of government steering most especially institutional funding do not encourage higher education institutions to identify and pursue their distinctive strengths, leading to duplication of effort and missed opportunities for collaboration. This chapter examines these challenges, and presents policy options to address them.


4.1. Introduction

Universities, polytechnics and publicly supported research centres form the backbone of the national and regional higher education, research and innovation systems in Portugal. These institutions play an especially important role in research and innovation, not only in equipping people with high-level skills and performing fundamental research, but also in creating, sharing and exploiting knowledge of direct benefit to the wider economy and society around them.

The work of staff and students in higher education and research institutions – and the quality and impact of this work – both influence and are conditioned by the institutional environment in which it takes place. In sectors like higher education and research, which are highly regulated and dependent on public funding, institutional environments and the way institutions function are strongly influenced by external legal, regulatory and financial conditions that ultimately emanate from government policy, as well as internal factors lying within the control of institutional leadership.

Three of the most fundamental external conditions affecting how individual institutions define their purpose and implement their activities are:

  1. 1. The missions assigned to different types of higher education institutions by relevant legislation and public policy. This sets the basic parameters of what institutions are authorised, forbidden, and expected to do, and underpins more detailed specifications of goals, profiles and responsibilities within individual institutions. In some OECD countries, the missions of higher education institutions are not legally differentiated. In other countries, including Portugal, the distinct roles of different types of higher education institutions are prescribed by law. Legally-established differentiation of missions is based on the assumption that the many and varied missions of higher education – ranging from lifelong learning and regional engagement to theoretically-driven research – cannot be performed well if every higher education institution attempts to perform each mission. Instead, a differentiation of institutions by mission will best permit each task to be performed to a high level.

  2. 2. The degree of autonomy or discretion that government, regulatory authorities and relevant rules leave institutions and staff in the design and implementation of their activities (in learning and teaching, research or engagement with the wider world, for example). In recent decades, governments across the OECD have tended to grant public higher education institutions increased operational and financial autonomy in matters such as institutional strategy, infrastructure and staffing. With a view to augmenting the capacity of higher education institutional leaders to plan and prioritise the activities of institutions, public authorities, including those in Portugal, have also supported the consolidation of internal bodies – faculties, schools, or “organic units” – or a reduction in the scope of authority that these bodies exercise. In contrast to these developments, the implementation of external quality assurance systems in teaching and research has, in many cases, created new forms of external control and accountability.

  3. 3. The level and type of funding available to institutions to pay staff, provide buildings and equipment, and implement their activities. In Portugal, as in most OECD countries, a majority of higher education and research institutions are highly dependent on public funds, meaning that the level of government resources available and the mechanisms through which these resources are distributed in the system have a significant impact on institutional activities and behaviour. Fees paid by students, although nominally a form of private funding, are strongly influenced by government policy and regulation, in Portugal, as elsewhere in the OECD.

Within the framework of these external conditions, the operating environment in individual higher education and research institutions also depends on a range of internal factors, specific to the institution in question. Crucial among these are the specific profile and development strategy adopted and pursued by the institution, the quality of institutional leadership and management capacity.

Governments in many OECD countries have taken steps to encourage higher education and research institutions to focus on and profile themselves in areas of activity where they are strong – or have clear potential to be strong – and to differentiate themselves from other institutions with like missions in the system. Common objectives include ensuring adequate diversity in the types of education provided, allowing institutions to respond effectively to the distinctive needs of their localities and regions, avoiding unnecessary duplication in teaching and research to increase efficient use of resources (particularly in comparatively small systems), or encouraging concentration of activities to create internationally competitive centres of excellence.

In evaluating Portugal’s policy framework for higher education and research institutions we focus on the capacity of organisations and individuals to differentiate their teaching, research and innovation-related profiles to respond to the needs of community, regional, or global knowledge partners. Further, we focus on legal, regulatory, and funding frameworks within which organisations and businesses operate, examining whether they permit them to work with agility, and permit individuals and organisations to adapt their activities to changing circumstances

In light of these considerations, this chapter examines two main questions in relation to the situation in Portugal:

  1. 1. Do the legal, regulatory and financial frameworks in which higher education institutions operate create conditions (notably, clarity of missions, adequate institutional autonomy, adequate resourcing and incentives for good performance and accountability) that allow them to define differentiated profiles, and work effectively to achieve their goals? Do these frameworks provide institutions with incentives to engage with external partners at regional, national or international level, in ways that are aligned to their mission and profile?

  2. 2. To what extent have higher education institutions organisations defined relevant profiles and development strategies in practice and to what extent do they have the leadership and management capacity to implement these strategies?

This chapter focuses on higher education institutions. In analysing their performance we examine the relationship of higher education institutions to publicly supported research organisations: R&D units and associated laboratories that either function inside higher education institutions, or operate in parallel with them, hosting leaders on their boards, and university instructors in their research proposals and projects. Specifically, we focus on the implications of separate and largely autonomous research organisations for higher education institutions.

State labs are not examined here: they currently play a small role with the nation’s public research system, they operate outside of the guidance or supervision of Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education (Ministério de Ciência, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior) (MCTES), and they are rarely critical collaborators in research carried out by higher education instructors and institutions.

4.2. Context

4.2.1. Higher education institutions and their missions

The 2007 Legal Regime for Higher Education Institutions (Regime Jurídico das Instituições de Ensino Superior) (RJIES) defines the missions and the scope of autonomy enjoyed by higher education institutions in Portugal. Within the binary system of HEIs, polytechnics are distinguished in the legal framework by their focus on professionally oriented studies and targeted research (investigação orientada) and the fact they are only entitled to award bachelor and Master’s degrees, but not doctorates, which can only be awarded by universities. The legal framework recognises the inter-dependency of education, research and innovation in the wider economy, as well as the broader cultural role of higher education, assigning the same basic roles to all higher education institutions, within the limits of the vocation of each sub-system (DRE, 2007). As the Portugal Country Background Report notes:

“Portugal has a higher education [system] “with two pillars, one organised by areas of conceptual knowledge (universities) and the other driven by professional knowledge (polytechnics). Both pillars are equal in importance for policy and the Government refuses to consider any one of them higher than the other. Although equal in importance, they have different public missions and should not converge in only one of the models. Differences between both pillars should be based on their different missions and their capacity to answer different societal needs.” (MCTES, 2017)

Notwithstanding these binary principles, Portugal has seven public universities that contain polytechnic programmes, most notably the University of Algarve, in which just over one-half of students (51%) are enrolled in polytechnic programmes (MCTES, 2017). Polytechnic programmes and their university hosts do not function as single entities in which students, instructors, or courses are shared. Rather, only basic business operations – such as IT, accounting services, and physical infrastructure – appear to be shared or co-ordinated across the binary divide.

While all 14 public universities are endowed with the legal authorisation to award doctoral degrees, in practice the training of doctoral students is concentrated in a small number of research-intensive public universities located in the nation’s two principal metropolitan areas. The three public universities located in Porto and Lisbon together account for half of all doctoral training. Six public universities account for about eight in ten doctoral graduates, while the nation’s remaining eight public universities account for fewer than ten percent (9.68%) of doctoral degrees awarded – ranging in absolute numbers from 62 doctoral awards per year at Beira Interior to seven per year at Madeira (Table 4.1).

4.2.2. Regulation of study places and programmes

For both universities and polytechnics, there is a strong regulatory process rooted in the use of enrolment capacity planning and the setting of numerus clausus admission ceilings for all first cycle programmes that was first introduced following the 1974 Revolution and the massification of Portuguese higher education (Fonseca et. al., 2014). Its principal purpose today is not to balance aggregate demands and supply of study places. Rather, it aims to manage the regional balance between the demand for and supply of study places. The Agency for Assessment and Accreditation of Higher Education (Agência de Avaliação e Acreditação do Ensino Superior, A3ES) sets enrolment capacity limits for all higher education institutions, public and private, based upon teaching inputs (instructors and physical infrastructure), for all three cycle of higher education (bachelor, master, doctoral).

For first cycle (and integrated master) programmes in public higher education institutions these limits are reviewed and (possibly) modified by MCTES, and set forth in a notice, the despacho orientador.

The number of study places available to all higher education institutions for students admitted outside the General Access Stream, i.e. through special access competitions (principally international students and those over 23 years of age) is also set by government, as a ratio of the institution’s national competition to special access study places.

This regulatory process has permitted the Ministry to plan capacity contraction in response to demographic decline and to include a regional dimension to the management of the higher education system by protecting, to the extent possible, student enrolments at universities and polytechnics in the interior and on the islands. The numbers of students at these 13 public institutions (almost half of the public institutions) have declined by an average of 6.5% between 2005 and 2016 (DGEEC, 2017b; 2011). As the government currently funds higher education institutions on a historical basis, rather than through a formula based on enrolments and graduations (see below), interior institutions have been protected from the full potential financial impact of declining student numbers.

Portugal has established an exclusive legal basis for the location of some programmes in polytechnic institutions, most notably nursing and accountancy. However, Portugal does not manage or support its binary divide through the articulation of general guidelines promulgated by the MCTES about the sectoral appropriateness of new bachelor and integrated masters’ programmes. The Ministry does not have a process of review and approval of new programmes in public higher education institutions with a view of their alignment to institutional profiles and missions. However, the Ministry does appear to consider sectoral appropriateness when annually allocating additional study places (vagas) to public higher education institutions.

4.2.3. Quality assurance

A3ES – Portugal’s independent quality assurance agency for higher education – began its activities in 2009, establishing criteria and procedures for accreditation of new study programmes and launching its first cycle of reviews of programmes already in operation (completed in 2016). These processes have led to a significant reduction in the number of study programmes being offered in the higher education system, notably in the private sector. Most stakeholders consulted in Portugal agree that the implementation of the external quality assurance process has been successful in eliminating low quality programmes and the work of the A3ES is highly regarded in Portugal. Recognising that the current programme-level accreditation process is both administratively burdensome and intrudes on institutional autonomy, A3ES plans to move to a system of self-accreditation of programmes at institutional level, accompanied by periodic institutional reviews (A3ES, 2017). Under this arrangement the accreditation of new programmes will remain, but the process to accredit them will be differentiated across institutions depending on the results of institutional reviews. Where institutional reviews provide evidence that higher education institutions have strong internal quality assurance processes, will become self-accrediting with respect to programmes, rather than subject to A3ES programme-level review.

4.2.4. Institutional autonomy

In 2007, the OECD Review of Higher Education in Portugal offered governance recommendations which were largely accepted by the Portuguese government and incorporated into the new legal regime for Portuguese higher education institutions (“RJIES”, approved by Law 62/2007). The high-level objectives and recommendations of the proposed governance reform were as follows:

“… [G]overnment must disengage from the detailed control of the system and must give the institutions greater freedom to regulate themselves and to innovate. The guiding principle should be to provide greater scope for autonomy and innovation at the institutional level while reserving the steering role for the government. … Portugal is ready to move towards greater differentiation of governance, with the national government more squarely focused on policy, and institutions given wide latitude for accomplishing public priorities consistent with their missions. This significant increase in institutional autonomy should be introduced differentially and progressively, depending on the capacities (including capacities for internal governance and management reform) of the institutions and the extent of their challenges. … [N]ew legislation should establish institutions as self-governing foundations. Still supported financially by government, they would operate within the private sector. They would have managerial freedom and finances separately accounted for outside the state system. The civil service designation would be removed from all employees of the higher education institutions. The institutions must satisfy government that they are prepared to accept this freedom and that they are willing to confront the difficult leadership and managerial decisions that are an inherent part of such an arrangement.” (OECD, 2007)

RJIES established the organisational principles of the higher education system, enhanced the autonomy and accountability of institutions, introduced new or revised governance structures with significantly increased external participation (minimum 30%) on the 15-35 person General Council (the highest decision making body), provided for greater diversity of the organisational form and legal status of public institutions (namely the option of public universities and polytechnics becoming public foundations governed by private law), and made provision for the establishment of consortia of institutions.

RJIES also changed the procedures for the appointment of University Rectors and Polytechnic Presidents: they are elected in a secret ballot for a four-year term (renewable once) by the General Council (which is chaired by an external member) following a public call and public hearings. The position is open to candidates from outside of the institution: in the case of Rectors, academics from other universities (in or outside Portugal) and in the case of Presidents also suitable candidates from outside of higher education.

RJIES aimed to move the higher education system from elected to selected leadership; to simplify internal governance in terms of levels and structures; to reduce the size of key governance bodies; to increase the participation of external stakeholders significantly; to enhance institutional autonomy; to place universities and polytechnics within the same overall regime; and, potentially crucially, provide the opportunity for universities and polytechnics to apply to become public foundations governed by private law – a move that would significantly expand their flexibility in human resource management, the spending of non-public resources, and the disposal of assets.

The RJIES (article 129, nº2) introduced the possibility for public higher education institutions1 to become public foundations under private law. The objective was to give HEIs greater operational autonomy, particularly in the areas of financial management and staffing, by allowing them to make use of the greater flexibility afforded by the employment, accounting and procurement legislation applicable to the private sector in Portugal. Foundation status is awarded by decision of the Council of Ministers on the recommendation of MCTES (DRE, 2007).

The law required only that institutions seeking foundation status report on the potential implications of foundation status for the organisation, management, financing and autonomy of the institution, and describe the advantages of adopting this model for the pursuit of the institution's objectives. However, at the request of the Finance Ministry, institutions have also been obligated to demonstrate financial sustainability and sound financial management, which they do by providing three years of consolidated financial statements demonstrating that approximately half of revenues come from their own financial resources (Barrios, 2013). By the start of 2018 five out of 15 public research universities and university institutes2 had adopted foundation status. No public polytechnics had yet adopted foundation status.

4.2.5. Funding public higher education institutions

Public funding for the core operations of public higher education institutions in OECD member countries – excluding competitive funding for research – is delivered, in varying combinations, though three main pillars: basic funding, performance-oriented funding, and profile-oriented funding. Basic funding is often delivered on an input basis, whether through an enrolment-based formula or student voucher, though sometimes on an historical basis. Performance funding is typically delivered through output or performance-oriented formulas, while profile-oriented funding is usually provided through performance agreements or contracts, competitive funds, or excellence schemes. The first of these pillars typically provides 75-90% of institutional funding, while the latter two often comprise somewhere between 5-20% and 1-10% of institutional funding, respectively (Ziegle, 2017).

In OECD countries implementing multi-year funding, funds are typically provided to higher education institutions through a contract signed by the ministry responsible for higher education and by public higher education institutions, and approved by the Ministry of Finance and the Parliament. The contracts contain funding commitments from government and the reciprocal public obligations of higher education institutions, and are accepted as a framework for yearly budgets.3

Core institutional funding for public HEIs in Portugal in support of education and infrastructure is delivered through one pillar: basic funding allocated on an historical basis. In 2006 a complex formula-based institutional funding model was proposed by MCTES and the Finance Ministry, in which institutional subsidies were to be based principally based on enrolments by field of study, though the model was supplemented by other non-enrolment parameters, such as a graduation efficiency rate (Portaria no. 231/2006). The model has not been updated since its introduction. Instead, institutional subsidies have been made upon that original funding base, with annual incremental modifications that are not formula-based. The institutional subsidy delivered to public higher education institutions comprises approximately one-half of total income obtained by all public higher education and publicly funded research institutions (principally associated laboratories), with the balance of funding coming principally from tuition fees and competitive research grants (Table 4.1).

Table 4.1. Total income of public higher education and publicly-funded research institutions, 2011-2016
In million Euros








1. Direct Public funding to HEIs: Operating budget, including infrastructures







2. Direct Public funding to HEIs: social support services







3. Competitive public and private funding for R&D (includes national and EU funds)







3.1. Competitive funding from the Portuguese S&T Foundation (FCT) to HEIs







3.2. Other competitive funding from the Portuguese S&T Foundation (FCT) to higher education and scientific systems (includes grants, fellowships, infrastructures, international co-operation)







3.3. EU competitive structural funding (ERDF/ESF: NSRP 2007/2013(QREN); ESIF 2014/2020 (PT2020)







3.4. Direct EC competitive funding (includes FP7, Horizon 2020)







3.5. Other sources of funding (services providers: industry; environment; health; studies and consultancy, rentals)







4. Public funding for HEIs and all research institutions (1+2+3)







5. Other funding (private funding)







5.1. Funding associated with support services (includes meals, accommodations)







5.2. Student tuition fees paid to public institutions (2)







6. Total income of public higher education institutions and all research institutions (4+5)







7. Government funding for direct social support to students (student fellowships) (1)







8. Total income of public higher education institutions and all research institutions + government funding for direct support to students







% (8) / GDP







Notes: 2016 figures are provisional; 1. includes students at public and private higher education institutions; 2. includes 1st cycle, 2nd cycle and PhDs


Research funding for higher education institutions and publicly funded research institutions is obtained from national funding sources, international funding sources, and from firms. Core institutional funding for public higher education institutions in Portugal does not contain direct and explicit funding in support of research. However, the annual operating grant to higher education institutions provided through the core institutional funding model includes an implicit subsidy for research as it funds facilities in which research may be conducted. Further, core funding pays for the time of instructional staff, part of which is expected to be committed to research. MCTES does not provide dedicated institutional funding in support of research to higher education institutions; however, it did provide institutional subsidies to Associated Laboratories from their inception (in 2000) until 2013.

National research funding obtained by higher education institutions and publicly-funded research institutions is awarded principally by FCT, which employs competitive processes and criteria of scientific merit to award funding for research and development (R&D) centres and individual research projects. R&D Centre funding is allocated through multi-year block funding allocated directly to research groups based within higher education institutions and associated laboratories – rather than allocated to the core budget of higher education institutions. Approximately 21% of research income obtained by higher education institutions and public research organisations is provided by R&D Centre funding. An additional 30% of research income reported by universities and publicly funded research organisations is provided by FCT funding of research projects. In total, about one-half of research revenue for higher education and publicly-funded research organisations is obtained from the FCT (Figure 4.1).

About 17% of reported research income is directly provided by EU funds, by the Commission on a project basis, most recently through Horizon 2020 (17%). EU structural funds also complement national funds in other research funding categories, such as “other national projects (18%), “FCT-funded projects” (30%) and “FCT R&D centres” (21%). Industry funding comprises a more modest 10% of research income reported by higher education and publicly-funded research institutions, and is obtained principally from national industry projects.

As Table 4.1 indicates, public higher education institutions raise revenues from private sources, including tuition fees paid by students (which comprise about 15% of institutional income); from rental and consultancy income; from services sold to firms; and other ancillary sources of income.

Private higher education institutions in Portugal are teaching-oriented and tuition dependent. They rely principally on income obtained from tuition fees, other sources of private income, and, infrequently, income obtained from competitive research funding. The research profile of the private sector in Portugal is modest. In total private institutions awarded 5.7% of doctoral degrees in 2015/16, and hosted 11% of the nation’s 307 R&D Centres, only two of which are in STEM fields. Of the 28 associated laboratories in Portugal, only one is hosted exclusively by a private higher education institution: the Centre of Biotechnology and Fine Chemistry at the Catholic University of Portugal.

Figure 4.1. Research income for higher education institutions and publicly-funded research institutions, by source

Note: Self-reported research income received by higher education institutions and institutional consortia, fiscal years 2008-2012. “Other national projects” refers to EU structural funds as well as other public/non-profit funding sources (e.g. other government departments). “FCT-funded projects” and “FCT R&D centres” may also include structural funds that complement national funds.

Source: Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (n.a, unpublished), Research income sources of FCT-funded organisations, 2008-2012, data provided by FCT, Lisbon

4.2.6. Higher education system-level governance and steering

Portugal’s Co-ordinating Council for Higher Education (CCHE), established in 2016, is an advisory body for higher education, rather than a body that is authorised to set plans for the nation’s higher education system or engage in system steering through oversight or use of budgeting and regulatory policy instruments. Comprised of stakeholders from each sector of the Portuguese higher education system and augmented by (international) higher education experts, the body has neither a staff nor dedicated budget, and has a legal mandate to examine issues submitted to it by government, and give advice on questions of public higher education institution closure, merger or federation, or situations of “serious institutional crisis.”

4.3. Assessment

Policy issue 4.1. Portugal’s balance of higher education institutional missions is not fully aligned to its national and regional needs

Higher education systems that have a network of higher education institutions with strategically differentiated missions are best able to meet a wide range of national needs, including diversified educational provision, high quality research activity, and regional engagement (OECD, 2007b).

Portugal’s modern higher education system was planned to have a clear binary line, organized by areas of conceptual knowledge (universities) and professional knowledge (polytechnics). However, in the decades since the inception of its binary system the missions of Portugal’s higher education institutions have become overlapping, and less productively differentiated than is possible.

There is a tendency for institutions in Portugal to attempt to offer a wide range of disciplines, rather than specialising. Many institutions also aim to offer instruction across a range of study levels, rather than concentrating on one part of the study cycle. This is driven, in part, by pressure to maximise enrolment and the fee income that comes with each enrolled student, and by a desire on the part of institutions to shape and enhance their reputation. And it is made possible by the limited use of ministerial steering to maintain and shape the nation’s binary divide, either through its funding methodologies for the core operations of higher education institutions or their research activities, or the review and approval of new programmes with regard to their sectoral appropriateness.

Research universities offer programmes that, in light of their professional orientation, one might expect to be provided exclusively in the polytechnic sector. For example, the Universities of Coimbra, Évora, Lisbon, Porto,Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), among others, all offer first and/or second-cycle programmes in the field of tourism and leisure.4 A recent study estimates that 25% of first degree programmes are offered by institutions in both sectors (FFMS, 2017).

At the time of the review the nation’s higher education system contained some polytechnics institutions that were eager to offer doctoral degrees, but unwilling to offer short-cycle, professionally-oriented higher professional education (Cursos Técnicos Superiores Profissionais, CTeSP) qualifications, fearing these would interfere with their desired profile as research-oriented institutions suited to university status. Conversely, some universities with flagging enrolments and a more strongly practice-oriented profile were keen to offer short-cycle vocationally oriented CTeSP qualifications. However, the Ministry has not permitted this, reserving CTeSP programmes solely for polytechnic institutions, and by this means policing the boundaries of its binary system.

An issue raised by the review team in visits to polytechnic institutes and schools is whether the accreditation criteria used by A3ES are sufficiently differentiated to cater for both university and polytechnic programmes. Most respondents in the polytechnic sector expressed the view that the criteria are too university/academically orientated. The Agency’s response was that the sectoral location of the programme is considered in the evaluation, which in the case of polytechnic programmes, means recognising that practice-oriented teaching and high levels of professional activity with industry partners are an essential part of the polytechnic mission. An institution’s capacity in these areas is however more complicated to assess than traditional research performance where there are accepted bibliometric indicators. This is an issue on which the Agency is currently working.

One important initiative by the Ministry is helping to renew and update the binary divide. In 2015, MCTES established the Programme for the Modernisation and Valorisation of the Polytechnic Sector (Programa de Modernização e Valorização dos Institutos Politécnicos), which aims to improve the public perception of the sector and to modernise the model of polytechnic higher education and applied research using the most advanced and successful experiences in Europe and the United States. The programme has a budget of EUR 65 million for its two major components: EUR 48 million has been allocated to cover the operational and equipment costs of the Higher CTeSP and EUR 17.5 million to fund the first FCT call for financial support of practice-based R&D activities in consortia of polytechnics, launched in May 2016.

The programme’s focus on the development of modern methods of career-orientated teaching and learning is being driven through linkages, study tours and joint programmes with European and United States systems with strong university of applied science or college sectors. Visits of polytechnic leaders to Finland and Switzerland took place in 2016 and missions to the Netherlands and Ireland took place in 2017. A call for joint programmes between Portuguese polytechnics and their equivalents in these countries was launched in 2017. One of the major points of attention is the participation of polytechnic students in all years of study in practice-based R&D projects. The programme has also organised a series of workshops on practice-based R&D and a Forum Polytechnic, which presents the experience and competence of polytechnics to develop solutions in particular professional fields to companies and other social actors.

Table 4.2. Public Polytechnic academic staff holding PhDs in 2005/6 and 2015-16, and participating in FCT R&D units in 2015/16

Percent of academic staff with PhD

Percent of academic staff part of FCT R&D units




Total public polytechnics




Total public universities




Total public sector




Total private polytechnics




Total private universities




Total private sector








Source: DGEEC (2016), Perfil do Docente do Ensino Superior – 2015/16. DGEEC (2012), Docentes do Ensino Superior [2001/2002 a 2011/2012, DGEEC (2017a?), Docentes Do Ensino Superior Integrados Em Unidades De I&D Financiadas Pela FCT.

Over the past decade, there has been a striking increase in the number of polytechnic academic staff that hold PhD degrees and who participate in FCT R&D units (Table 4.2). The former trend is directly related to a 2009 policy decision that a PhD should be a requirement for a polytechnic academic career (docentes de carreira) and the introduction of programmes enabling existing staff to obtain this qualification. The increasing number of PhD holders has led to an increasing number of polytechnic academic staff interested in participating in an FCT R&D unit, and who are qualified to do so.

Many in the polytechnic sector aim to increase their focus on research, and wish to obtain the right to award doctoral degrees. While universities tend to defend their exclusive right to award PhDs, representatives of polytechnics tend to see PhD-awarding powers as a necessary step to allow them to fully fulfil their roles in applied research, as broadly comparable institutions – such as Institutes of Technology in Ireland and University Colleges in Norway – do elsewhere in Europe.

The review team posed three questions relating to the possible provision of doctoral programmes by the polytechnic sector. First, is there an economic and social rationale for the targeted extension of this degree awarding authority – would it contribute to Portugal’s strategy of higher education and research stimulating high skill employment and productivity growth? Second, is there the capacity on the part of some polytechnic institutions, schools, or programmes to offer doctoral education at suitable level of quality, and for its graduates to find employment using their skills? Third, should polytechnics be permitted to offer “traditional” research-based PhD programmes given that these clearly fall outside of their core mission as currently understood?

The impact of polytechnic doctoral programmes and applied research on regional economic and social well-being is not well documented in peer-reviewed research. However, in dozens of meetings held across the country by the review team, representatives of firms – almost invariably from small or micro enterprises – consistently stressed the beneficial impact that applied research had for their enterprises. They noted that their collaboration with researchers based in polytechnics permitted them to improve production processes, and to develop new products – often in traditional industries such as food products, textiles, and ceramics – of higher value and profitability.

The capacity to offer doctoral education at a suitable level of quality appears not to follow precisely the legal structure of a “two pillar” system of universities and polytechnics. While Portugal has many outstanding researchers in its universities, many of the nation’s 14 public universities have, a modest research profile, and award few doctoral degrees in a limited number of fields. Conversely, some programmes or schools within polytechnics have significant research programmes.

Some polytechnic schools and programmes visited by the review team appear to already have sufficient human and physical resources to provide doctoral training. They currently provide doctoral training through partnerships with Spanish Universities or host PhD students from Portuguese universities in their laboratories and research groups. One example of the latter form of engagement in PhD training that the review team encountered in its visits is the Centro de Investigação de Montanha (Mountain Research Centre) of the School of Agriculture at the Polytechnic of Bragança. The Centre collaborates with more than 70 PhD candidates from Portuguese and foreign universities, some of whom are visitors carrying out research projects, and others of whom are co-supervised by Bragança faculty (and faculty at their PhD awarding institution). Researchers who have collaborated with the Centre have produced more than 1 100 publications. Other polytechnic researchers also collaborate in research activities with universities and associated laboratories through their participation in FCT Research and Development Labs.

Growing relationships between universities and polytechnics in the training and hosting of PhD students and the widening participation polytechnic researchers in R&D Centres and Associated Laboratories together point to emergent model (or models) of doctoral education for polytechnic institutions. For example, one model would authorise doctoral awarding authority for selected polytechnic programmes or colleges. To ensure the quality of provision, the government could establish a process conferring doctoral authorisation to programmes or colleges that participate in a multi-institutional doctoral programme with a public research university, whose researchers have a record of research performance in R&D Centres and/or Associated Laboratories. To ensure the relevance of provision and an appropriately professional profile to the programme, it could require that authorisation of doctoral programmes be subject to review external stakeholders – including relevant firms, professional associations, and public sector bodies.

Box 4.1. Authorisation to Award Doctoral Degrees in California’s Public Higher Education Institutions

The state of California has had a widely studied and highly developed structure of higher education governance, the California Master Plan. In the original 1965 Master Plan public universities focused on wide access and regional engagement, the California State University System, were authorised to offer joint doctoral programmes in partnership with the state’s research universities, the University of California System. Approval of a joint programme requires a “lengthy and complex” process that includes governing boards of both higher education systems, and approval of external accreditation bodies (Williams, 2017). In 2017 there were a total of 23 academic PhD programmes offered in collaboration between California State Universities and University of California institutions.

In 2005 and 2010 the state legislature additionally authorised California State University institutions to offer a focused set of professional practice degrees, principally doctor of nursing practice (DNP), doctor of physical therapy (DPT) and doctor of education (Ed.D) programmes.

Jointly awarded PhD degrees and PhD professional practice degrees awarded by California State University institutions together comprise 6% of all doctoral degrees awarded in the state’s public university system.

Source: Williams, J. (2017), "Collaboration, alliance, and merger among higher education institutions", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 160, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD member countries follow a range of policies with respect to the degree awarding authority of polytechnic, “applied science” or comparable institutions. Some universities of applied science, such as those in the Netherlands and Finland, are authorised to award practice-oriented degrees at the masters’ level, but not at the PhD level. Elsewhere in Europe, in Institutes of Technology in Ireland and University Colleges in Norway, this is permitted. In California’s public higher education system the state’s regional and practice-oriented universities in the California State University system are permitted to independently award professional doctorate degrees, but offer PhD degrees only in collaboration with its public research universities, the University of California institutions (Box 4.1).

Box 4.2 outlines current developments in the area of professional doctorates which are a growing phenomenon internationally, as many countries recognise the need for doctoral candidates to be trained for careers outside of higher education and research. The professional doctorates discussed in Box 4.1 are predominantly aimed at experienced professional practitioners, but there are other variants. For example, the three Dutch Technical Universities (Delft, Eindhoven and Twente) offer professional doctorates in engineering (PDEng), a full-time post-Master programme, and graduate students who are able to produce high level, creative designs for complex issues with a multidisciplinary character. Their capstone design projects are typically identified in consultation with the organisation sponsoring the candidate. Professional DEng programmes with similar aims are also offered in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

Policy issue 4.2. Institutional autonomy and responsibility have expanded, but remain insufficient

Governments across the world have aimed to nurture the development of higher education institutions that operate with responsible autonomy. To this end they have awarded institutions substantial autonomy to manage their own resources and affairs, and established a legal basis that permits them to make effective use of their autonomy. At the same time, they have charged institutions with taking wide responsibility for the quality and relevance of the education programmes they offer, and the research they conduct. These trends have been under way in Portugal as well. However, they remain less developed than in higher education systems that are highly regarded for their performance in teaching, research, and in stimulating innovation.

On balance, public HEIs in Portugal enjoy a moderate degree of autonomy in organising their internal management and structures in comparison to those in some other European countries.5 The EUA’s 2017 Autonomy Scorecard places Portugal’s university institutions 7/29 for “organisational” and “financial” autonomy. However, the level of institutional autonomy in many other key areas remains limited in Portuguese universities and polytechnics, particularly in public institutions that have not transitioned to foundation status.

National legislation governing public sector employment, public procurement and financial management are burdensome, and limit the ability of institutions to plan and manage their operations efficiently and effectively. This is reflected in EUA scores of 18/29 for “staffing” autonomy. The EUA score for “academic autonomy” is a relatively low 20/29, reflecting the impact of the numerus clausus and a centralised entry regime in constraining institutional decisions about student numbers and conditions of entry, and the impact of programme-level accreditation on areas of educational offer.

The goals underlying the 2007 legal framework for higher education institutions, the RJIES, have been only partly realised. One decade after the law’s adoption, Portuguese higher education institutions remain – on average – less autonomous, more inwardly-oriented, and less capable of providing agile and flexible support to innovation than those in leading higher education systems – such as the Netherlands, Finland, or Switzerland. Foundation status, expected to transform institutional autonomy, has accomplished less than expected.

Take-up of foundation status has been slow and limited. Ten years after the adoption of RJIES, five public universities have obtained foundation status – three in 2009, and two others in 2015 and 2016. No polytechnic institutions have obtained foundation status. A few other public higher education institutions, both universities and polytechnics, were exploring the option of foundation status at the time of the review (Público, 2017). However, at the start of 2018 foundation institutions employed fewer than three in ten (29%) of the public higher education faculty workforce. Article 129. º, n. º 2 RJIES requires that institutions seeking foundation status obtain the support for the proposal by an absolute majority of the General Council, and present to the government, through MCTES: (a) a report on the implications of this institutional transformation on the organisation, management, financing and autonomy of the institution; (b) a document describing the advantages of adopting this model for the pursuit of the institution's objectives. An informal requirement was later added to the process of review and approval in government: institutions seeking foundation status must demonstrate in a consolidated institutional audit that its own revenues exceed 50% of total revenues.

Box 4.2. What is a Professional Doctorate?

Professional doctorates (PDs) have a long history, particularly in US higher education. A professional doctorate in education (Ed.D) was introduced at Harvard in 1921, but significant expansion only started in the 1960s in the US and two decades later in the UK United Kingdom and Australia. There are no comprehensive statistics on the numbers of PDs worldwide, as there is no generally accepted definition of what a PD is and policies and practices vary across higher education systems. There are probably close to 100 PD programmes in Australia, around 400 in the United Kingdom (50 distinct programmes in 2005) and many more in the United States (a firm distinction is not made in national statistics). In the United States and the United Kingdom, PDs account for some 10% of all doctorates awarded. In continental European higher education policies, professional doctorates have not been as widely adopted as in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. The major fields in which PDs are offered are education, medicine and a wide range of other health professions, law, engineering and more recently business. Professional doctorates in business administration (DBA) have seen exceptionally fast expansion: the 2014 DBA survey identified 300 programmes, 64% of which were introduced in the last decade.

There is not yet an internationally accepted definition of a professional doctorate. It is commonly understood that, “Whereas the ‘traditional’ PhD degree is intended to develop professional researchers; the professional doctorate is designed to develop researching professionals.” (Bourner et al., 2001)

A recent English study (CRAC, 2016) found professional doctorates to be distinctive from the PhD on the basis of their:

  • Purpose – PDs aim to develop the capacity to make a significant original contribution to professional practice through research. They are targeted at experienced professionals and practitioners working in a professional context and, therefore, are a research-based element of professional training and/or development of practitioners.

  • Research focus – The research within a PD directly relates to, and is rooted in, the professional practice of the candidate, and its output should not only contribute to knowledge but have a significant impact on professional practice.

  • Structure – PD programmes are more structured than many PhD programmes, with taught components as well as supervised and cohort-based experiences, and they are often offered on a part-time basis.

Sources: Chiteng Kot, F. & D. D. Hendel (2012), Emergence and growth of professional doctorates in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia: a comparative analysis, Studies in Higher Education, 37:3, pp. 345-364; Thomas Graf /DBA Compass (2014); Bourner, T., R. Bowden, and S. Laing (2001), Professional doctorates in England. Studies in Higher Education, 26, no. 1: 65–83; CRAC (2016), Provision of professional doctorates in English HE institutions, Careers Research Advisory Centre HEFCE; CHEPS (2013), Policy Challenges for the Portuguese Polytechnic Sector, A report for the Portuguese Polytechnics Co-ordinating Council (CCISP), Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS).

When RJIES was adopted – and in the early years of its implementation – the law aimed to permit foundation institutions to operate with far wider financial and managerial autonomy than was previously the case, and created a new framework financial management that was substantially “outside the fiscal perimeter of the state.” Key aspects of this wider autonomy included:

  1. 1. exemption from the Public Procurement Code for the acquisition of goods and services below EUR 200 000

  2. 2. exemption from the Public Procurement Code for the contracting of works below EUR 5 000 000

  3. 3. authorisation to manage real estate, physical assets, and financial assets in accordance with private financial management rules

  4. 4. exemption, in part, from the obligation to render accounts according to the Official Plan of Public Accounting for the Education Sector (POC-Educação)

  5. 5. authorisation to make to make financial investments according to the best offers on the market (rather than holding assets in cash or government bonds)

  6. 6. exemption from the requirement of annual budgetary balance, permitting the institution to carry forward a surplus or deficit from on fiscal year to the next

  7. 7. permission to borrow without authorisation by joint dispatch of Minister of Finance and MCTES, thereby permitting additional financing to meet matching requirements in EU-funded activities

  8. 8. authorisation to hire teaching and non-teaching staff under private law and

  9. 9. authorisation to buy and sell real estate with the approval of the institution’s Board of Trustees, in place of approval by the Ministry of Finance.

The global recession that started in 2008 led Portuguese authorities to adopt heightened public sector financial controls that sharply reduced the financial and managerial autonomy first envisioned for foundation universities. By 2012, foundation universities maintained their authorisation to hire under private law and manage real property under the authorisation of the institution’s trustees – but the other authorisations were effectively rescinded by changes to law and regulation. Foundation universities were effectively “integrated again into the state budget perimeter” (CCHE, 2017, unpublished).

Universities have made limited use of the legal opportunities that foundation status provides to develop a workforce and career structure under private employment law, most especially among academic staff. Although foundation status provides public universities with the opportunity to develop an institutionally-based career system governed by private rather than public employment law, foundation universities have done so in a “timid and belated way” (CCHE, 2017, unpublished).

At the three public universities that were the first to adopt foundation status – Aveiro, Porto, and ISCTE – by 2016, 38% of staff holding appointments as technical staff and 94% of all career researchers (investigadores) were employed under private law contracts, while about 12% of instructional faculty (docentes) held contracts under private employment law. Foundation universities vary in their willingness to use private law hiring with their docentes workforce – in some institutions it is effectively unused. The University of Minho, though awarded foundation status in 2015, appears to have made fuller use of its legal possibilities with respect to employment. For example, when its faculty members have obtained external offers that exceed the public sector salary scale, the Minho administrators have been able to retain faculty by creating teaching and research posts under private employment law, and thus outside public sector salary limits.

Legal uncertainty persists concerning key aspects of foundation status that impair its wider adoption and effective use. Legal uncertainty exists concerning both human resources and financial resources, and it has led universities to use, according to one university trustee, “perhaps fifteen percent of the potential of foundation status”. Uncertainty about the extent to which staff working under public and private labour law must have parallel conditions for advancement and compensation has led institutions to eschew private law hiring. Uncertainty about which revenues can be considered private revenues and which are state revenues – most notably, concerning tuition fees – has led to confusion about which institutions have sufficient non-state funds to satisfy the Finance Ministry’s informal requirement that institutions seeking foundation status obtain one-half of revenues from non-state sources. Additionally, some foundation universities report that uncertainty about the status of private donations to universities – whether private donations are treated by state budget authorities as fully fungible with public funds, and therefore subject to “captivation” – has hampered the development of private donations to universities.

MCTES and the Co-ordinating Council on Higher Education have recognised the limited impact of foundation status on the public university system, and a Rapporteur Group within the Co-ordinating Council has provided an Assessment on the Public Foundations under private law in the universe of Portuguese Higher Education (CCHE) (2017, unpublished). The group recommends, among other measures, that the State Budget Law immediately “place HEIs outside the state budget perimeter,” permit “multiannual management of budgets,” and exempt foundation universities “from the procedures related to public procurement activities up to European Union limits.”

Policy issue 4.3. Public spending is provided in a way that does not support sound institutional financial management

It is widely recognised among leaders in Portuguese higher education that core public funding for education and operations that is delivered to higher education institutions on an historical basis makes the funding of institutions opaque, and establishes a weak relationship between the money received by individual institutions and their level of effort and performance.

Further, the same leaders broadly acknowledge that annual funding – with frequent “captivations” to balance public accounts and lengthy periods within the year during which institutions are not permitted to commit public funds allocated to them – is harmful in the short run to sound and efficient institutional management, and in the long run, to the development of institutional strategy and close collaboration with commercial and community partners.

In recognition of the shortcoming of historical funding, there have been repeated efforts to develop a budget framework that is pluri-annual and systematically linked to past performance (e.g. degrees awarded) and current activity (e.g. enrolment by study field). For example, a highly detailed proposal for reform of institutional funding was developed by the Ministry for Education and Science (Ministério da Educação e Ciência) (MEC) in July 2015 in close consultation with The Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities (Conselho de Reitores das Universidades Portuguesas) (CRUP) and the Portuguese Polytechnics Co-ordinating Council (Conselho Coordenador dos Institutos Superiores Politécnicos) (CCISP). The 186-page document contains a funding model in which a set of educational services are agreed with each institution and the cost factors are parameterised, establishing a baseline allocation for this set of services. The baseline funding would then be adjusted for quality factors such as the quality and efficiency of the educational process; knowledge production (with different indicators for universities and polytechnics); transfer of knowledge; and improved management (based on an improvement plan proposed by the institution of higher education). The authors recognised that the model would “strongly penalise institutions located in regions with less demographic pressure and, therefore, with a reduced number of enrolments and where gains in scale cannot be expected.” They suggested a factor to correct this, by increasing the notional or weighted number of students in the model for regions where the courses will have lower enrolment rates and little expected growth.

Pluri-annual, transparent and performance-based funding plans have either been adopted in law but not fully implemented, or proposed but not adopted. Three basic obstacles, described below, hamper improvements to core institutional funding.

  • MCTES is not well endowed with performance-monitoring capabilities and funding expertise, and thus it is not fully equipped to manage a funding process that includes (past) performance components or forward-looking and profile-oriented performance agreements.

  • Changes to funding methodologies used by governments are typically implemented, in part, through the addition of new resources, not purely through the redistribution of resources among higher education institutions according to a new set of rules, since this latter path creates clear ‘losers’ and precipitates more conflict than can be managed. Portugal’s fiscal crisis and subsequent public austerity have left it with little capacity to dedicate the new resources that would be needed for the reform of higher education funding.

  • Multi-annual budgets cannot be achieved by the efforts of education ministries alone. Rather, experience in OECD member countries shows that education ministries rely upon parliaments and finance ministries to establish predictability in the funding envelope which they, in turn, allocate to research and teaching. Multiyear performance-related funding for higher education in Baden-Württemberg, for example, is based upon a five-year commitment by the State to 3% increase per year, as well as additional funding costs related to any salary increases resulting from collective bargaining that exceed 1.5% per year (Box 4.3).

The overall funding level for higher education and research that the Finance Ministry provides to MCTES for allocation to higher education institutions and FCT may be subject to substantial year-to-year variation. This, in turn, can yield large variations in either educational or research funding, or both. For example, between the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years core operating funding for higher education institutions fell by nearly 30% – before rebounding in fiscal year 2013 to about 94% of its 2012 levels (Table 4.1).

Funding decisions may not only be uncertain, but their resolution may be delayed. While spending levels for the a fiscal year commencing in January are to be transmitted to line ministries in August, in some cases agreed spending levels may continue to be disputed until after the conclusion of a fiscal year. In January 2018, for example, the 2017 state budget for higher education remained under negotiation (Público, 2017).

Although the overall funding level available for MCTES to distribute among public higher education institutions has been unstable, institutional autonomy in the management of public finances has been enhanced. In 2016, a formal agreement between public HEIs and the government – including MCTES and the Ministries of Finance, Planning and Infrastructure, and Administrative Modernization – introduced important new financial flexibility to HEIs. Key measures included: a) lump sum rather than line-item appropriations to institutions; b) exclusion of HEI appropriations from “captivations” in return for an agreement that annual deficits incurred by any single institution would be offset by the shared contributions of all other institutions in their sector; c) authorisation to carry forward surplus public funds from one fiscal year to the next; and d) an agreement, in principle, of budget increases sufficient to reimburse institutions for cost increases they experience as a consequence of policies adopted by Parliament. Because this agreement falls outside the State Budget Law, it has not created a fully predictable and persistent basis for financial management. And, even if it were included in the State Budget Law, it would nonetheless have to be annually reauthorised.

Box 4.3. Multiyear Performance-Related Funding for Higher Education in Baden-Württemberg

In Germany, as in many other OECD countries, there has been a recurring discussion among policymakers about the optimal balance between the core funding state government allocates to higher education institutions – in the form of basic operating grants – and competitive project-based public funding, primarily awarded for research or other specific purposes, such as infrastructure development. In a 2011 position paper, the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), a publicly funded advisory body, argued that increased basic funding for higher education institutions was needed to allow the kind of long-term planning in recruitment and infrastructure investment necessary for competitive and effective institutions.

In 2015 the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg adopted a five-year ‘higher education financing agreement’ (Hochschulfinanzierungsvertrag). The agreement guaranteed public higher education institutions in the State an average 3% increase in basic funding over the period 2015 to 2020. Following a period of rapid expansion of higher education in the State, the main objective of the agreement was to create a stable funding environment in which institutions could plan further development and create more permanent staff positions. The agreement commits to increasing the basic operating grant to all institutions from a total of EUR 2.5 billion in 2014 to almost 3 billion in 2020. In addition to the average 3% increase per year, the State additionally commits to funding costs related to any salary increases resulting from collective bargaining that exceed 1.5% per year.

The budget increases are to be funded by a combination of new money and transferring pre-existing programme budgets for higher education into the basic operating budget allocation. All institutions will receive the same basic funding guarantee (based on their 2014 budgets), they maintain full discretion in the use of the basic operating grant and are able to retain and transfer surpluses accrued in one financial year to the next. In return for the funding security, higher education institutions are called on to:

  • Create additional permanent staff posts funded out of the basic operating grant, through new posts and transferring temporary project-funded posts into the ‘regular’ staff budget.

  • Maintain the number of study places and programmes at the 2014 level as a minimum.

  • Increase study success, through better taking into account the needs of diverse student body.

  • Develop new and existing strategic partnerships with business.

  • Develop and promote open access to research results.

In the agreement, the State Science Ministry and higher education institutions committed to working jointly to develop new performance indicators to measure the qualitative development of the higher education sector and feed into a new performance related funding component. The existing performance-related component in the state funding model was suspended pending this work.

Sources: Wissenschaftsrat (2011) Neuere Entwicklungen der Hochschulfinanzierung in Deutschland – Bericht des Vorsitzenden zu aktuellen Tendenzen im Wissenschaftssystem, Wissenschaftsrat, Berlin, 08 07 2011 Land Baden-Württemberg (2015) „Perspektive 2020“ Hochschulfinanzierungsvertrag Baden-Württemberg 2015-2020,

The FCT is not part of this agreement, and it has therefore remained subject to “clawing back” (withholding or cativação) of funds. This uncertainty, in turn, is felt by higher education researchers supported by FCT funds.

Policy issue 4.4. Funding and steering policies do not encourage institutional profiling and division of labour

In high-performing higher education systems, higher education institutions develop and refine institutional profiles. These profiles are a strategic document that lay out the distinctive features and commitments of their institution. They typically identify:

  • Priority research areas – what are the institution’s priority research areas and their related teaching programmes? Where and how do they propose to achieve critical mass and excellence? Depending on mission this will include an account on how the institutions envisions its balance between theoretically led and applied research.

  • Teaching priorities – what are the priority teaching fields, depending upon mission, professional programmes that are critically linked to national or regional needs; and, where appropriate, the institution’s distinctive pedagogical commitments, e.g. an orientation towards problem-based learning?

  • External impact and engagement – how are the research and teaching activities of the institution linked to regional and national needs? How does the institution intend to link its teaching and research to business, public and voluntary sectors – supporting their undertakings and drawing upon their capabilities in meeting its mission?

  • Internationalisation – what internationalisation strategy is appropriate to the institution’s profile? In what ways and to what degree does the institution wish to be internationally engaged?

Although higher education institutions bear responsibility for developing profiles, governments support and co-ordinate the development of profiles through funding and steering. They do so in the expectation that a higher education system with a planned and co-ordinated division of labour and institutional specialisations will perform more effectively and efficiently in meeting national needs with respect to education, research, and innovation.

Institutional profiling and development plans have been implemented successfully in a number of other OECD countries, often those with higher education systems of a broadly comparable scale to Portugal – including Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Finland. In Finland, for example, national authorities have chosen to support profiling of universities into distinct areas of strength, according to strategies developed by institutions, and reviewed by external panels convened by government. Profiling plans are expected to commit to areas of research strength through the targeting and reallocation of resources and to “promote collaboration and division of work between universities, research institutes and universities of applied sciences.” Universities apply for competitive profiling funding by submitting institutional plans for high-quality/high-impact research, outlining what steps they will take and when, and identifying how they will reallocate institutional resources to achieve their profile (Makarov, 2015).

More generally, profiling initiatives create greater transparency about the specific goals of different types of institutions – such as research-intensive institutions with a global reach or universities of applied science with a strong regional focus – and leads to greater recognition of value of different types of institutional activity and performance.

Higher education institutions in Portugal are not required by the government to identify areas of strength and weakness, to link those to the distinctive regional, national, and international engagements they wish to pursue, and to reallocate resources that permit them to build upon areas of strength in service of their external engagements. The funding, regulatory, and steering arrangements with which higher education institutions operate provide few incentives for specialisation or improvements in performance.

The national policy framework does not support institutional profiling

There is no clear national policy framework within which institutions are expected to develop their own profiles, nor a developed mechanism to help co-ordinate profiling between institutions to ensure the system as a whole delivers what Portugal needs. This is not a new problem. In 2007 the OECD envisaged a higher education co-ordination body (CCES) that would be responsible for developing:

  • strategic goals and priorities for the development of Portuguese higher education including the relationship of the goals for the university and polytechnic sectors

  • a higher education planning framework flowing from these strategic goals and its subsequent monitoring and adjustment on an annual basis

  • a broad set of objectives based on this higher education planning framework to provide the basis for the ministry’s negotiation of performance agreements with individual institutions (OECD, 2007).

These needs remain in the nation’s higher education system. Moreover, if Portugal is to benefit from a national body that takes a strategic and long-term view of higher education, research, and innovation needs of the nation, grounded with a wider view of the nation’s economic needs and regional priorities – as we propose in Chapter 3 – it equally needs a CCHE with steering capabilities to link a “whole of government” view to a vision of the higher education sector. The CCHE has a critical role to play in informing national deliberations at the whole of government level, as long-term plans are set, and in aligning the higher education system to national purposes. It should be a critical intermediate actor between the whole of government and individual institutions, taking a genuinely “higher education system view.”

Additionally, if there were there a clear framework of national policy commitments – translated into priorities for the higher education sector by the CCHE — higher education institutions would have a set and stable set of priorities against which they could debate and formulate their institutional profile, confident that their institution’s efforts would not be wasted by short-term changes in government priorities.

As discussed above, institutional core funding in support of education and infrastructure is provided on an historical basis, without taking into account directly the specific missions and potentially differentiated needs and objectives of different institutions. There are no ongoing funding streams provided by MCTES to public higher education institutions that encourage institutions to engage in profiling their institution.

The delivery of research funding for PhD study by FCT has also limited the development of institutional responsibility and profiling among public higher education institutions. Public funding for PhD study and, historically, post-docs is principally allocated by the FCT to individual applicants proposed by programmes, rather than to institutions whose graduate profile is co-ordinated by, for example, a Vice-Rector or Dean of Graduate Studies. The direct line of national funding to research groups – and the absence or weakness of institutional governance with respect to research and graduates studies – prevents higher education institutions from setting an institutional research strategy that is aligned to their institutional profile.

FCT funding for research and development centres has led to the progressive development of a dense network of research units across different universities and, to a lesser extent, polytechnics. While the size of this network has varied over time according to government priorities, the network is shaped by the bottom-up priorities of researchers, without obvious reference to either institutional or national priorities for knowledge development. The fragmentation of research activities across a multitude of research centres has also limited the capacity of individual HEIs to formulate coherent profiles and development strategies covering teaching, research and engagement with society. The situation also creates asymmetry between the legal responsibility of HEIs for employment in research units and real influence they have over their research strategies.

Associated Laboratories, many of which are autonomous research organisations based outside of higher education institutions, establish their own research profiles, funding stream, and staffing arrangements, and through their independence impose further limits on research leadership and strategy in the nation’s higher education institutions.

More generally, the limited autonomy of Portuguese higher education institutions with respect to human resource management hinders the development of institutional profiles. National legislation governs the structure of careers, staff workload, and staff compensation, setting sharp limits on the ability of leaders to reallocate resources in light of a new profile. If profiling is to raise the effectiveness and efficiency of the higher education system, institutions must have the capacity to implement the plans, reallocating human and financial resources against the profiles they have set. Higher education institutions have little capacity to do so, apart from the limited scope of autonomy achieved in foundation universities.

Internal constraints limits profiling

Apart from these external and systemic factors that inhibit the development of a suitably profiled network of higher education institutions, internal factors may constrain the ability of institutions to develop and implement profiling and development strategies.

The first relates to the ability of institutions to engage effectively with relevant external stakeholders. Institutional profiles and strategies should be informed by the views and needs of the different populations institutions serve, whether this is particular student groups, regional, national or international employers, research and innovation partners and so forth. While some institutions with which the review team met, such as the Polytechnic Institute of Bragança and the University of Minho, appear to have well-developed processes for consultation, engagement and co-operation, others have far less capacity and experience in this respect.

Second, non-academic professional positions (in financial management, facilities management, marketing, etc.) in Portuguese higher education institutions tend to have a lower status and fewer resources attached to them than equivalent positions in higher education institutions in many other OECD countries. As qualified professional staff with adequate authority and resources are crucial to the development and implementation of effective institutional strategies, this comparative under-resourcing is problematic.

Weak profiling limits the performance of the nation’s higher education and research system

The weakness of institutional profiling and development strategies in Portugal has a number of consequences for the performance of the higher education, research and innovation system as a whole. Teaching, research and innovation activities in individual departments and institutions are, to a large extent, planned and implemented in isolation, without reference to the goals of the institution as a whole, to the activities of other institutions in the system and broader national development goals. While this situation may leave room for the professional creativity of individual staff members and teams (notwithstanding the broader constraints discussed), the lack of strategic steering can also lead to inefficient duplication, missed opportunities for collaboration and a weak alignment of activities on the ground with the needs of particular localities, population groups or the nation as a whole.

With respect to the education mission of higher education institutions, the absence of clear profiles and strategies for each institution makes the system as a whole less readable or transparent, particularly for students looking to choose an institution and institutions looking to differentiate themselves from – or partner with – peer institutions in other locations.

With respect to the research missions of higher education institutions, the absence of targeted policies supporting institutional profiling has led to a higher education system in which research capacities are not strategically concentrated. Consider, for example, doctoral training. In recent decades rather small doctoral programmes have multiplied in Portugal with little strategic co-ordination, and relatively little collaboration (Chapter 5). In contrast, doctoral education in the Netherlands is organised by research schools, including national research schools. National research schools are typically organised along disciplinary lines, and bring together funding and researchers from many participating universities. The Institute for Programming Research Algorithmics (IPA) is a national inter-university research school with nine participating universities. In the field of sustainability and environmental research, the Wageningen University hosts the SENSE research school, in which nine universities (and two public research institutes) participate. All Dutch research universities participate in one or more of these schools, and most participate in many of them (De Boer, 2017). This collaboration among universities, joined up to national lines of policy about research priorities, has assisted the Netherlands in achieving a global research profile.

4.4. Recommendations

Recommendations on modernising the diversification of institutional missions

4.1. Rebalance the missions of Portugal’s higher education institutions to ensure that nation has a diversified network of institutions, the missions of which are well-aligned to national and regional needs.

Continue lines of policy from the past decade that have been effective in developing diverse capacities, including establishing a PhD requirement for polytechnic academic careers, supporting applied research through the Polytechnic Modernisation and Valorisation Programme, and awarding R&D centre designations to leading polytechnic research groups. International experience with initiatives such as the Modernisation and Valorisation Programme suggests that about five years of support are required to achieving substantial and lasting change through targeted grant making.

Develop a regulatory capacity in MCTES to systematically review and approve new educational programmes at the bachelor level and integrated master degree levels to ensure they are well-aligned to the mission of institutions in each sector, and to the institution’s own strategic profile. This process should be clearly differentiated from (though complementary to) external or internal quality assurance procedures, and operate with clear and simple rules that permit institutions to take forward new programme proposals with confidence that alignment to mission and profile will result in swift approval. Alternatively, MCTES could continue rely upon the annual allocation of additional study places to public higher education institutions through the despacho orientador to ensure that programmes offerings are aligned to national policies. It could make this a more effective instrument of steering by providing public and prior guidance to institutions about its allocation priorities, and grounding these priorities in the nation’s education, research, and innovation policy framework.

Modify, as necessary, the legal basis of accreditation and quality assurance processes administered by A3ES to ensure that its reviews adequately differentiate between theoretically-oriented university study programmes and practice-oriented professional education.

Review the organisation of postgraduate and its relationship to the knowledge and innovation needs of the country. Reassess responsibility for the conducting postgraduate education, for its funding, and for the assurance of its quality.

As part of this review, consider revising the legal basis for polytechnics, permitting the carefully controlled award of doctoral degrees by polytechnics. This should be permitted in applied research fields where institutions have a clearly demonstrated capacity to do so, and where there is a strong economic rationale for the offer of doctoral awards. Where there is a close connection between the work of polytechnics and universities – in fields such as agriculture – consideration should be given to joint doctoral programmes between universities and polytechnics.

A strictly controlled and strategically guided process of doctoral authorisation at the level of school or faculty -- rather than the polytechnic as a whole -- is advisable. The authorisation process should require a clear demonstration of capacity for high quality doctoral training, evidence that the programme is aligned to the institutional profile and mission, and relevant to the economic and social needs of external stakeholders served by the institution. A programme approval process could require, for example:

  • Approval by the polytechnic’s President and General Council, in which the proposed doctoral programme is clearly linked to the institution’s profile;

  • Review by A3ES (as is done for university PhD programmes);

  • Participation of the programme’s academic staff in R& D centres recognised as very good, excellent, or exceptional by the FCT.

  • Participation of the academic staff in a multi-institutional graduate school, organised along lines of discipline or professional specialisation, on the model, e.g. of doctoral training programmes in the Netherlands.

  • An externally reviewed motivation for the proposed PhD demonstrating a close connection between the doctoral programme, professional practice and regional needs. This process would look for representatives of industry, the public sector, or voluntary organisations to identify how the high-level skills of doctoral recipients would be used to improve their organisation’s products, processes, and practices.

A review of post-graduate education could consider applying many of these principles more widely, to university institutions.

Recommendation on strengthening the autonomy of HEIs

4.2. Strengthen the legal basis of autonomy for public higher education institutions.

Pursue full implementation of the foundational status for HEIs and take additional measures to increase flexibility in financial management and procurement for public higher education institutions.

As a matter of priority, MCTES should pursue five initiatives to deepen and widen institutional autonomy.

  1. a. To improve the effective use of foundation status among institutions that presently have foundation status, the analysis and recommendations put forward by the Co-ordinating Council for Higher Education should be implemented. The financial management provisions originally agreed by the Ministry of Finance in 2009 when foundation status was first awarded should be put on a statutory basis though amendments to the State Framework Law.

  2. b. To support the effective management of all public higher education institutions, the rules of financial management agreed with Finance Ministry should be put on a continuing basis, rather than subject to annual renewal in the State Budget Law;

  3. c. The Official Plan of Public Accounting for the Education Sector and the Public Contracts Code should be appropriately modified so their provisions do not apply to institutions with foundational status.

  4. d. In near to mid-term future, Portugal should aim to extend foundation status to all of its higher education institutions. This will require that it revisit the criteria that it uses when proposing institutions for foundation status.

  5. e. New tests for sound financial management should be adopted that permit all well-managed public higher education institutions to achieve foundation status. Revenue diversification is an unnecessarily restrictive proxy for an institution’s capacity to manage soundly their finances; it effectively prevents many of Portugal’s higher education institutions obtaining foundation status. With sound tests for financial management capacity and wise hedges against risk – such as requiring institutions to carry a reserve or “rainy day fund” -- budgetary balance need not be put at risk.

Recommendation on reforming public funding of HEIs

4.3. Reform public funding for higher education institutions, strengthening transparency and providing incentives for good performance.

Ensure a properly balanced institutional funding regime. The regime should (a) predictably funds the core activities of institutions, (b) reward institutions for performance in a way that is recognised to be fair, and (c) provide incentives for the development of forward-looking institutional profile. Portuguese authorities should aim for the development of a funding methodology that allocates approximately 80%-15%-5% of institution resources across these three funding pillars (activity; outputs; and future profile).

Funding to support core activities (80%) and performance (15%) could be delivered based upon agreed models that contain methodologies common to institutions within a sector. Funding to support institutional profiling (5%) could be based upon a multi-year performance agreement between the higher education institution and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education.

Institutional profiles would necessarily vary, focusing in some cases principally on research and innovation, while in other cases on professional education and regional engagement. Profiles focused on research could be used, for example, to allow HEIs to better integrate R&D units into the institution’s research strategy.

Each funding stream would, preferably, be based upon a multi-year agreement that is agreed between Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education and the nation’s public higher education institutions.

In order of sequence Portugal should introduce:

  1. a. A profiling instrument providing funds to: a) set up profile and plan and b) report on annual progress on plan implementation, with 5% funding conditional on progress assessed on a multi-year basis. An MCTES-convened panel could review initial profiling agreements with international experts drawn from systems that have experience of well-functioning profiling instruments, such as Finland. International experience demonstrates that Ministries can adopt a profiling funding stream even on fixed funding levels, since it results in the near term in a modest redistribution of funding levels.

  2. b. Performance-related funding based upon a formula that reflects a combination of agreed outputs appropriate to all institutions, and other output indicators calibrated to the sector. Examples of the former include number of graduates, while the former would reflect, for example, PhD job placement for institutions with a focus on doctoral education, and work-based learning placements for professionally oriented institutions. MCTES can implement performance-related funding by channelling annual, incremental growth into this funding pillar.

  3. c. Activity-related institutional funding (e.g. enrolments by field of study) is needed to create fairness and transparency and provide stability. This aspect, while fundamental, should be the last feature of funding reform implemented, and adopted when non-incremental new funds are available to limit disruptive redistribution of budget shares among institutions.

Recommendations to strengthen the HEIs in making responsible use of autonomy within a framework of national priorities

4.4. Strengthen the capacity of higher education institutions to make effective use of expanded autonomy and responsibility.

If higher education institutions are to be provided wider autonomy and responsibility, they must have the capacity to effectively put them to use. There are two ways in which institutional capacity can be strengthened.

First, the capabilities of professional and administrative staff in higher education institutions can be augmented. Government should consider providing financial support for the training of professional managerial staff through higher education and management training programmes and opportunities for staff to participate in secondments to key partner institutions with robust management systems in, e.g., the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and North America.

Second, steering and funding policies should be evaluated – and revised – to ensure that they support institutional responsibility, rather than diminish it. For example: MCTES should revise FCT research funding policies so they support the capacity of institutional leaders to set and implement a co-ordinated research profile. While applications for research funding – whether for individual projects, R&D Centres, or Associated Lab status – should be evaluated on their scientific merit, proposals should also be evaluated with a second criterion: their alignment to the institution’s vision of its distinctive profile as a research organisation. When funds are awarded to research organisations within the higher education institution, whether Associated Labs or R&D units, a share should be set aside at an institutional level – and matched by local resources – to support the development and implementation of an agreed institutional profile.

4.5. Strengthen the CCHE

Strengthen the CCHE, along the lines of the OECD’s recommendations of 2007, so that it can function effectively in bringing sector priorities to national debates and priority-setting for science, technology and higher education, and provide a stable framework of national priorities against which higher education institutions can expected to develop institutional strategies. This strengthening should include the addition of a budget for research and analysis, and a professional staff adequate to its expanded mission.


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← 1. State labs may also seek foundation status from government.

← 2. As of January 2018 foundation status had been obtained by: University of Porto, University of Aveiro, ISCTE Lisbon (2009), University of Minho and Universidade Nova de Lisboa (in 2015 and 2016, respectively).

← 3. See, for example, Hochschulfinanzierungsvertrag Baden-Württemberg, 2015-2020.

← 4. The universities of Algarve, Aveiro, Azores and Madeira are among the public universities that offer tourism programmes; however, these may be offered through their polytechnic schools.

← 5. The EUA’s 2017 Autonomy Scorecard places Portugal 7/29 for ‘organisational’ and ‘financial’ autonomy; 18/29 for ‘staffing’ autonomy and 20/29 for ‘academic’ autonomy.

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