Lessons from the Dutch Case

Successful ideas are beliefs that generate enough critical support to be adopted into policy, or that otherwise lead to some form of change as the result of a policy that has incorporated an idea (Beland and Cox, 2016). We have argued that the idea to strengthen the research function ofDutch hogescholen has been successful, despite of some critical remarks. Why was this idea successful? Which factors have contributed to the relatively successful and smooth journey from idea to institutionalization?

In retrospect, we can observe that this journey, unfinished as it might be, is taken step by step. Instead of radical change in a short time period, the establishment of a research function at institutions without experience with conducting research needs a long breath. Learning new rules and adapting or even abandoning old ones is no sinecure (Lanzara, 1998). With hindsight, cutting such a complex process of strengthening the hogescholen research function into pieces - first lectorates, then RAAK grants and finally Centres of Expertise - has worked out well, although it was not intentionally planned for. The different instruments, implemented at different times and coordinated by different bodies, aiming at the same overall goal, allowed for gradual development and manageable processes. As the result of that, the imbedding of research at hogescholen has continuously but slowly progressed.9

This journey from idea to institutionalization underlines that complex policy reforms need time to sink in. A long-term perspective to assess impact is recommendable. Policymakers must acknowledge that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step. Early stock taking can be misleading, as adapting to new realities and changing attitudes and cultures usually do not happen overnight. The first evaluations of the lecto- rates took place soon after its introduction, which implied that spectacular results could not be expected. Such a lack of results could have caused a radical change in policy direction or even discontinuation. Sensitive action of the independent committee however prevented this. Instead of being a strict judge, their monitoring, advising and evaluations attached meaning to the idea to strengthen the research function ofhogescholen. Interaction between the committee and the hogescholen gave the initial ideas meaning. The fact that the goals of the ‘lectorate policy’ were not defined in ‘smart terms’ enabled the independent committee to act in this way.

The rules for making use of the grant to install lectorates and conduct practice-oriented research projects in terms of eligibility and submission were clear and relatively simple. The targets of both instruments however were not SMART; the number of lectorates or research collaborations to be established has not been set in advance. While the lack of such a yardstick makes it hard to determine successfulness, it provides the opportunity to assess the use of these instruments differently. The SKO, for example, used the ‘soft targets’ to report progress in qualitative terms, to stress the potential of research at hogescholen and to give recommendations for improvement without nailing progress down to numbers only. In search for an adequate embedding of research at hogescholen, a calculative culture might have been counter-productive. The lack of specified, quantitative goals, and the way the independent committees (SKO and SIA) dealt with this, seems to have been an important success factor.

This incremental path can also be demonstrated with the choice of the funding instruments. After introducing it as a temporary grant, it has become a structural fund. The fact that it concerned additional budgets encouraged hogescholen to submit proposals. From a financial point of view, lectorates and collaborative research projects would not go at the expense of other activities.

Finally, the acceptance of ideas as well as their implementation is context dependent (Campbell, 2004; Beland and Cox, 2016). In this Dutch case, the context has been supportive. Disruptive events, such as the financial crisis or a number of scandals in the higher education sector, and other higher education policies have not disturbed the gradual strengthening of the research function at hogescholen. In fact, many national and international policies have supported a stronger research role of hogescholen from the start in the late 1990s to the current situation.

Another contextual factor that has contributed to successfully institutionalize the idea concerns the political environment. Policy design and implementation regarding the strengthening of the hogescholen research function has taken place in relatively calm political waters. The policy arenas were not discordant. Loudly voiced conflicting interests and interventions from outside the sector were absent. Political attention, and hence possible intervention, has been marginal. In this ‘quite surroundings’, the Association has been able to successfully build coalitions and pushing the idea forward. The ministry has been supportive from start to finish, also because along the way real problems did not occur. Moreover, in this dossier, the ministry opted for selfgovernance; the hogescholen were largely responsible for carrying this idea through. Government action was limited: soft regulation through a covenant and providing (modest) funding. The implementation can be seen as one of ‘low fidelity’, allowing for a large degree of local variation and requiring trust from central policymakers (Land and Gordon, 2013). Business and industry, by means of their employers’ organizations, have been supportive and willing to collaborate. The university sector hardly took notice of what was going on. Perhaps a certain degree of disdain was observable; anyway, the scale and scope of hogescholen research did not upset the universities. In this respect, as the outcome of intense discussions about the nature of research at hogescholen, the strategy of hogescholen to find their niche (practice- oriented research, especially at the regional level) and to avoid competition with university research has been a clever one.

 
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