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European initiatives in higher education – why should one care?

Martina Vukasovic

To paraphrase one of my colleagues: for all intents and purposes European integration in higher education should not exist. This is not a normative position, but rather an observation of what seems to be somewhat of a puzzle: the European Union has very limited formal competences with regards to education in general, or higher education in particular, but there nevertheless are several European initiatives in higher education that have emerged in the recent (and not so recent) years, like the Bologna Process or the Lisbon Strategy and its successor the Europe 2020 Strategy, that seem to have had significant impact on higher education systems and institutions.

Essentially, there are three dimensions to this phenomenon: (1) new initiatives (or a new governance layer, if you will) forming at the European level, (2) these initiatives having an impact on higher education in countries that are EU members or in some other ways are considered to be part of “Europe” and (3) European initiatives having an impact on developments well outside Europe (e.g. Latin America, US, or Asia-Pacific region). I will briefly discuss each of these dimensions, to provide the basis for the claim that studying the European governance layer in higher education in more detail can contribute not only to better understanding of higher education dynamics but also to better understanding of the dynamics of European integration, its causes and consequences.


Emergence of the European governance layer in higher education

Origins of the European governance layer in higher education were traced by Anne Corbett back to the early ages of the European Union; a number of key policy entrepreneurs and events that lead to what eventually became the Erasmus programme have been identified (Corbett 2005), which in turn lead to the question whether the Bologna Process is as novel as many claim it is (Corbett 2006). Furthermore, an issue of research interest is also how what essentially started as a voluntary process with an unclear governance structure grew into monitored coordination and a consolidated governance arrangement (Ravinet 2008), as well as what are the linkages between the pan-European Bologna Process and the EU Lisbon Strategy (Gornitzka 2010; Keeling 2006). In addition, the focus has also been on the strengthening of the European Commission position in the Bologna follow-up structures (despite initial attempts to exclude it) which adds a supranational element to an otherwise primarily intergovernmental arrangement (Corbett 2011) as well as on the increasing involvement of European stakeholder organizations, such as the European University Association EUA, European Students’ Union ESU, Education International EI, European Association of Institutions in Higher Education EURASHE, whose presence adds a transnational flavour (Elken and Vukasovic forthcoming).

Essentially, what can be observed is the emergence of a Europe of Knowledge based on two main pillars – Lisbon (and its successor Europe 2020) and Bologna – the first firmly grounded in the EU institutions and perhaps more focused on research (in which EU has more significant competences than in higher education), and the other having a more pan-European focus and focusing primarily on higher education (Elken et al. 2011; Maassen and Musselin 2009). Such complex governance arrangement, in which supranational, intergovernmental and transnational dynamics overlap and interact is by no means unique to higher education, given that within the EU, regardless of the sector in focus, similar complexity can be observed (Börzel 2010).

What is distinctive is the existence of both EU and pan-European elements in the European governance layer and how they interact. So far, this interaction served primarily to consolidate and legitimize both processes, but with the further enlargement of the EU (even if only in terms of awarding candidate status to more countries) and the somewhat slowed down tempo of the Bologna Process (ministerial summits now taking place every three instead of two years) it will be interesting to see whether the interaction will lead to fading out of the Bologna element of the European governance layer in higher education or those involved in the process (who also may have some vested interests in keeping it alive) will find a way to re-invent it.

Furthermore, European integration in higher education (and research) is of importance for other sectors as well, given that higher education is being exported as a policy solution to sectors such as social policy, economic competitiveness, environment and security, i.e. higher education is expected to provide solutions to problems identified in other policy sectors. So it could be argued that European integration efforts in these sectors, many of which are at the core of the EU project, will be shaped also by how integration in the area of higher education proceeds in the long run.


Impact on higher education systems and institutions within Europe

The second dimension concerns the impact the emerging European governance layer in higher education has on higher education systems and institutions, or what can be labelled as Europeanization (though see Olsen (2002) for a discussion on different uses of the term). The focus so far has been on convergence of governance approaches or legal frameworks (Amaral et al. 2012; Voegtle et al. 2011), implementation of the Bologna Process (Hoffman et al. 2008; Moscati 2009), the relationship to national policy reforms (Gornitzka 2006; Musselin 2009),  the mechanisms and scope of change in the context of Bologna (Capano and Piattoni 2011; Witte 2006) or the effects of particular elements of European initiatives, e.g.  the  Erasmus  programme (Beerkens and Vossensteyn 2011), the EU Framework Programmes for research (Primeri and Reale 2012), the European Standards and Guidelines for quality assurance in higher education (Stensaker et al. 2010) or the European Scientific Visa and the Blue Card (Cerna and Chou 2013).

Similar to Europeanization in other sectors (see e.g. Cowles et al. 2001; Falkner and Treib 2008), the impact of the European governance layer on higher education systems and institutions is notable, though it varies across countries and issues (EACEA 2012; Westerheijden et al. 2010). This variety is partly related to the characteristics of the European governance layer as such (see below) but also to the differences in the domestic contexts, primarily in terms path-dependencies when it comes to policy formation and implementation (what Falkner and Treib call “worlds of compliance”). Thus, it would be interesting to explore whether the changes primarily amount to what Vaira (2004) has labelled to be an allomorphism – convergence on the surface, diversity underneath. Furthermore, even if there is significant diversity underneath, that does not necessarily imply a weak impact of the European governance layer, but rather points to the ambiguity of some of its preferences (e.g. the social dimension highlighted in the Bologna Process) and the consequent diversity in domestic interpretations both in the process of policy formation and in the process of policy implementation.

As a knowledge intensive sector, higher education is marked by several types of autonomy – universities from the state, constituent departments in relation to their universities, professional autonomy of members of academic staff in relation to their institutions – leading to complex organizational arrangements which provide ample opportunities for translation, use and abuse of the preferences promoted in European initiatives in higher education. Moreover, the European governance layer is not the only source of external influence on higher education policy (and by extension higher education institutions). There are also more diffuse yet not necessarily less powerful global scripts (Meyer 2000) which interact in various ways with the European governance layer and with the domestic contexts.

Here lies another potential contribution of research on higher education to European studies. As Gornitzka and Maassen (2011) demonstrate with a study on autonomy and funding reforms in Denmark, Finland and Norway, even amongst the systems which can be seen to belong to the same “world of compliance”, i.e. even amongst the systems in which significant convergence can be expected, there can be differences in how the same global scripts and European preferences are interpreted and implemented. Thus, studying the different interactions between the global, European, national and local in higher education may be a fruitful exercise for understanding better the key characteristics of each of these layers of governance, and the scope of change that may come as a result of their interaction.


Impact beyond Europe

The relationship between the global scripts and the European preferences provides a good entry point to the discussion of the third dimension of interest – the impact the developments in Europe have on other areas of the world, or how European preferences may become global scripts. This is perhaps the dimension that has been least studied so far. There is some evidence of this impact in higher education, judging by the focus on the external dimension of the Bologna Process (Zgaga 2011) and the establishment of the Bologna Policy Forum taking place in parallel to the Bologna Ministerial Summit, which in 2012 in Bucharest was attended by 23 non-European countries.

Furthermore, there is evidence that the European experience has been an inspiration for other regions of the world. Chinese higher education master plan for 2020 focuses on degree structures, while 52 countries from the Asia-Pacific region in 2006 adopted the Brisbane Communiqué and developed a follow-up governance structure similar to that of Bologna. The experiences from the so-called Tuning project have been exported to Latin America, the US, Russia and Africa with active (financial) support from the European Commission though with different outcomes (in Latin America it seems not to have taken off completely) and the US has increased recognition of the three year bachelor degrees in order to facilitate mobility from Europe to the US (Westerheijden et al. 2010). While the underlying mechanisms of such developments have not been identified in sufficient detail and while there is little data on how these initiatives develop over time, a good starting point could be to analyse whether such developments can be interpreted primarily as the voluntary lesson-drawing by the countries and regions outside of Europe because of Europe’s normative power (Birchfield 2013; Hyde-Price 2006; Manners 2002; Scheipers and Sicurelli 2007) or whether Europe actually plays an active role in these processes for strategic reasons.

In sum, it appears that research on higher education dynamics, either within Europe or beyond, is less and less possible without taking into account multi-level and multi-actor governance arrangements of which the European governance layer is a significant part of. Moreover, research on “all things European” could benefit from focusing more on an area which may be seen as less likely case of European integration and Europeanization, but in which significant developments involving the European governance layer nevertheless abound.


Martina Vukasovic is currently working within the Odysseus project on higher education governance at the Department of Sociology, Ghent University, Belgium. Until November 2013 she was a member of the Higher Education: Institutional Dynamics and Knowledge Cultures Research Group at the Department of Education, University of Oslo, Norway. Her PhD thesis, recently submitted for evaluation, focuses on higher education change in the several countries of the former Yugoslavia and the role the European initiatives have had in these processes.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.



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