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Economic imaginary of the European knowledge economy – ideas and discourse

Janja Komljenovič

After being in the back front of higher education policy making for a good decade – between 80s and 90s of the past century (Corbett, 2006, 2011), the European Commission got a new opportunity to establish itself as an influential actor in the European higher education sector[i]. And it managed to do so quickly and strongly. In 2001 it became a full member of the Bologna Follow Up group with voting rights (the only non-state actor) which enabled it to co-create the Bologna agenda. The Bologna Process proved to be an important drive for higher education reforms on the European continent as well as a legitimation arena for certain projects (e.g. financial support for establishing the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education EQAR, or progressing EU’s work on transparency tools like the multidimensional ranking of higher education institutions U-Multirank). In other words, the European Commission (EC) could legitimate its financial support for projects that were established based on the Bologna Process. Through it the EU financed many initiatives and programmes to progress its vision of higher education.

But besides the Bologna Process, other events and strategies turned European higher education into a strategic tool for the economy, which are circling mainly around the Lisbon agenda of 2000. In our analysis, we have integrated two approaches: the analysis of main higher education related documents of the EC and the Council of the EU released since 2000 (17 of them) and 9 interviews with various officials ranging from civil servants to external experts responsible for higher education or involved in the creation of the texts in the EC and the Council of EU. Our main approach was the Discourse-Historical Approach (DHA) and more broadly Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). In our findings we identified three categories of ideational and discursive practice of the EU that connected higher education to the knowledge economy hegemonic imaginary (Jessop, 2008; S. Robertson, 2008; S. L. Robertson, 2010). These are: (1) instrumentalisation of higher education for economic goals, (2) ideating the new governance and steering of higher education, and (3) ideational and normative convergence – towards new constitutionalism.

In the first category – instrumentalisation for higher education for economic goals – we show that higher education turned from an untouchable field under nation states’ subsidiarity to the instrumental field for realising the Europe of Knowledge. The latter is constructed as the ultimate goal connected to economic prosperity in the global competition. Higher education is thus said to be essential means to reach European goals. The dominant discursive topic is the flow of (applied) knowledge from universities to business and society. Connecting universities to industry or enterprise is strongly promoted and proposed in different ways (spin offs, start-up companies, attracting talents from other regions, more and employable graduates, innovation). The normative background is created by pointing to many problems within European higher education which paves the way for contextual legitimacy for the proposed policy and programs. The offered ideas are thus presented as rational and feasible solutions to the outlined challenges. As if there are no other possibilities. In the mid 2000’s the discursive argument is complemented with the key word ‘excellence’ which emerges from competition and ensures attractiveness. The term ‘relevance’ appeared as a new discursive element which created an idea that it is in the public interest for universities to respond to such demands of society. In 2011 jobs became a central discursive item which further presented higher education as responsible for creating jobs, economic growth, providing appropriate skills, building human capital.

In the second category – new governance and steering – we present the discursive image or legitimation for governance reforms. The discursive strategy is to create a notion of inevitability and urgency to reform the European higher education system as ‘European universities are not fit to compete’. This is done through the messages like the ones that European universities are poorly positioned at the world rankings and lag behind their US counterparts. Consequently the ‘modernisation’ of the governance structures and financing systems are proposed in parallel to the revision of the concept of autonomy. The European Commission was advancing policy proposals in the fields of funding and quality assurance – the two strongest steering mechanisms of the higher education system. The funding is proposed to be based on multiyear contracts that would set out strategic objectives. The idea is to change it from basic to outcomes based, competitive and relevance rewarding. The funding is supposed to urgently increase, but from the private sources (i.e. industry and students). In the field of quality assurance a common European market is seen to be created with national agencies complying with the European standards and becoming members of the European register EQAR. Such agencies would operate in other European countries and higher education institutions would be free to choose. Autonomy is conceptualised as a management tool for achieving efficiency. Universities are thus expected to reform in line with the principles of the New Public Management to become more efficient, productive and economically relevant.

In the third category – towards new constitutionalism – we note that the EU indirectly creates an imaginary in which nation states alone are not able to compete at the global scale which requires regional solutions, thus creating an argument for ‘enter EU’. Moreover, higher education is compared to other economic sectors (it is mentioned that the EU has successfully supported conversion processes of steel industry and agriculture and that it is now time to modernise its ‘knowledge industry’). There are clear tendencies to shift some regulatory competences for higher education to the supranational level with the result of increasing ‘soft regulation’ such as harmonising criteria/standards, guidelines, comparisons, monitoring reports, states’ reporting etc. In other words, it is still the competence of nation states and higher education institutions to regulate and make decisions, but they do so in line with the guidelines, objectives, procedures and technologies created at the European level. Moreover, we notice institutionalisation at the European level – e.g. support for the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education ENQA, creation and strengthening of EQAR and EU transparency tools such as U-Multirank.

With such normative legitimation the ground is made fertile for reforms; solutions are proposed and presented as the only feasible and most logical; and consequently certain reforms are materialised. In addition, the EU is gaining competence and power over higher education at the regional level successfully circumventing national sovereignty. Our analysis illuminates the constructed direction of change of the European higher education. It is indeed in coherence with the hegemonic economic imaginary. It includes a variety of narratives, constructed realities, problems and proposals which seem to be obvious, rational and appropriate courses of action. What societal effects this will have in the future is still to be seen.

Janja Komljenovič is a Marie Curie PhD fellow at University of Bristol, UK.

This post has been initially published on “Europe of Knowledge” blog.


Corbett, A. (2006). Key Moments of the European Political Debate on Higher Education The Politics of European University Identity. Political and Academic Perspectives. Proceedings of the Seminar of the Magna Charta Observatory, 14 September 2006. Bologna: Bononia University Press.

Corbett, A. (2011). Ping Pong: competing leadership for reform in EU higher education 1998–2006. European Journal of Education, 46(1), 36-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3435.2010.01466.x

Jessop, B. (2008). The cultural political economy of the knowledge-based economy and its implications for higher education. In B. Jessop, N. Fairclough & R. Wodak (Eds.), Education and the knowledge based economy in Europe (pp. 13-39). Rotterdam: Sense.

Komljenovič, J. and Miklavič, K. (2013), ‘Imagining higher education in the European knowledge economy: Discourse and ideas in communications of the EU’, in Zgaga, P., Teichler, U. and Brennan, J. (eds.) The globalisation challenge for European Higher Education: Convergence and Diversity, Centres and Peripheries. Bern: Peter Lang, pp.33-54.

Robertson, S. (2008). Embracing the global: crisis and the creation of a new semiotic order to secure Europe’s knowledge-based economy. In B. Jessop, N. Fairclough & R. Wodak (Eds.), Education and the knowledge based economy in Europe (pp. 89-108). Rotterdam: Sense.

Robertson, S. L. (2010). The EU, ‘regulatory state regionalism’ and nre modes of higher education governance. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 8(1), 23-37.

[i] This text is a summary of findings that are discussed in depth in Komljenovič, J. and Miklavič, K. 2013, where we analyse how the European Commission and other EU bodies created an economic imaginary around higher education.


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