Future Scenarios for the European Higher Education Area: Exploring the Possibilities of “Experimentalist Governance”

Robert Harmsen


Even as the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) formally came into being at the 2010 Budapest-Vienna ministerial conference, a growing sense appeared to be taking hold among participants that the Bologna Process (BP) had, to a significant extent, “exhausted” itself after a little more than a decade of existence. That sense of exhaustion was, in some respects, undoubtedly a positive development insofar as it could be likened to the exhaustion of a marathon runner who has completed the race. In less lyrical terms, the process appeared exhausted insofar as it had succeeded in achieving many of its initial goals, particularly at the level of the enunciation and acceptance of broad policy templates. As a commissioned independent assessment concluded at the time, “Most 'architectural' elements of the EHEA, i.e. those involving legislation and national regulation, have been implemented in most countries” (Westerheijden 2010, p. 5). At the same time, however, this underlying sense of exhaustion also had a more negative dimension. Here it appears rather more as an exhaustion born of frustration, of recognizing that perhaps a plateau had been reached from which further advances might not be possible, or would be possible only by overcoming inordinately difficult obstacles. Those frustrations, in large part, reflect the difficulties of on the ground implementation where, as the assessment report also highlighted, institutional and program level responses were “still wanting” (Ibid).

Given this situation, it would not be surprising if there were to be a (renewed) tendency toward questioning the “soft law” foundations of the EHEA as it has developed to date—i.e. the essentially non-binding character of the process, which seeks to foster policy learning through the establishment of shared understandings of best practice, processes of national reporting, and attendant peer review.

These soft law moorings have generated a degree of criticism in the scholarly literature. Most prominently, Garben (2010, 2011) has advanced a comparatively broad-based critique of the soft law character of the Bologna Process, making the case for the putative superiority of a regulation of the area by way of conventional, “hard” European Union (EU) law—at least as regards those EHEA participating states that are also EU member states. In so doing, she highlighted what she regarded to be fundamental procedural failings as regards the democracy and transparency of the process, as well as related substantive shortcomings concerned with its lack of effectiveness. In this, she joined a wider body of criticism of the so-called new modes of governance, principally concerned with what are taken to be its negative consequences for both parliamentary and legal accountability (cf. Idema and Keleman 2006).

Such criticisms undoubtedly have a degree of validity; issues of both accountability and effectiveness do arise in the context of the process, as indeed—it might be added—of governance processes more generally. The question that needs to be posed, however, is whether a hard law alternative is either a practical, or necessarily a superior, option.

The question of practicality is a straightforward one. Bologna has soft law in its DNA, and is—in the literal sense—practically inconceivable in another form. Following a now well-known sequence of events, it was through the development of loose forms of cooperation deliberately placed outside of the remit of the EU that a European higher education (HE) policy space was finally created (cf. Muller and Ravinet 2008), overcoming the longstanding and sometimes fierce national resistance which had long met European Commission initiatives to move in this direction within an EU framework (cf. Corbett 2005). It is fair to say that little has changed as regards this underlying dynamic in the intervening years. If states have become more comfortable in discussing higher education policy in European fora, they have shown no particular willingness to cede control over this chasse gardée of national policy. Moreover, it is evident that the development of formal regulation in the framework of a (currently) 47 member pan-European process, extending well beyond the EU 28, is a political non-starter. As a practical matter, the EHEA will “sink or swim” on the basis of its ability to make soft law structures work; there is no politically realistic “hardening” alternative.

The argument could, however, further be made that, even were such a hardening to be politically possible, it would not be substantively desirable. Insofar as the Bologna Process has been successful in creating a common European “language” of higher education policy (cf. Zgaga 2012), with widely shared points of comparison, it has done so through the fostering of consensual dialogue, where no threat of imposed solutions—of a “shadow of hierarchy” to use the jargon of the public policy literature—hangs in the balance. It is this absence of compulsion that has opened possibilities for policy learning, which have been significantly—if unevenly

—seized. It is by no means certain that a hard law regime, even if it were it to be possible, would produce better results. Given the sensitivity of the area, the risk would rather be that any hypothetical moves toward a formal regulatory regime would produce substantial national disengagement and/or non-compliance, while undermining the strong potential learning dynamics engendered by the existing, looser forms of cooperation.

It is thus on this basis that the present paper proceeds to examine the future of the EHEA as a governance process, seeking to probe how soft law instruments may be better developed so as to introduce a renewed dynamism into an “exhausted” process. To that end, a model of “experimentalist governance”, following Sabel and Zeitlin (Sabel and Zeitlin 2008, 2010), is first introduced below. Their four-stage model is then mapped on to an account of the governance of the Bologna Process. This mapping exercise particularly highlights the existence of systemic impediments preventing the development of strong dynamics of iterative policy learning connecting the national and the European levels. The final major section of the paper then seeks to draw lessons from this analysis, looking at the ways in which such impediments to policy learning might be removed or alleviated. Attention is focused successively on the relationship of expertise (and experts) to the wider policy process; the representativeness of European-level stakeholders; the higher education policy discourse of the European Commission; and the reframing of national higher education debates in terms which, over fifteen years after the Bologna Declaration, should now be seen as moving to a “post-reform” phase. Overall, a sketch is drawn of a series of plausible developmental paths, which may provide a means of both serving individual actor interests and the wider goal of further developing a robust pan-European higher education policy forum.

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