Agenda-Setting and Policy Design

Reflecting on the question why the reforms were put on the agenda, it is striking to note that governments very often referred to European and global developments. Less favourable positions in the global rankings (e.g. France and Spain), being out of step with the action lines of the Bologna Process (Flanders), the more general impression that the educational system was not in sync with European educational structures (Austria) and signals that domestic policies were not sufficiently attuned to the European Commission’s Modernisation agenda (e.g. Spain) were frequently found in the policy documents that framed the domestic policy problem. Whereas it could be argued that actors within the domestic higher education systems would not be sufficiently motivated by or even be critical towards these ‘alien’ developments, our findings suggest that these actors understood that ignoring these external factors in the long run would not be in their interest. The external developments (irrespective whether these were seen as opportunities or threats, and however particular the translations of these external developments may have been) were used by the governments to legitimate their reform ideas and to stress the urgency of the reforms, and it appears that most actors in the policy arena did not contest the way the governments framed the policy problem.

Despite the noticeable urgency of some of the reforms, governments did not suddenly impose the reforms. Even though some ideas were developed in a short period of time, none of the cases show signs of ‘reform by stealth’. It appeared that in the more successful cases (goal achievement) considerable (and deliberate) attention was given to creating consensus among major actors in the higher education system during the design phase in order to reduce potential conflicts during the implementation phase. This was particularly the case in the reforms in Norway, Poland and Wales. Where such consensus was not achieved, problems emerged in the implementation (e.g. Croatia and Spain).

Consensus is likely dependent on whether actors’ interests are served. For sure, interests are diffuse across stakeholder groups, neither necessarily coherent within a particular stakeholder group, nor consistent over time. It was nevertheless striking to find that in cases were reform initiatives ran counter to the interests of a particular (and important) group in the higher education system, success was limited. Turning the argument around, it appears that reforms were most successful if every actor (or collective of actors) involved had something to gain from the reform or at least not to be disadvantaged. The success of the reform in Denmark, France, Austria, Norway and the Netherlands can be traced back to the fact that none of the interests of various actors were significantly harmed. The lack of success or limited success was apparent in Croatia, where the interests of the university sector were threatened and in Spain where - initially - it looked like there would only be a limited number of ‘winners’ in the Campus of Excellence Initiative.

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