Reframing National Higher Education Policy Debates

The final lesson returns us to national higher education debates, and the relative lack of penetration by or engagement with Bologna/the EHEA at the national level. As discussed in the previous section, part of the explanation for this shortcoming— such that the feedback loop is not closed up so as to facilitate policy learning—lies in the pursuit by national governments of strategies of “discursive closure”. Governments selectively use broadly defined “Bologna norms” to legitimate particular policy choices, correspondingly restricting wider policy debates. The government, in effect, sets itself up as the authoritative mediator between the national and the European arenas, and thus, at least from a purely strategic point of view, would have no interest in facilitating the opening of further channels of communication between those arenas. Insofar as this is true, why would governmental actors cede this strategic advantage?

Occasionally, perhaps, individual actors may listen to the “better angels of their nature” and, by acts of grace or charity, unilaterally withdraw from an advantageous position. A generalized outbreak of such altruism nonetheless appears no more likely here than in other walks of life. At a systemic level, the question to be posed is thus rather one of whether the strategic advantage remains a strategic advantage

—and here it might reasonably be suggested that the leitmotif of the BP/EHEA has changed, and changed in such a way as to make it more amenable to dialogue.

The first phase of Bologna was undoubtedly marked by an ethos of “reform”. Already the 1998 Sorbonne meeting set the tone for a process whereby the creation of a European framework was primarily conceived in terms intended to leverage difficult domestic reforms (see, for example, Haskel 2009). In the more than fifteen years since the launch of the process, however, major changes have occurred, fundamentally reshaping the context for at least a lead group of countries. Significant reforms have been realized, both in connection with the BP and more widely. This has, moreover, correspondingly reshaped the landscape of national higher education systems and the attendant demands of policy. There are, evidently, a great variety of national situations, having undergone very uneven degrees of change relative to highly diverse starting points. Nevertheless, at the level of the process as a whole, it no longer makes sense to speak of an agenda dominated by “reform” in the same terms as at the outset. Different problems and dynamics must inevitably come to the fore as the EHEA enters a “post-reform” phase.

Most evidently, at least for those countries having undergone major reforms, the focus has broadly shifted to questions of system steering. Again with due recognition of the diversity of national systems concerned, the broad thrust of reforms may nonetheless be described in terms of having moved from what were often comparatively hierarchical “command and control” models, with a strongly interventionist governmental presence, to systems which grant higher education institutions considerably more formal autonomy with, as a counterpart, new or extended mechanisms of external accountability (cf. Harmsen 2014). Correspondingly, that which policymakers now require is rather less the leverage of external legitimation, and rather more new understandings of how to operate the levers of a complex system, so as to allow for a necessary and desirable institutional-level autonomy, while also permitting the degree of steering required to secure overall system-level policy goals. Operating in such an environment thus requires new governance technologies, laying a particular emphasis on dialogue or communication—i.e. “steering”, by definition, requires a connectedness and responsiveness which militates against the type of unilateral “discursive closure” identified earlier.

The questions posed for the EHEA are those of how it might engage this changed reality, and this on two levels:

• How, within its remit, may the EHEA contribute to dialogues about “best

practice” in terms of developing policy instruments related to the steering of complex higher education systems (and this in a context where it is unlikely that the process will move significantly toward encompassing governance or management issues per se)?

• How, in developing these substantive dialogues, might the process itself be

further opened out—drawing in and engaging a broader range of actors, particularly national-level stakeholders, than is presently the case?

If there are no easy answers to these questions, the broad direction of development nevertheless appears rather clear and rather clearly promising. A “post-reform” EHEA should, by the nature of the issues under discussion, be more amenable to the development of wider, more inclusive dialogues, having the potential to foster dynamic processes of policy learning.

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