Structural Reforms in Context

Structural reform processes affect and are affected by the social, cultural, economic and political contexts in which they are embedded. General as well as sector-specific institutional settings, interconnectedness of policy domains and path dependency frame the space in which structural reforms emerge and develop.

This is, on the one hand, an important conceptual and theoretical point. Individual reform projects do not come into a vacuum, but are interacting with the outcomes of prior reform projects as well as the overall governance context. This is in particular important when assessing goal achievement and exploring the antecedents thereof. Here, a distinction between failures of a specific policy - for example, due to inappropriate policy instruments - and more generic governance failures - concerning the overall coordination in a specific sector and the state’s capacity to provide effective governance in general - is important (Peters, 2015). In this respect, it is important to focus on (1) the policy content of the reform itself and (2) the institutional arrangements and actor constellations which may affect in a more general way the policy process, in particular implementation (May, 2015). The action arena approach we outlined above allows us to do this, without assuming a priori that institutional arrangements and actor constellations remain the same in all stages of the policy process.

There is also a methodological aspect to this. The 11 cases are diverse in terms of general context characteristics such as population size, global competitiveness, quality of governance and economic growth, as well as in terms of higher education context characteristics, including higher education sector structure, student enrolments, tertiary education attainment and higher education expenditure.

The 11 European higher education systems in this volume developed through different histories, traditions and backgrounds. More than half of the systems have a Humboldtian legacy in terms of widely held views on higher education. One system has an Anglo-Saxon tradition (Wales) and two have a Napoleonic history (France and Spain). The steering modes in higher education show both similarities and differences across the selected countries. While many higher education systems traditionally operated within a state steering governance model (state control, strong hierarchy, centralised decision-making and limited autonomy of institutions), almost all have moved away from this model in the last two decades, although the direction and timing of these changes in steering approaches have been different. Currently, more institutional autonomy, strengthened university self-regulation capacities, greater stakeholder involvement and a state role ‘limited’ to setting market rules are more common. Only in the UK, an opposite movement seems to have taken place, where the government - although in NPM steering-at-a-distance mode, has taken more of a steering attitude to the higher education system since around 1980.

Unforeseen events such as an economic, social or political crisis can evoke or block change. Major events such as the global financial crisis or a radical political change in a country while the structural reform is being designed or implemented may affect the outcome. Also, ‘radical’ reforms in other parts of the higher education sector or adjoining domains may leave their imprint on the structural reforms. The Bologna process could serve as such an example: the focus was largely on degree reforms, but many other impacts on national events at the system level have been noted (Westerheijden et al., 2010).

Each country study presented in this book starts with a short description of the background and context of the structural reform. Apart from this contextualisation, in each case study, it has been investigated if there have been external or disruptive events that have affected the reform process or its outcomes.

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