First Movers and Late Adopters in the Implementation Process

Initially, Flemish HE institutions showed eagerness to be involved in the associations (for predecree associations, see Tavernier, 2005) related to the strategic goals of the institutions themselves (De Knop, 2012). Through the formation of associations, universities could increase student numbers which could affect their market position in the competitive field of Flemish HE. Eventually, associations were formed around the five largest universities of Leuven, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Hasselt. The government did not allow the Catholic University of Brussels to form an association for its small size. Interviews consistently confirmed that the KU Leuven took the lead in the implementation process. Rector Oosterlinck’s influence was already visible in the design phase, in which he strongly opposed the idea of regional associations. The regional context of his university would not allow the university to remain the largest institution: the number of university colleges to associate with in the region was small. Hence, Oosterlinck established a cross-regional association building upon strong network ties with other (predominantly Catholic) university colleges. This turned out to be a highly successful strategy for the KU Leuven to remain the largest institution in the long run, reinforcing its competitive position.

Clearly, interviewees unanimously saw the KU Leuven (and also Ghent University) as early adopters, being the largest and most reputed universities in Flanders. The other three universities were perceived as rather passive followers. The universities in Leuven and Ghent considered the implementation as a means to strengthen their competitive position, whereas the late adopters followed a strategy of compliance with the coercive pressure (the 2003 Decree). Most Flemish university colleges already chose for associating with either the KU Leuven or Ghent University before the other three universities started searching for partners. Interviews consistently indicated that these three universities, after the fact, considered the late adoption a missed opportunity to grow as universities.

Besides the universities and university colleges, other actors involved in the implementation process were external committees and advisory councils. However, the coordinating role of the universities was of crucial importance (Gysen et al., 2006), with important roles for internal committees of the universities. Universities were the formal leaders of the implementation process and could operate by and large independently. Universities had much room to decide how to implement the structural reform, in that there was no formally published implementation plan. This also implied that the implementation of the structural reform allowed for a large degree of local variations (adaption to local context) and that the Ministry of Education and Training had high trust in shop-floor imple- menters. Therefore, the implementation style can be characterised as bottom up.

Apart from a lack of guidance on contents, it was also not clear how the financial resources should be used. Interestingly, it is not entirely clear whether the lack of clarity was a barrier or an opportunity. On the one hand, it could be argued that the absence of a plan implied high levels of uncertainty on how to transform the two-cycle programmes. The Ministry of Education and Training admitted that the original definition of the implementation process was rather vague and insufficient to encourage shop-floor implemented to transform the programmes (Verhoeven, 2004-05). An external committee (Committee Martens, reporting in 2005) was established with the aim to reduce uncertainty. On the other hand, one interviewee suggested that the vagueness of the original definition was an intentional strategy for there were concerns that more specific definitions (e.g. being explicit on the ultimate location of the two-cycle programmes, either at university colleges or universities) would lead to strong resistance of (some) shop- floor implementers and ultimately the failure of the academisation process. Furthermore, the absence of detailed planning could also be seen as providing a climate of trust, giving shop-floor implementers room to manoeuvre and the ability to implement the policy in function of local contexts.

The result of the Committee Martens was the specification of what academisation entailed, with a focus on research-based education on the one hand and research staff development at university colleges on the other. Uncertainty was, however, not entirely reduced, for instance with regards to the type of scientific research that was required at university colleges (Gysen et al., 2006). Initially, resources were mainly used to increase the number of research staff members at university colleges, which was criticised by the Recognition Committee, the committee that advised the government whether the academisation had been realised.

Communication among actors especially occurred within and between associations. Coenjaerts and Van Weel (2007) argue that the associations are relatively flexible in that there are no absolute boundaries between the five groups and they regularly communicate with each other and meet in other network structures. Direct communication between the ministry and shop- floor implementers was rather limited. The role ofthe ministry was restricted to developing and monitoring the overall policy framework, although in some interviews it was stressed that the ministry kept its distance.

It has to be stressed that the shop-floor implementers had two - somewhat conflicting - perspectives on the structural reform. On the one hand, a strategic perspective, indeed pushing institutions to act swiftly (De Knop, 2012, see also above) and an operational perspective, stressing the challenges of educational change - a complex institutional change process - at the micro-level (Verhoeven et al., 2002, Verhoeven, 2004-05). Van Nieuwenhove (2004-05) reports that soon after the 2003 Decree, a supplementary decree (2004) changed the implementation pattern. He argued (see also Dekelver, 2007) that the decree included ‘poor indicators of the operational requirements and instruments to reach the quality criteria’ (Dekelver, 2007, p. 585, our translation). The associations were, therefore, allowed to take more time to implement the academisation. The Recognition Committee would take stock of progress in 2006 and by 2012-2013 all two-cycle programmes of the associations needed to be fully accredited.

Even in light of a more ‘relaxed’ implementation, major concerns were raised about the resources the implementers had at their disposal (Verhoeven, 2004-05). Even though the report of Committee Martens yielded some insights in what should be understood by academisation (Hoogewijs, 2005), it did not lead to a straightforward implementation. Some interviewees argued that the time frame of the structural reform was still deemed unrealistic given that it required university colleges to change their organisational cultures. Universities had strong research cultures in contrast to the teaching and service cultures of the university colleges. Changing organisational cultures was especially challenging in Flemish university colleges where around two-thirds of the staff members were 45 or older and had always been working in a teaching and service culture. From the interviews, it became clear that most managers of university colleges were usually in favour of academisation in that they perceived it as a huge push factor for the status and the quality of the programmes (one specific two-cycle programme - Industrial Engineering - even had a lobby group to push forward the academisation of the programme), but this view was not shared by the staff members, who were often much more sceptical. Hence, the structural reform did not entirely fit the existing institutional context in that there were (powerful) actors who strongly supported the implementation process, whereas other actors (who actually were supposed to implement the reform) were against or not enthusiastic about the structural reform.

Although the government provided financial resources to support the implementation processes, as argued above the amount was deemed largely insufficient (see e.g. Verhoeven, 2004-05). University colleges (and programmes) strongly differed in the financial resources available to transform. It should also be noted that there were strong interinstitutional differences in the workload of associations in that the relative number of university college students was much higher in some associations, especially in Leuven, Antwerp and Hasselt (Leuven 21,131/12,823, Ghent 19,500/4,916, Antwerp 7,389/4,336, Brussels 6,293/1,255, Hasselt 2,042/1,211) (De Moor, 2005). In similar terms, Hoogewijs (2005) speaks of a lack of funding and couples this to a poor infrastructure, high teaching loads and demands and a lack of a research culture.

Universities had to develop their own instruments and processes to monitor the implementation process (Gysen et al., 2006), although they also had to report to the external committees that were responsible for the follow-up. From the interviews, it can be concluded that the coordination of the follow-up did not pass off smoothly. In 2008, the Recognition Committee published a report that raised doubts about the success of the implementation process so far (Erkenningscommissie, 2008). Van Nieuwenhove (2004-05) argues that the 2003 Decree puts a lot on the shoulders of the Recognition Committee and argued that the committee would not be able to draw clear conclusions on the academi- sation. Nevertheless, the Recognition Committee reported that the plans submitted varied from very good to very poor. In light of the comments of the Recognition Committee, a societal debate (maatschappelijk debat) emerged on the decree underlying the structural reform. Around that time, the discussion also focused on where the upgraded programmes would actually be located: to be kept at the university colleges or to be transferred to the universities (Verhoeven, 2010). From the interviews we learned that the full integration (within the universities) was already proposed earlier and many shop-floor implementers were aware of this ultimate outcome. The societal debate eventually led to a new decree (2012 Integration Decree) in which the full integration was legally institutionalised. Whether the establishment of this new decree should be seen as a success or failure of the 2003 Decree is a matter of degree, to be picked up later in this chapter.

This section has particularly highlighted factors internal to the HE system affecting the implementation: eagerness of university and university college leaders and managers, hesitance at the shop-floor level, uncertainty about what academisiation actually entailed and limited funding. It has to be stressed that the effects of these factors were not unidirectionally positive or negative. For example, the ambiguity of academisation offered both some anxiety as well as leeway for fit-for-purpose implementation. The analysis pointed out that there have hardly been events or developments (outside HE) throughout the structural reform process that have affected the implementation. The economic crisis kicked in much later, when the reform process was well on its way, and only more recently (after 2010) the impacts of the crisis were noticeable in the field of HE. Neither did the fact that Belgium was without a formal federal government in the period June 2010-December 2011 seemed to have had an impact nor the half-year negotiations on the new government in 2007.

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