The Politics of the Process

Overall, given the dominance of the academic profession, the possibilities for weaker actors to take part and influence the process are rather limited. This brings forward the question of which actors actually take part and what interests they protect.

Although introducing the binary divide in Croatian higher education was never high on the state’s higher education agenda, the state was continuously involved in the implementation process through its branches. The most active branch was certainly the executive one - the ministry responsible for higher education and ASHE. These two bodies have always been the main ones to oversee the implementation of the policy. Taking into account that the policy itself implied changes in legislation, the state’s legislative branch - the Parliament - was also involved, although not continuously. Finally, the state also acted through its judicial branch, namely, the Court, at two instances (in 2000 and 2006).

Given that the introduction of the binary divide would have affected universities and former post-secondary schools differently, these two types of HEIs positioned themselves differently with regards to this policy. They acted both as individual organizations and through their respective councils, the Rectors’ Conference in the case of universities and the Council of Polytechnics and Professional Schools of Higher Education. In addition to these two bodies, the two types of HEIs are also represented in the NCHE, albeit this body has more university representatives than those representing non-university institutions.

Described this way, who the main actors are seems to be rather straightforward: the state, universities and non-university institutions. However, the reality is somewhat more complex, given that universities, even without a formal role in the legislative, executive or judicial governing branches, wield significant power over these structures and, therefore, over the policy process. We could, then, conceive of, for example, the Parliament and the Court as penetrated structures (Bleiklie et al. 2015) whose individual members are either themselves members of the academic community (i.e. university professors more often than non-university academic staff) or under the direct influence of academics. For instance, the Court judges are often either closely linked to the Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb or academic staff members at some of the law faculties in the country, while the University of Zagreb itself, being the flagship university and the alma mater of the majority of Croatia’s political elite, is certainly the most influential HEI in the country. Another example is the work of the NCHE. According to the interviewed experts, even though NCHE is expected to allow universities to have professional programmes only under extraordinary circumstances (in line with the ‘Network of higher education institutions and study programmes in Croatia’), in practice all applications for such programmes coming from universities are accepted.

Finally, apart from these permanent structures, there are also temporary ones which are convened for specific purposes, such as the development of initial legislative proposals and strategic documents. University professors are particularly active in this phase, given that universities are considered both a major stakeholder and an authority on various issues. One example of this is the most recent Strategy for Education, Science and Technology adopted by the Parliament in 2014. The development of the strategy was steered by the academic community, and the vast majority of individuals involved were university professors; no one from non-university HEIs was involved in the team focusing on higher education reforms in general, while the sub-team focusing on the binary characteristics of the higher education system consisted of three university and two non-university professors.

In addition to being active in the design phase of the policy process, universities are also active in the implementation phase. They do this by pushing for legislative amendments in the Croatian Parliament or, as already suggested, by submitting complaints to the Constitutional Court concerning specific legislative provisions.

On the other hand, non-university HEIs are overall weaker as actors, although their influence over the policy process and their relative power has increased over time. Their position is certainly affected by their characteristics, relative to universities. They are comparably smaller, younger (most of them established in the second half of the 2000s) and less comprehensive. They are also more heterogeneous, which may mean that they have more diverse interests. If this is indeed the case, this would be another factor impeding stronger cohesion among them and reducing their capacity to act as one. At the same time, they are, as elsewhere, often considered to be of lower quality and tend to enjoy lower status (especially given that almost all private institutions are nonuniversity institutions). All these factors affect their relative authority on higher education policy matters and, consequently, their legitimacy as a policy actor.

With regards to the actors’ respective interests, one thing that is clear is that throughout the period universities sought to maintain the advantageous position they enjoyed, for which purpose they used their influence across different structures and at all stages of the policy process. In specific, they were reluctant to give up their right to provide professional study programmes, given that this was seen as reducing state funding. They were also keen to protect the relative standing of their own study programmes, in terms of access to further education, which they saw as being threatened by competition from the polytechnics and professional schools. Nonuniversity HEIs, on the other hand, were and still are, relatively weaker to push for a better position in the system.

At the same time, the ability of the state to secure a more successful policy implementation was hampered by at least three factors. First, this particular policy has never been high enough on its agenda to challenge the position of universities. Second, as already indicated, some of its structures have been penetrated and therefore under direct influence of universities, which would have probably diluted the influence of the state even if the policy had been on top of its agenda. Finally, as suggested earlier, the authority of the state in academic matters is lower when compared to that of universities. Thus, given that a functioning binary system does not enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of universities, it is hardly surprising that universities seek to obstruct its implementation by all legitimate means at their disposal.

When placed next to other actors, universities are, effectively, a veto player and a very powerful one. Presence of veto players is, as earlier suggested, yet another predictor of a policy failure, although as such it represents a failure of the governance structure, rather than the policy itself.

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