The performative effects of budgets in higher education: A cultural-studies account of how education ideas and designs are built into budget numbers

Project: Research

Project Details


The latest few decades have involved significant changes in higher education. The changes have been ascribed transnational policies that embed transnational standards in national (higher) education systems. While educational scholars have studied these policies and their embedded modes of governance, the simultaneous public administration trends of performance management and their modes of governance have not become an integral part of educational research to the same extent, despite the far-reaching changes they generated in both administrative practices and in the structure and design of education. This project seeks to expand educational research by studying how the contemporary mode of education is affected by public administration practices.
Two current events make university budgeting a useful case on performance management-inspired administrative modes of governance. The first event is the launch of a new university teaching funding scheme, implemented in January 2019, introducing new metrics on graduate employment in university budgets. The second event is the implementation of a new common chart of accounts across the entire higher education sector in 2019-2021, standardising budgets in order to make them comparable across the sector. Not only are these two events interesting as important events in Danish higher education administration, and useful as methodological entry points to study how emerging budget models work compared to previous ones – they also illustrate how administrative performance management practices breed a particular mode of education.

The aim of the project is to contribute to our understanding of contemporary administrative modes of governance in education, and particularly our understanding on how budgeting practices affect the mode, or present configurations, of university education. By configuration, I mean a particular ‘lay-out’ of a phenomenon (such as education), constituted by particular budgeting practices that are simultaneously discursive (producing particular relations of difference, i.e. distinctions between degree programmes in terms of their performance measured as graduate employment, or between different kinds of teaching) and material (materialising in educational practices such as curricula, resource allocations, organisations of teaching, and digital platforms). The project studies the configurations of education that emerge within and from the budgets through the research field of ‘cultural studies of numbers’. A secondary aim is to contribute to this research field by engaging its conceptualisations of numbers with a new research object: Numbers in budgets.

Research questions
1. How does university budgeting configure university education differently in Danish and British university contexts? (empirical-comparative part)
2. How can budget numbers be theorised as performative and constitutive? (theoretical part)
3. What differences do the new Danish university funding scheme and common chart of accounts make to Danish configurations of higher education? (empirical-thematic part)

Analytical approach
The proposed project differs from the traditional social/political science approaches to the study of budgeting by asking questions about the configurations built into the budgets, including monetised working hours, class hours, full-time equivalents, square meters, and so forth. Thereby, the questions raised are not about the interests of the actors in play or the university procedures for budgeting. The project looks into numbers in budgets and, drawing on concepts from the sociology of quantification, studies the processes of commensuration, differentiation, classification, and standardisation used to craft them, as well as performative effects on education designs and practices.
The project builds on my PhD project by employing my approach to the study
of numbers and quantification from my study of metrics and their effects on education to the study of budgeting and its effect on education in a novel way. The project differs from my PhD project by bridging these approaches with the underexplored research field that combines administration and education. The novelty lies in the exploration of the effects of administrative practices on education, and in the theoretical development of ‘cultural studies of numbers’ in relation to numbers in budgets.

I will study research questions 1 and 3 through an ethnographic study of one main case and two secondary cases: The current budget model within a particular Danish university, the previous budget model within the same Danish university, and the current budget model from a British university. By comparing the main case with the two secondary cases, the particularities of the main case will become visible. The explorative ethnographic design will allow me to start from central budgeting units at the two universities and follow the budgeting documents and practices downward into a selected educational environment at each university (Faculty, School, and Department levels). The design includes document studies and observations of the work of the central budgeting units. It furthermore includes interviews with budgeting officers, Faculty managers and budgeting staff, School managers and staff, Department managers and staff, and teachers involved in education design, as well as observations of budget meetings at these various university levels. Finally, the fieldwork will involve interviews with Ministry Officials working on the new university funding scheme and the new common chart of accounts. The focus of observations and interviews will be how numbers in budget are defined, used, and negotiated, and how they enable and limit education designs and practices. I have obtained access to a Danish university, while an agreement with a UK university awaits my presence in the country.
I will study research question 2 through a theoretical and diffractive reading of my empirical material, budgeting literature, and the ‘cultural studies of numbers’ approach.
Short titleThe performative effects of budgets
Effective start/end date01/01/202130/04/2023


  • Det Frie Forskningsråd: DKK1,305,000.00


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.