The Policy Design Process: Limited Set of Options, Swift Decision-Making
As explained above, the idiosyncratic nature of the Flemish qualification structure with an ambiguous position of the two-cycle programmes ‘at an academic level’ within the university colleges posed some challenges. Verhoeven et al. (2000), in their research on the missions and function of
Flemish university colleges and universities, reflect on the policy options available at that time and explore two directions (note that Verhoeven and colleagues could not yet have been aware of the governmental proposals, these only emerged in 2001). One was to stick to the then typology of three different programmes (professional short-cycle programmes, two-cycle programmes of an academic level and academic two-cycle programmes). The other direction would be to create ‘Bologna type’ one-cycle programmes, leading to access to the labour market and two types of master’s programmes, one more academically oriented, the other more geared towards the professions. Verhoeven et al. (2000) seem to suggest that university colleges were to offer professional bachelors and masters, and that universities would offer academic bachelors and masters. This is supported by later work of Verhoeven (2008) arguing that most university colleges did not have the research infrastructure or tradition equivalent to the universities (e.g. most teachers and students in the colleges stressed the preparation of students for the labour market, Verhoeven et al., 2000, 2002). Dittrich et al. (2004) ventured - but they do this with hindsight - that university colleges could have been upgraded to universities, but note that this would lead to a politically unacceptable fragmentation of (research) capacity. Direct integration of the two-cycle programmes in the universities would not be acceptable, for it would go against the regional function of the university colleges and would - probably - also affect access to HE negatively. Furthermore, keeping the one- and two-cycle programmes in the university college sector was seen as a quality impulse for that sector. Moreover, the setting up of associations was seen by some university colleges as an instrument to gain academic status. An advantage of the associations for the universities would be to get better access to potential students in the region.
The policy options above reflect the preferences and positions of the key stakeholders involved. For university colleges, there was something to gain through a better positioning and transparency of their two-cycle programmes. For universities, there was no immediate threat, for they would be involved in the academisation process. This does, however, not imply that there would only be benefits. According to some of the interviewees, some actors in universities and university colleges understood that, in the longer term, the developments towards associations could imply a tug of war on the eventual location of the two-cycle programmes. The interviews confirm that there was actually only one viable policy option: to work on the academisation of the two-cycle programmes and use the association as the organisational vehicle to achieve that objective. This idea was worked out in detail by a small group at the higher levels of the Ministry of Education and Training, including the director of the Flemish Interuniversity Council, the director of a University College in Brussels and the secretary general of the Christian Employers’ Association (ACW). Around this small circle, there were influential persons engaged, among others the rector of the KU Leuven, Andre Oosterlinck. Reflecting on this phase of the policy design process, most interviewees agreed that the process may have been at odds with how policy change would ‘normally’ evolve (including a much broader set of stakeholders, possibly including a so-called maatschappelijk debat, a public discussion on the topic). Such a public discussion would fit the consociational nature of political decision-making in Flanders. Vercruysse (2009, p. 21), however, reflects that many structural reforms in Flanders are ‘decided upon by a small group of relatively like-minded persons, with limited feedback or input from stakeholders in the field of higher education’ (our translation). In that sense, one may be tempted to judge the design phase as ‘undemocratic’, but this would be a rather strong verdict. Interviewees agreed that there was a lot of discussion with many involved, also with key persons in the administration of the Ministry of Education and Training, although some interviewees also argued that the design phase was strongly influenced by a limited number of powerful actors from the university sector, including the rector of the KU Leuven. Furthermore, those involved stressed that swift action was called for: Flanders needed to respond rather quickly to the Bologna challenges to forestall that Flanders would be lagging behind. Opening up the discussions beyond the inner circle could have led to serious delays in the policy developments. An important contextual condition played a role here as well: at that time (1999-2003), the first ‘purple’ government (i.e. a socialists-liberal coalition without the Christian democrats who had been in almost all governmental coalitions since World War II) was in power, which had to tread carefully, given that the majority of students were enrolled in Catholic HE institutions.
A green paper appeared in March 2001, followed by a preliminary draft of the decree in October 2001 and a first draft of the decree in November 2001. In January 2002, a broad working group (with representatives of the universities, university colleges, students and the Flemish Education Council (VLOR)) was set up to discuss the restructuring. The working group also communicated with other councils (Flemish Interuniversity Council [VLIR] and Flemish Council of University Colleges [VLHORA]) but their influence was not fully clear. According to the interviews, some universities (especially the KU Leuven) and university colleges (strategically) understood much better what was at stake than others, and were much more actively involved in the initial phases of the process.
Subsequently, Minister Vanderpoorten proposed the following to the Flemish Parliament in February 2003. Associations would be new legal bodies in which at least one university college and no more than one university would participate. The purpose of the associations (according to article 101) was to (1) organise cooperation between professional bachelors and academic degree programmes, including transfer opportunities; (2) support the coordination of research, in particular the translation from fundamental research to applied research and vice versa, and the coordination of innovation; (3) to coordinate logistics in general and (4) to act as a forum to prepare the evolution towards the integrated HE area. Associations have certain responsibilities - stipulated by the law - relating to the offering of a rational supply of programmes; the coordination of educational profiles, student guidance and transfer; the coordination of personnel policies; long(er)-term plans for educational innovation and improvement; development of long(er)- term plans for scientific research and scientific and social service provision; and supervision of the link between research and teaching in the colleges that offer academic education (Verhoeven, 2008, p. 47). The proposal as set out above was not similar to the initial proposal of the Minister a few years earlier. In the policy design stage, the proposal underwent some changes.
Two important changes were made throughout the discussions from the initial ideas proposed in 2001 and final acceptance in Flemish Parliament. First, at earlier stages, there was talk of regional associations, the idea being that universities would work together with nearby university colleges. The idea was ventured, particularly by the liberal party, as a vehicle to break the (historical) power of the Catholic HE institutions. According to the interviews, there was very limited support within the inner circle for regional associations, for this would go against the idea of internationalisation and globalisation. Also, it would mean an intrusion of the generally accepted freedom of education (Coenjaerts and Van Weel, 2007, p. 42). Second, initially the legal constructions were ‘light’ in that the associations would have limited powers concerning matters such as personnel, the delegation of educational decisions and full-blown mergers. There was consensus among the key stakeholders that the associations should not imply the emergence of new (HE) institutions. They were meant to be administrative arrangements. A lobby of Christian democrats (as said, at that time in the opposition) during the parliamentary discussions in April 2003 led to a non-exhaustive list of powers in the decree, in fact offering more powers to associations beyond administrative matters. The decree was discussed in April 2003 and accepted (supported by a very large majority of the Members of Parliament), it appeared in the Belgisch Staatsblad in August (Belgisch Staatsblad, 2003).
The policy tools included in the reform process were twofold. The 2003 Decree obviously was strongly regulatory (authority tool), although there were some elements of self-regulation. Self-regulation pertained, for example, to the further operationalisation of the accreditation processes (including the involvement of various stakeholders) and the further con- cretisation of the process of academisation. Obviously, this self-regulation process was not without sticks: the programmes eventually needed to fulfil the academisation requirements to receive accreditation (and hence governmental funding). Next to the authority tool, the government made funds available to implement the academisation. In article 152 of the Decree, it was specified that 37.5 million euro would be available for the period 20022006. There were also some supplementary funds for research at the university colleges. In various academic papers, serious concerns were raised that the funds would not suffice (Dittrich et al., 2004, p. 314). Coenjaerts and Van Weel refer to a calculation of Heijnen (2006), who argued that 175 million euro would be needed (see also Verhoeven, 2004-05).
As argued above, it appears that the structural reform proposed was - at that time - the only realistic and viable policy option to make the Flemish degree and qualification structure fitting the Bologna expectations. The essence of the policy proposal did not change fundamentally in the period in which it was publicly discussed (March 2001-April 2003) with a limited set of stakeholders, there was no public outcry or resistance from key stakeholders, probably also because many could not foresee that the structural reform in the long run would lead to monopolistic status of some universities. In one interview, it was also argued that there was resistance, especially from the university college sector, but the powerful actors associated with the KU Leuven were at once very successful in countering this resistance by silencing the university college sector. Hence, there was consensus-driven convergence towards the policy proposed, the small set of key actors agreeing on the common course of action, with minor changes in the initial proposal, although it could also be argued that this consensus was enforced by the most powerful actors. These elements seem to point either at realistic policymaking or at having developed a ‘proper’ solution to the problem. If one were to be critical ofthe process, it could be argued that the Minister was ‘pushing around the hot potato’ by not immediately solving the ‘problem’ of the two-cycle professional programmes of the university colleges. Then again, it seemed reasonable to first allow the programmes to change their profiles and only then to decide where to locate the (accredited) programmes. Some of the interviewees shared that some key players involved could already foresee the ultimate outcome of the process (embedding the two-cycle programmes in the universities, see next section), but many were not sure about the eventual outcomes. Vercruysse (2009, p. 21) reflects that - with hindsight - it might have been better to stick to a distinction between bachelor and master programmes and to create a broad set of different programmes, not all necessarily being involved in academic research (but also applied research), but still meeting the requirements of the Dublin descriptors and the European Qualifications Framework. The choice for a rather strict distinction between professional and academic programmes - based on a too narrow inward-looking approach - may have been artificial.