Accounting for academic work: Does context matter? Experience from Chinese public universities


  • C. Ren Monash University, Australia
  • M. Zhang Monash University, Australia
  • G. Vesty RMIT University, Australia
  • C. Nyland Monash University, Australia


Research has focused on the development of the Chinese Higher education (HE) sector and how management strategies and practices are implemented. However, the research remains piecemeal and underdeveloped, particularly in understanding the nature and uses of accounting performance measurement systems (PMS) and its relations to the context. This research addresses gaps in our understanding of the impact of context on their utilisation in Chinese public universities. We offer a context-sensitive analysis focusing on the ways in which the rationalities emanating from the context affect the design, uses, and outcomes of these systems. Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) offer an elaborative analytical lexicon for capturing the multiple rationalities (i.e., orders of worth) that contribute to accounting for institutionalised practices. Using multiple case studies, we find that, as China continues its transition to a socialist market-driven economy (market worth), Chinese public universities have engaged in managerial reforms (the industrial world), such as the strategic implementation of accounting PMS to test both the productivity of academics’ work and their professional and public accountability. We further demonstrate that, because of the friction caused by contesting orders of worth entangled in the context, PMS is manifest as a local agreement, with both rational and ritualistic uses of PMS in the workplace. This study identifies novel accounting performance measures and control practices in the Chinese public sector and explicates how different orders of worth operate in tandem to shape the use of PMS in the university context.
Keywords: Orders of worth, Chinese public universities, performance management systems