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What is higher education regionalism? And how should we study it?

Meng-Hsuan Chou and Pauline Ravinet

Higher education is undeniably global. But this did not prevent interested policy actors, meeting on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna in 2015, to emphasise the significance of the global and international dimension, as their colleagues have done at the 800th anniversary of the University of Paris nearly 20 years ago. As academics, we know that higher education has a deep relationship with globalisation: from rankings to mobility of students, faculty, and staff; from quality assurance to student-centred learning outcomes; from university governance to the digitalisation of teaching and research collaboration. It is nearly impossible to separate the two. Yet we are still lacking a clear and shared definition of ‘global’ and ‘globalisation’ among higher education practitioners, scholars, and observers—the very people who have been struck by their intensifying relationship since the very beginning, whenever that was. Our handbook chapter develops a set of conceptual tools and lenses to understand the global transformation of the higher education sector by focussing on a particular pattern of this phenomenon we call higher education regionalism (Chou and Ravinet 2015).

Scanning the globe, we see regional initiatives in the higher education sector. For instance, in Europe, we have the Bologna Process towards a European Higher Education Area, familiar to the readers of this blog. But there are many more. Indeed, there have been consistent efforts in building common areas in Africa: the African Union’s harmonisation strategy, sub-regional initiatives of the Southern African Development Community, and activities of the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education. Similarly, in Latin America, there is the ENLACES initiative, the MERCOSUR mechanisms for programme accreditation (MEXA) and mobility scheme (MARCA). Looking East to Asia, there are the many initiatives from the AUN and the very exciting SHARE programme. These are manifestations of higher education regionalism, which we define as referring to:

[A] political project of region creation involving at least some state authority (national, supranational, international), who in turn designates and delineates the world’s geographical region to which such activities extend, in the higher education policy sector (Chou and Ravinet 2015: 368).

We derived this definition after a review of what has been written on higher education regionalism in political science and in higher education studies—two distinct sets of literature that have much to say about this phenomenon, but rarely engage each other in a fruitful conversation on the subject. From political science, we learned from scholars who examined regions, ‘new regionalism’, and European integration (Caporaso and Choi 2002; Fawcett and Gandois 2010; Hettne 2005; Hettne and Söderbaum 2000; Mattli 2012; Warleigh-Lack 2014; Warleigh-Lack and Van Langenhove 2010). From higher education studies, we obtained insights from scholars who are serious about the impact that the re-composition of space, scales, and power have on past, current, and the future state of higher education (Gomes, Robertson and Dale 2012; Jayasuriya and Robertson 2010; Knight 2012, 2013).

The lessons from our review led us to these three positions concerning the study of higher education regionalism:

  • It must be comparative. Studying higher education regionalism means comparing varieties of higher education regionalisms to consider the sector’s apparent isomorphism.
  • It must be sector-based. Studying higher education regionalism is to take serious the particular dynamics of higher education and how they interact with the wider multi-purpose regional organisation (EU, ASEAN, AU, etc.) and national needs.
  • It must be differentiated. Studying higher education regionalism means to distinguish between intra-regional initiatives (within one geographical region) and inter-regional initiatives (between at least two geographical regions).

With these points of departure, we proposed a heuristic framework to study higher education regionalism along these three dimensions:

  1. Constellation of actors central and active in these processes: this means identifying the individual and collective actors involved and mapping their interaction patterns.
  1. Institutional arrangements adopted, abandoned, and debated: this refers to identifying the institutional form and rules and the instruments considered and accepted.
  1. Ideas and principles embedded and operationalised: this points to identifying the paradigms, policy ideas, and programmatic ideas guiding the instances of higher education regionalisms.

These three dimensions require intensive fieldwork with the key actors involved, which we are currently undertaking in the Southeast Asia region. But we invite researchers—especially those examining less studied regions such as Africa and Latin America—to get in touch so that together we can contribute to the conversation about higher education and globalisation from the regional perspective.


Meng-Hsuan Chou is Nanyang Assistant Professor of public policy and global affairs at NTU Singapore and Pauline Ravinet is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Lille 2. They both acknowledge the generous support from Singapore’s Ministry of Education AcRF Tier 1 and Institut Français de Singapour (IFS) and NTU Singapore’s Merlion grant for this research.



Caporaso, J. A. and Y. J. Choi (2002) ‘Comparative regional integration’, in W. Carlsnaes, T. Risse and B. A. Simmons (eds) Handbook of International Relations (pp. 480–500) (London: Sage).

Chou, M.-H. and P. Ravinet (2015) ‘The Rise of “higher education regionalism”: An Agenda for Higher Education Research’ in J. Huisman, H. de Boer, D.D. Dill and M. Souto-Otero (eds) Handbook of Higher Education Policy and Governance (pp. 361-378) (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan).

Fawcett, L. and H. Gandois (2010) ‘Regionalism in Africa and the Middle East: Implications for EU studies’, Journal of European Integration, 32(6), 617–636.

Gomes, A. M., Robertson, S. L. and R. Dale (2012) ‘The social condition of higher education: Globalisation and (beyond) regionalisation in Latin America’, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 10(2), 221–246.

Hettne, B. (2005) ‘Beyond the “New” regionalism’, New Political Economy, 10(4), 543–571.

Hettne, B. and F. Söderbaum (2000) ‘Theorising the rise of regionness’, New Political Economy, 5(3), 457–472.

Jayasuriya, K. and S. L. Robertson (2010) ‘Regulatory regionalism and the governance of higher education’, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 8(1), 1–6.

Knight, J. (2012) ‘A conceptual framework for the regionalization of higher education: application to Asia’, in J. N. Hawkins, K. H. Mok and D. E. Neubauer (eds) Higher Education Regionalization in Asia Pacific (pp. 17–36) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Knight, J. (2013) ‘Towards African higher education regionalization and Harmonization: functional, organizational and political approaches’, International Perspectives on Education and Society, 21, 347–373.

Mattli, W. (2012) ‘Comparative regional integration: Theoretical developments’, in E. Jones, A. Menon and S. Weatherill (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the European Union (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Warleigh-Lack, A. (2014) ‘EU studies and the new Regionalism’, in K. Lynggaard, K. Löfgren and I. Manners (eds) Research Methods in European Union Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Warleigh-Lack, A. and L. Van Langenhove (2010) ‘Rethinking EU Studies: The Contribution of Comparative Regionalism’, Journal of European Integration, 32(6), 541–562.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

CFP: Transnational actors in knowledge policies – ideas, interests and institutions (2016 ECPR)

Panel: Transnational actors in knowledge policies – ideas, interests and institutions

  • Co-chairs: Tatiana Fumasoli (University of Oslo) – and Martina Vukasovic (Ghent University) – 
  • Co-discussants (TBC): Åse Gornitzka (University of Oslo) and Simona Piattoni (Universty of Trento and University of Agder)

Apart from supranational and intergovernmental dynamics, European knowledge policy-making is marked also by a transnational dimension related to the involvement of non-state actors in decision-making (Elken & Vukasovic, 2014; Fumasoli, 2015b; Piattoni, 2010). These non-state actors are often organized across nation-states and include both collective actors – academic and university associations (e.g. European Academies, European University Association), students and staff unions (e.g. European Students Union, Education International), funding and quality assurance agencies (e.g. European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) – and individuals (experts and individuals working for the collective actors).

Some of these are, in organizational studies’ terminology, meta-organizations (organizations of organizations) with complex internal structures, membership and identity (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008). We consider meta-organizations those organizations that have institutional membership exclusively, or have institutional membership along with individual membership. In political science, such organizations are considered to be interest groups, organizations with an explicit political mandate to influence decision-makers at various governance levels (Beyers, Eising, & Maloney, 2008). They are often seen as spokespersons of the various stakeholders, expected to increase the legitimacy of decisions made (Moravcsik, 2002; Neave & Maassen, 2007). In addition, these organizations provide communication platforms and can act as sites of social learning and persuasion about appropriateness of specific ideas, norms and values, thus facilitating cross-national policy platform and socialization of actors (Checkel, 2003; Voegtle, Knill, & Dobbins, 2011). A perspective from the sociology of professions characterizes these transnational organizations as pursuing professional development, protecting their professional jurisdiction, and fostering their professional identity (Freidson, 2001; Larson, 2013). Those are traditionally structured around scientists- and scholars’ individual membership, and focus on a distinctive discipline. However these organizations might display multiple types of membership as well (Fumasoli, 2015a), and might activate themselves as interest groups, insofar they consider that their concerns need to be addressed in policy arenas (Truman, 1993 cited in Beyers et al., 2008, p. 1107).

Apart from operating across nation-states, these actors also operate across governance levels (e.g. European and national, federal and state), bringing new ideas, advancing the interests of their constituencies and re-shaping the institutional arrangements of policy-making in the area of knowledge. As such, they are uniquely positioned to influence policy formation (including agenda-setting, policy design and policy-decision), as well as policy implementation and policy evaluation.

Yet, despite their important role in governance and societal dynamics in general, such organizations have been the focus of rather limited scholarly interest thus far. The panel welcomes papers exploring how these emerging actors participate in the policy arena and what impact they may have on policy decisions across governance levels. Theoretical and methodological approaches should be clearly presented in the abstract and elaborated on in the paper.


Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2008). Meta-organizations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Beyers, J., Eising, R., & Maloney, W. (2008). Researching Interest Group Politics in Europe and Elsewhere: Much We Study, Little We Know? West European Politics, 31(6), 1103-1128. doi: 10.1080/01402380802370443

Checkel, J. T. (2003). “Going native” in Europe? Theorizing social interaction in European institutions. Comparative Political Studies, 36(1-2), 209-231.

Elken, M., & Vukasovic, M. (2014). Dynamics of voluntary policy coordination: the case of Bologna Process. In M.-H. Chou & Å. Gornitzka (Eds.), The Europe of Knowledge: Comparing Dynamics of Integration in Higher Education and Research Policies (pp. 131-159). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Freidson, E. (2001). Professionalism : the third logic: Cambridge : Polity.

Fumasoli, T. (2015a). European academic associations: mapping their characteristics, capacity and institutional embedding – preliminary work. Paper presented at the CHEGG seminar, Ghent University.

Fumasoli, T. (2015b). Multi-level governance in higher education. In J. Huisman, H. de Boer, D. D. Dill & M. Souto-Otero (Eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Higher Education Policy and Governance (pp. 76-94). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Larson, M. S. (2013). The rise of professionalism : monopolies of competence and sheltered markets. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Moravcsik, A. (2002). Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 40(4), 603-624. doi: 10.1111/1468-5965.00390

Neave, G., & Maassen, P. (2007). The Bologna Process: An Intergovernmental Policy Perspective. In P. Maassen & J. P. Olsen (Eds.), University Dynamics and European Integration (Vol. 19, pp. 135-153). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Piattoni, S. (2010). The theory of multi-level governance: conceptual, empirical, and normative challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Voegtle, E. M., Knill, C., & Dobbins, M. (2011). To what extent does transnational communication drive cross-national policy convergence? The impact of the Bologna process on domestic higher education policies. Higher Education, 61(1), 77-94. doi: 10.1007/s10734-010-9326-6


This panel is proposed for the 2016 ECPR Section (7-10 September 2016, Prague). If you are interested in participating in this panel please get in touch with the co-chairs. 

CFP: Complexity and the politics of knowledge policies: multi-issue, multi-level and multi-actor (2016 RCPP)

Complexity and the politics of knowledge policies: multi-issue, multi-level and multi-actor (Panel T03P05)

Conference2016 HKU-USC-IPPA Conference on Public Policy

When: 10-11 June 2016

Where: Hong Kong

Deadline for paper proposal30 January 2016

How & where to submit: select T03P05 and upload your proposal at

If you have any questions, please contact:

Meng-Hsuan Chou (

Jens Jungblut (

Pauline Ravinet (

Martina Vukasovic (


Complexity and the politics of knowledge policies: multi-issue, multi-level and multi-actor 

The complexity of policy processes and the relationship between instrument choice and impact have always intrigued scholars of politics, public policy, and public administration. Indeed, complexity constitutes a key element in established public policy theoretical frameworks such as punctuated equilibrium, multiple streams, and is at the core of Lindblom’s science of ‘muddling through’. In recent years, policy scholars such as Cairney and Geyer have pushed for embracing complexity as a foundation and starting point for policy analysis. These scholars advocate a ‘complexity theory’ approach that enables researchers to attend to both top-down as well as bottom-up dynamics, interests and behaviour of various actors, and how policy ideas, goals and instruments are interpreted and transformed during the policy process.

This panel engages with the complexity approach in public policy through the case of knowledge policy, which refers to basic and applied research, innovation, and higher education. The issues at the core of these policy areas are cross-cutting, which means that their governance does not neatly fall into one single policy domain (multi-issue). Indeed, they often require collaboration across multiple policy sectors as the different aspects of knowledge policies are under jurisdiction of different ministries (multi-actor). Due to increasing processes of international and subnational coordination, developments in the knowledge policy domain are a multi-level endeavour. The case of knowledge policy thus offers a promising empirical avenue to explore the key concepts at the heart of ‘complexity theory’, as well as a bridge for interdisciplinary theoretical exchanges.

We seek submissions that address cross-cutting issues in the knowledge policy domains and the multi-actor and multi-level policy processes involved. Submissions are invited from all theoretical schools using quantitative, qualitative or mixed-methods approaches, but should demonstrate a good conceptual understanding of the complexity of knowledge policies with a clear empirical, preferably comparative, focus.

CFP: Policy failures in the knowledge domain (2016 ECPR)

Panel: Policy failures in the knowledge domain

Higher education, research, and innovation policy domains have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. Embedded in these changes are assumptions about failure and learning, and the belief that the ‘new and novel’ would ‘right’ the ‘wrongs’. Yet our understanding of the failure-learning mechanism remains under-developed. Indeed, social scientists often conflate three distinct types of failure—politics, policy, and instruments—in their analyses.

The consequences of failure also remain an on-going question. Do all failures lead to sizeable policy change or to less dramatic reforms or tinkering? Or to no actions at all? While spectacular policy failures are historically memorable, the subtle failures that trigger incremental changes, or indeed the acknowledgement of their very existence, are less examined. For instance, what are the modes of institutional change? To what extent do these changes lead to reform?

The above observations raise several questions about failures and learning in knowledge policymaking which scholars of public policy, comparative politics, international relations, and social sciences in general have only begun to address. These include, but are not limited to: why do some policy failures lead to institutional collapse or abandonment of policy ideas, while others do not? Indeed, why are some policy ideas more sticky than others? To what extent do policy failures shape the institutional design of international, regional, and national, and sub-national decision-making? Is there a cycle of failure and learning involved in the everyday functioning of political and knowledge institutions (e.g. universities and research institutes)? And, if so, how do we first detect and then determine which ‘failure-learning’ mechanism is weak and which one is robust?

This panel invites papers that seek to identify and unpack the failure-learning mechanism operational in specific knowledge policy changes. It welcomes a diversity of approaches – qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods – from all scholars and practitioners interested in the above questions.

This panel is proposed for the 2016 ECPR Section (7-10 September 2016, Prague). Please contact the panel chair before 24 January 2016 with your abstract (300 words) if you are interested in submitting a paper for this panel.