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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Research Projects

Publication details

Mateos-González, J.L. & Boliver, V. (2019). Performance-based university funding and the drive towards ‘institutional meritocracy’ in Italy. British Journal of Sociology of Education 40(2): 145-158.

Author(s) from Durham


Many countries, including Italy, are increasingly managing their public higher education systems in accordance with the New Public Management principle that private-sector management practices improve efficiency and quality. A key mechanism has been the introduction of performance-based funding systems designed to reward ‘high-performing’ institutions and incentivise ‘lesser-performing’ institutions to improve. Instead of improving efficiency and quality across the board, however, we argue that performance-based funding systems naturalise longstanding structurally determined inequalities between institutions by recasting national higher education systems as competitive institutional meritocracies in which institutional inequalities are redefined as objective indicators of intrinsic ‘merit’ or worth. We illustrate how performance-based university funding systems naturalise pre-existing inequalities between universities drawing on the case of Italy, a country characterised by longstanding inequalities between its northern and southern regions which demonstrably impact on the apparent ‘performance’ of universities. The concept of institutional meritocracy captures the illusory nature of this performance game.

Department of Sociology