European Communication and Cooperation Within Higher Education Research and with Higher Education Policy and Practice

In examining how higher education researchers communicate and cooperate with their colleagues across Europe or world-wide, and how higher education research interacts with policy and practice across borders, we have to bear in mind, as already pointed out initially, that higher education research tends to have a strong national emphasis. This reflects the fact that—irrespective of the global and universal elements in higher education—many features of higher education which are addressed in higher education research, e.g. institutional patterns, governance, funding, study programmes, and personnel policies, are predominantly shaped on the national level. As a consequence, the variety of higher education systems across countries is striking—a fact which justifies the analysis focus on single national higher education systems and concurrently increases barriers as far as in-depth comparative analysis is concerned.

Europe, however, has experienced since World War II a chain of supra-national higher education policies of stimulating the growth of similarities and of increasing border-crossing interaction in higher education. These policies and their actual impact on higher education have clearly called for increasing European and international perspectives in higher research. We might name four waves of European higher education policies initiated by various supra-national actors (Teichler 2010a):

• First, efforts were made since the 1950s to increase mutual understanding between the European countries by facilitating student mobility. The Council of Europe took the lead and later cooperated with UNESCO and the European Commission in taking care of conventions regarding the recognition of study (linked to access, temporary student mobility and mobility after graduation) across European countries.

• Second, a multitude of activities were coordinated notably by OECD since the

1960s to seek for common directions of modernisation of higher education in the wake of its expansion and its growing relevance for economic development.

For example, efforts of diversifying higher education in Western European countries were strongly influenced by these policy initiatives.

• Third, the European Community/Union became a major player of European

higher education policy in the 1980s and 1990s with activities of stimulating mobility and cooperation, whereby ERASMUS support for temporary intra-European student mobility turned out to be the flagship of programmes.

• Fourth, the governments of the individual European countries decided in the late

1990s to strive for system convergence in the framework of what is called the “Bologna Process”. Concurrently, the European Union advocated a “Lisbon Process” with the aim of increasing substantially the funding of research and technology across countries.

The growth of supra-national policy initiatives in Europe could be expected to be highly important for higher education research, because supra-national actors tended to be more strongly interested in systematic information collection on higher education than national policy actors (see Sadlak and Hüfner 2002)—obviously due to the fact that nobody on the international arena would trust the first-hand experiences of the policy makers and practitioners to the extent we still can observe on national level in many individual European countries. Moreover, supra-national higher education policy actors tend to advocate 'evidence-based' approaches more strongly than national policy actors, because they have to rely more strongly on the power of the argument than on political power as such.

As a consequence, many European higher education researchers were already strongly involved in stock-taking and policy formulation activities, before international communication between higher education researchers and a comparative project began to flourish. Actually, one of the motives to establish CHER as an international forum of higher education researchers was not to meet each other only under policy objectives at events arranged by international organisations, but also in settings aimed at enhancing the academic quality of knowledge generation in this domain (see Teichler 2013b).

Without being able to pinpoint in detail the complexity of specific trends and actions at specific points in time, we can argue that the readiness for a European dialogue and for cooperation between higher education research and higher education policy and practise increased visibly since about the 1980s due to:

• a higher density and forcefulness of supra-national policies in higher education,

• a gradual erosion of the formerly widespread belief within the individual

European countries that higher education in their respective country is 'non-comparable' and, instead, increasing attention being paid to possible 'global' or 'convergent' trends of 'modernization',

• a growing intra-European interaction in higher education and an increasing

inclination also of researchers in the behavioural and social sciences to communicate and cooperate across borders, and

• an increase of funds on the European level for undertaking comparative anal-

yses, as well as analyses of supra-national features in higher education.

Organisations such as OECD, UNESCO and the Council of Europe continued or enlarged 'think tank' projects where higher education researchers play a major role (cf. Scott 2008; see the results of recent projects in Altbach et al. 2009; Meek et al. 2009; OECD 2008, 2009). And the European Union became a highly visible actor in the communication and cooperation between higher education policy and higher education research.

A detailed analysis was undertaken in 2004 about EU-funded higher education research—either initiated by the European Commission or by other political actors (notably those responsible for the Bologna Process) with financial assistance by the EU, as well as those initiated by higher education researchers (Van der Wende and Huisman 2004). No corresponding analysis has been undertaken for the subsequent years. Some major trends and major approaches, though, can be named here, which are indicative for the situation as a whole.

First, the European Commission itself commissions studies for the purpose of 'evaluation' and 'monitoring' of the major EU programmes. This has been often the case as regards ERASMUS, i.e. the largest of the educational support programmes, where evaluation must be undertaken for the preparation of the decision, whether the programme is continued, modified or discontinued after a few years. Actually, the largest and most ambitious studies of ERASMUS have been undertaken or led by higher education researchers (CHEPS et al. 2008; Huisman and van der Wende 2004–2005; Janson et al. 2009; Rosselle and Lentiez 1999; Teichler and Gordon 2001; Teichler and Maiworm 1997).

Second, there are various modes and channels for the EU to initiate policy-related analyses or for higher education researchers to apply for financial support of such analyses. For example, higher education researchers from six European countries have recently collaborated in this framework in a study on university-industry relationships (Mora et al. 2010).

Third, the European Commission supports some projects in this domain in the framework of research promotion. While EU research promotion had been confined to the natural sciences for a long time, social sciences have been eligible for support since 1995. The first major project supported that way was a comparative survey on graduate employment and work (Schomburg and Teichler 2006; Teichler 2007), which was followed by a second one five years later (Allen and van der Velden 2011; see also Mora et al. 2013). A study on internationalisation policies and activities of various European countries (Huisman and van der Wende 2004–2005) was also among the first ones funded in this framework.

Fourth, the European Commission funded—in coordination with the Bologna Follow Up-Group (BFUG), i.e. the policy coordinators of the Bologna Process between the ministerial conferences—various analyses of the reforms linked to the Bologna Process. Most of these analyses, however, were not open to higher education researchers. Rather, the EU asked its own information agency, i.e. EACEA —Eurydice, and one stakeholder organisation participating in the BFUG, i.e. the European University Association (EUA), to undertake systematic accounts of the extent to which the Bologna reform objectives actually were realized (see for example Eurydice 2010; Sursock and Smidt 2010). In three major recent studies and publications on the Bologna Process, however, the research activities and the interpretations of higher education researchers became highly visible:

• The Flemish government initiated—in preparation of the 2009 Leuven conference—a collection of papers, in which European higher education researchers commented the developments and possible futures of the Bologna Process— notably in the areas of governance, quality, mobility and diversity (Kehm et al. 2009).

• In preparation of the 2010 Budapest and Vienna conferences, two research

centres and a consultancy agency undertook a so-called “independent assessment” of the Bologna Process within the first ten years (CHEPS et al. 2010).

• In preparation of the 2012 Bucharest conference, many higher education experts

were invited to write analyses on key themes of the Bologna Process. Actually, more than 50 articles addressed themes such as the principles of the European Higher Education Area, teaching and learning, quality assurance, mobility, governance, funding, diversification and the future of higher education (Curaj et al. 2012). According to those responsible, this activity “aimed at bringing the researchers' voice into higher education international level policy making”, and it gave “an unprecedented opportunity for researchers dealing with higher education matters to interact and contribute to the political process shaping the European Higher Education Area, as well as national policy agendas” (Deca 2012, p. v). A similar project is underway in 2014.

Altogether, many higher education researchers in Europe got involved in comparative analyses or analyses on cross-cutting developments. Some projects were strongly shaped by the request of those supporting and commissioning the projects, while others were initiated and strongly reflected the researchers' notions and intentions. By and large, European higher education researchers seized this state of affairs as an opportunity to undertake studies that looked across national borders, and they took for granted that they had to strike a complicated balance in these projects between academic criteria of theoretical and methodological quality and objectives of practical relevance, between the notions of practical relevance held by the higher education researchers and those held by the policy actors funding the projects, and between the desirable conditions for high-quality projects and actually prevailing time and financial pressures.

Yet, critique is widespread among higher education researcher as regards the conditions these European projects are exposed to:

• First, the decision-making setting as regards the award of such projects is viewed by many higher education researchers as creating a disadvantage for them and an advantage for consulting firms and external stakeholder organisations.

• Second, the rules, the administrative surveillance and the financial controls of

the projects are viewed as being hypertrophic. These mechanisms on EU level obviously are far more time-consuming and resource-binding than respective mechanisms regarding projects funded by national governmental agencies or by national public research promotion systems.

• Third, some projects are viewed as so highly prescribed thematically and

methodologically by the sponsoring or commissioning actors that hardly any room is left for improvement due to the expertise of those undertaking the study or due to learning processes in the course of the project.

• Fourth, the policies of supporting such projects are viewed as changing too

quickly and not taking care of continuity. Thus, opportunities of improving the state of knowledge through regular inquiries are missed, for example repeated surveys in order to examine change over time—as up to the present they are only established as regards student life in various European countries (Orr et al. 2011). For instance, the above named surveys of ERASMUS students or graduate employment and work were suitable to be repeated after a while, but were not transformed into a regular information system.

• Fifth, a strong ambivalence is felt as regards the interface between research and

policy (see the systematic discussion of this theme in Amaral and Magalhaes 2013; Gornitzka 2013) as regards the use of research findings. To what extent is there an openness for surprising and even policy-challenging facts? To what extent is there interest in a creative dialogue between researchers and actors in the system as regards the interpretation of findings? Do analyses have primarily a symbolic rather than an evaluative value?

Altogether, higher education researchers often consider themselves to be viewed by policy makers as being just one of many interchangeable experts. Even if an activity is undertaken from the policy “aimed at bringing the researchers' voice into higher education international level policy making”, as reported above, the higher education researchers conclude that more than half of those invited to raise their voice are not higher education researchers.

Of course, the higher education researchers know that many policy actors and practitioners view the higher education researchers critically. Suspicion is widespread that practical relevance is not high on the researchers' agenda, that they exaggerate quality standards and that they tend to present their own political preoccupations as research findings, etc. (see also critique named in Scott 2000). There are reasons on both sides not to consider the interface between research and policy as being a smooth operation.

One should add, however, that there are some opportunities for collaborative research of higher education researchers in Europe without the ambivalences of policy-initiated or policy-funded research. The biggest activity in this domain in recent years was funded by the European Science Foundation (ESF)—the European association of the major research promotion agencies in the individual European countries. In 2006, some higher education researchers applied successfully for the support of the “Higher Education Looking Forward (HELF)” project: for collaboration through conferences and joint writings of analyses on the possible futures of higher education and the respective future tasks of higher education research (see Brennan and Teichler 2008). Subsequently, funds were made available for four consortia of higher education researchers from 2009 to 2012 to conduct research on “Higher Education and Social Change in Europe (EuroHESC)”. In this biggest collaborative activity of higher education research in Europe ever undertaken so far, more than 100 scholars addressed governance of higher education, higher education and knowledge society, and the academic profession in Europe. Currently, two books based on these projects (Teichler and Höhle 2013; Kehm and Teichler 2013b; Fumasoli et al. 2015) and many articles are available. Prior experiences in such international consortia of higher education research suggest that the projects are likely to last substantially longer than the major funding periods, but that eventually a multitude of results can be expected (see Teichler 2014b).

Concluding Observations

In sum, higher education researchers in Europe experience similar trends on the European level as on the national level, but even more striking than in their national arena. Higher education research experiences some growth, somewhat better conditions and somewhat more public attention and recognition. This, however, is embedded into a much more substantial growth of other higher education experts involved in some way or other as well in the—more or less systematic—generation of knowledge and into the expectation that enhanced knowledge on higher education has to be visibly useful. There are no simple answers to the questions: to what extent do these conditions serve the enhancement of higher education research? And to what extent do these conditions of knowledge generation serve a desirable future of higher education?

Some years ago, the dominant development trend of higher education research in Western Europe has been characterized as “From policy advice to self-reflection” (Frackmann 1997). Neither the “ivory tower” nor the mere policy advice are the dominant aim of higher education researchers, but rather the enrichment of joint reflection of the state of higher education on the part of the higher education researchers and the higher education policy makers and practitioners.

The chances for improved communication between higher education research and higher education policy and practice might be viewed as good: policy and practice actors like to style themselves as strategic and influential, and researchers like to style themselves as those who understand the logics and the movements of higher education. As they both suffer from the complexity of a situation which had been described as “age of supercomplexity” (Barnett 2000) and “age of uncertainty” (Nowotny et al. 2001), readiness for the search of the unknown 'truth' and 'solution' might be higher than in the past.

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