Decentring European higher education governance: the construction of expertise in the Bologna Process


Higher education governance was constructed as a decentred policy sector. On the one hand, the EU merely plays a supportive role while the member states retain their formal prerogatives over this policy area. On the other hand, according to the principle of university autonomy, government intervention in the universities’ organisational, financial and academic functioning should be limited. In practice, states still regulate the higher education (HE) sector. Meanwhile, since the launch of the Lisbon Strategy, the European Commission has played an increasing role in supporting and directly participating in the formally intergovernmental Bologna Process.

This contribution will shed light on higher education governance in Europe, and especially how the European Commission (Commission) strategically attempts to shape a policy area in which it formally has few prerogatives through supporting stakeholder organisations and experts groups. The Commission’s efforts at ‘governing from a distance’ (Epstein, 2005) is meant to encourage national authorities to pursue the implementation of HE reforms. Through the material, political and symbolic support it provides to reformist groups and individuals, the Commission seeks to generate its own clientele, and to legitimate professional networks that will promote European schemes at the domestic level. While much has been said on the emergence of a European HE policy (Bache, 2006; Kehm et al., 2009; Capano and Piattoni, 2011) and on policy implementation on the domestic level (Stastna, 2001; Rozsnyai, 2003; Witte, 2006; Gor-nitzka, 2007; Yagci, 2010), decentring the analytical focus on the brokers that act as intermediaries between the EU and domestic level offers a more refined view of HE governance.

The case of European higher education policy seems well-suited to a decentred analytical perspective since it involves a variety of actors who struggle over the legitimate interpretation of the purpose and nature of HE reforms. As the decentred approach to governance rejects the reification of concepts such as the state or nation - but also less aggregated notions such as stakeholders or experts - it is a good fit for the European political space - and to the so-called European Higher Education Area. Both of them appear to be, par excellence, ‘constructed,

Decentring European HE governance 83 transnational, differentiated and discontinuous’ (Bevir, 2013, p. 13). One particularly insightful aspect of the interpretative approach is its focus on the emergence of a dominant discourse and its use by hegemonic groups. As Frank Fischer argues,

the creation of social knowledge and power are intimately linked. To act together, a human conununity must come to some agreement on what vision of reality it will accept as both factually correct and normatively legitimate. Such rhetorical closure on the definition of reality establishes the foundation of social order,

(Fischer, 1995, pp. 208-209)

and allows some groups to take precedence over others. Following this logic, European higher education policy results from a ‘co-evolution of supranational and inter-governmental policy initiatives marked by power struggles, competition, and strategic convergence’ (Dakowska and Serrano-Velarde, 2018, p. 261).

Education policies are coproduced by actors situated at different levels. My contribution to this area of study focuses on expert groups that are not exclusively Brussels-based. To understand the complex governance of HE, it is important to take into account both the European dimension (funds, programmes and working groups) and the domestic dimension, and in the process to grasp the relationship between the expert groups at the EU level and the national policy-making system. Although they act primarily at the domestic level, the Bologna Experts are financed by EU funds. As my comparative analysis of the French, Polish and Ukrainian cases shows, while they might potentially serve as mediators between the European Commission (DG Education and Culture and its executive agency) and the domestic level, their policy leverage varies dramatically.

The empirical cases analysed in greater detail here focus on a group of experts that has been launched and supported by the European Commission: the Bologna Experts (in the EU member states), also called Higher Education Reform Experts (in the EU neighbourhood). From the perspective of HE governance in Europe, these academic experts can first be considered as brokers between domestic and European political fields. Second, comparison between the three country cases shows significant difference in the practices and policy positions of these individuals and thus stresses the need to decentre the analytical perspective on the Bologna Process. Far from driving policy convergence, the process should be understood in terms of its diversity, including the historical conditions of each country’s membership in relation to the EU.1

This contribution contrasts with the bulk of research on HE governance in several ways. First, instead of focusing exclusively on the EU or the domestic level, the focus on the meso-level of policy brokers helps us refine the analytical conceptualisation of the relations between the Commission and its so-called stakeholders. Second, it tries to refine the usually top-down oriented Europeanisation studies and suggests a bottom-up, dynamic and sociological approach.

Manja Klemencic (2013) defines Europeanisation as a policy adaptation and examines ‘to what extent national policy developments reflect the European recommendations on institutional diversification’ (p. 120). Instead of apprehending HE reforms as a unilateral adaptation to an external constraint, as the literature on Europeanisation and policy diffusion calls us to (Borzel and Risse, 2000), I propose to examine the relations between the European institutions and national academic spaces in their reciprocity, focusing both on actors and on their practices. In doing so, I follow a sociological and constructivist approach of the European political field (Georgakakis, 2012; Guiraudon and Favel, 2011) as it interacts with domestic political arenas. The political sociology approach to the EU that has been developed over the last decade adopts a bottom-up perspective as it sheds light empirically and inductively on actor configurations and power relations in the construction of public ‘problems’ (Rowell and Mangenot, 2010).

This chapter is based on empirical fieldwork earned out in Poland, France, Germany and Ukr aine as well as in Brussels. It includes the analysis of different types of documents related to the reforms (legal acts, published and unpublished reports, communications and press articles) and 85 semi-structured interviews conducted with educational experts, representatives of the academic community and top civil servants at national, European and international levels (European Commission, Council of Europe, OECD, UNESCO).2 Consultation of the Council of Europe and UNESCO archives complemented the empirical part of the research.

The chapter is structured as follows. I first consider the evolution of European higher education governance and the changing role of the European Commission. Second, I reflect on the role and uses of expertise in European higher education governance and outline how the European Commission tends to structure its environment and ‘clientele’ in HE matters and how it shapes the Bologna Experts group. Third, I present a more detailed and collective portrait of the Bologna Experts in France, Poland and the Ukraine and reflect on their domestic policy leverage.

European higher education governance and the Bologna Process

The rise of a European HE policy must be situated in a broader international context characterised by the involvement of international organisations such as the OECD, the Council of Europe, UNESCO and the World Bank in this sector (Martens et al., 2007; Dakowska and Serrano-Velarde, 2018). Education has only become a subject of scrutiny in EU policy-making analysis relatively recently (Jakobi et al., 2009), since it wasn’t historically an area of Community intervention. Still, closer examination reveals a historical interest in the education field among Community representatives, followed by a growing involvement of the Commission, prompted by the opportunities offered by the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties.

The progressive emergence of a European higher education policy

Although under the Treaty of Rome member state governments formally retained their legal competences in educational policies, the Commission took a number of initiatives based on its competence in vocational education (art. 128). At the beginning of the European integration process, attempts were already made to set up a European university (Corbett, 2005; Croche, 2010). The European University Institute in Florence was initiated in 1972, while in 1974 a Resolution of the Ministers of Education established a division for higher education within the Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, Science and Education and laid out some principles of intergovernmental cooperation in the field (Neave 1984). Since 1986 the Commission has promoted mobility though its Erasmus programme. It has worked at introducing a ‘European Dimension in Higher Education’ with its Jean Monnet actions as well as the Tempus programmes. The Treaty of Maastricht (1992) recognised education as an area of EU competence, stating that the EU

shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organization of education systems.

(Ait. 126, later art. 165.1 ofTFUE)

This specified and further legitimised the EU’s action in the field, as the Commission was allowed to back member state initiatives (Dakowska and Serrano-Velarde, 2018). Within the Commission, policy entrepreneurs made efforts to secure a ‘Community competence for the non-Treaty sector of education’ (Corbett, 2005, p. 155). The idea that higher education was to produce a highly skilled workforce, just as vocational training did, was the foundation of Commission activism in the 1980s and in the following decades. This clarifies why Commission representatives consider the Bologna Process and the Lisbon strategy’s educational provisions as two sides of the same coin.

The Bologna Process, launched in 1999 as an intergovernmental initiative of 29 countries, was first a voluntary process that aimed at creating a European Higher Education Area by strengthening student mobility, harmonising degrees and promoting quality assurance. The Bologna Process has inspired numerous research programmes on the Europeanisation of higher education (HE) (Amaral et al., 2009; Dale and Robertson, 2009; Curaj et al., 2012). These studies have turned academic attention to the domestic level, looking at diverse adaptations of the intergovernmental Bologna Process recommendations in different contexts.

The launch of the Lisbon Strategy (2000) appears to have been a turning point for European higher education polices, which became explicitly connected to economic and social objectives (Capano and Piattoni, 2011). In Lisbon, the European Council called on Europe to become ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ (Lisbon European Council, 2000). While the link between education, research and economic development was a constant in the European Commission’s approach to the sector, the launch of the Lisbon Strategy led to the introduction of a new method (the Open Method of Coordination) in which the member states had to report on their progress towards meeting common goals. Also, the discursive link between higher education and employability had since become much more explicit in the Commission’s documents. Cusso’s (2008) lexicometric analysis shows that the term ‘knowledge society’ reflected a socio-economic paradigm enhanced by terms such as ‘work’, ‘employment’ and ‘skills’, which revealed the Commission’s priority of ‘education’s adaptation to the job market needs by developing strategic skills and by the increasing of private investments’ (Cusso 2008, p. 51). Under the Juncker Commission, in office since 2014, ‘skills’ have been transferred from the Directorate-general for Education and Culture to the DG for Employment, Social affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL), which further illustrates this logic? The New Skills Agenda, which refers to educational matters, was elaborated by DG EMPL.

The launch of the Lisbon Strategy put mounting pressure on the intergovernmental Bologna Process. Kathia Serrano-Velarde (2014) has shown how the slogan of a European ‘knowledge economy’ promoted by the Lisbon Strategy has been strategically used by EC officials to enhance the Commission’s visibility in this field. Formally, the intergovernmental Bologna Process differs from the EU schemes both legally and geographically as it encompasses a wide range of states that are not EU members, especially post-Soviet countries. Still, the European Commission has played an increasingly active role in supporting and directly participating in the Bologna Process (Bache, 2006; Keeling, 2006). This became clear in 2003, when the Commission was invited to join the board of the Bologna Follow Up Group (BFUG). On the one hand, some attempts were made by national representatives, especially in the initial phase, to defend the autonomy of the Bologna Process, which led a few authors to describe the process as a case of ‘resisting the EU’ (Muller and Ravinet, 2008). However, these attempts seem to be limited to a few individual country representatives and do not reflect a broad ideological convergence between the Commission representatives and most stakeholders and country representatives. Their material resources, but also the dependence of the stakeholders, have increased due to the Commission’s lavish financial support. By supporting the stakeholder groups and the activities of the Bologna Process (conferences, meetings, reports) so generously, the Commission contributes to the material existence of the process. In this context, two intertwined Commission strategies can be mentioned. The first strategy is a discursive, rhetorical and political takeover of the Bologna Process. The second one consists in funding applied research and expert groups in order to deepen and speed up the process.

The Commission’s discursive and material colonisation of the Bologna Process

In the policy discourse produced by the Commission, the intergovernmental specificity and autonomy of the Bologna Process tend to be denied insofar as the Bologna Process is presented as a complement to the Lisbon Strategy and to the Copenhagen Process, which focuses on vocational education. The Commission representatives claim their authority in policy areas that have been discussed within the Bologna framework such as quality assurance or the qualification frameworks. This creates tensions, as other participants in the Bologna Process, including representatives of the Council of Europe, have pointed out:

Quality assurance is also problematic because the European Commission issued a position paper in October, immediately after the Noordwijk meeting, which goes far in the direction of giving the Commission a decisive role in quality assurance. It has, however, been reported that many EU countries have expressed strong doubts about this proposal (...)

Another problematic issue is that the Commission has also published a calendar for elaborating a European qualifications framework encompassing both higher education and vocational education and training (VET) that could be seen as preempting the discussions within the Bologna Process on qualifications framework for the EHEA.4

The analysis of the archives from the initial period of the Bologna Process reveals that the Commission’s attempt to subordinate the Bologna initiatives and schemes to its policy priorities are not a recent phenomenon. As it launched pilot projects in the area of quality assurance in the beginning of the 1990, the Commission set in motion policy trends that were later earned on during the Bologna Process.5 In the Bologna Follow-Up Group’s 2005 report to the Conference of European Ministers in Bergen, the chapter on ‘Participating international institutions and organisations’ illustrates the articulation between the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Strategy.

The Bologna process coincides with Commission policy in higher education supported though the European programmes and notably Socrates-Erasmus. From an EU perspective, the Bologna process fits into the broader Lisbon Strategy, launched in March 2000.6

The intertwining of vocational and higher education as well as the Lisbon Strategy and the Bologna Process is also evident in the more direct financial support to higher education reforms. In this respect, the Commission plays a structuring role. The Commission provides material and intellectual support to the Bologna Process. It has encouraged the creation of a European Qualification Framework. The Commission’s funding of Bologna-related forums, conferences, expert and working groups reflects its political will to push the process forward. Nowadays, the EU-funded programmes are a major source of revenues for the Brussels-based stakeholder organisations representing students, youth, higher education institutions and those promoting EU policy priorities such as ‘lifelong learning’. The wide array of funding schemes for higher education highlights the Commission’s role as a key player in both vocational and higher education policies. While the Commission’s material investments are presented as a neutral means to ‘promote’ the European Higher Education Area, these funds express strategic political choices.

From an EU perspective, there is also an obvious link between the Bologna Process and the Copenhagen Process on enhanced European co-operation in Vocational education and training, launched in December 2002. The Commission has taken several initiatives to establish synergies between both processes in important fields such as transparency of qualifications (EUROPASS), Credit Transfer, Quality Assurance and the European Qualifications Framework (EQF).7

Still, the Commission’s role in educational policies, as in other areas that come under the Open Method of Coordination, has been extensively debated. Approaching this from a decentred perspective allow us to go beyond the general debates on the absolute weight of the European Commission in educational matters. The bulk of the academic literature on the topic has been EU-centred. A critical strand of analysis sheds light on the growing involvement of the Commission in the formally intergovernmental BFUG, thus suggesting that the Bologna Process was ‘steered’ by the Commission (Croche, 2010). Although stimulating, this research focuses on the Commission as the main spiritus movens of educational reforms. In a more bottom-up perspective, it is possible to analyse the Commission’s growing ties with representatives of academia, Brussels-based stakeholders and EU-funded expert groups that build on the trust forged during their long-term involvement in EU programs.

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