Structural Reforms in Higher Education

In this book, we define structural reforms as government-initiated or supported reforms aimed at affecting a significant part of the higher education system and its structure. In this definition, structure refers to the number of elements in the system (i.e. higher education institutions) and their relative positions and functions. Structural reforms aim to change the higher education landscape. Incremental changes unfolding over longer periods of time and reforms targeting other aspects of higher education (e.g. student access and selection, the academic profession, funding or internal governance of higher education institutions) are not part of this book. Such a structural reform definition is of course ambiguous and debatable. To further clarify its meaning, we distinguish three types of structural reforms:

1. Structural reforms aiming at horizontal differentiation, that is, transformations of the functions of different types of higher education institutions. These reforms directed towards establishing horizontal (or functional) differentiation within a given higher education system include reforms focusing on the strengthening or weakening of binary divides (or more generally a division of labour between different types of institutions or different institutions of a particular type) and profiling policies driven by functionalistic considerations (Bleiklie, 2003; Taylor et al., 2008; Teichler, 1988).

  • 2. Structural reforms aiming at vertical differentiation, that is, increasing or decreasing performance differences between higher education institutions. Through vertical differentiation reforms, governments aim to bring about quality or prestige differences between higher education institutions. ‘Excellence initiatives’ fit this category (Marginson and van der Wende, 2007; Salmi, 2009; Cremonini et al., 2014).
  • 3. Structural reforms aiming at affecting interrelationships between higher education institutions. This third type of landscape reforms relate to the interrelations between higher education institutions and revolve around supporting cooperation, forming alliances and establishing mergers. The latter have been popular over the last decades and referred to as ‘merger mania’ (e.g. Pruvot et al., 2015; Pinheiro et al., 2015).

This threefold distinction further specifies structural reforms but does not provide a watertight typology. A structural reform could focus on more than one dimension. For instance, if a merger process intends to affect the power balance between the subsector in which the merger takes place and other subsectors, then this merger process does not only fit the interrelationship type, but the system’s vertical differentiation as well. The Aalto University merger in Finland serves as an example. To complicate matters, there may be differences between policy objectives and policy outcomes. A structural reform may aim to establish horizontal differentiation, but may affect interrelationships as a side effect.

The number of structural reforms in Europe is impressive - we live indeed in an age of reform. Based on our definition of structural reform, since the 1990s in Europe alone over 30 structural reforms have been implemented. Moreover, in some countries more than one structural reform took place since 1990. In the next section, we will briefly present the 11 structural reform processes that are described and analysed in this book.

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