Higher education

Education policies are rarely studied by political scientists, yet there is politics at play here as much as there is in any other policy arena. Not only are there nonstate actors with deeply entrenched interests involved, but education policies are profoundly shaped by ideological shifts and long-term political and cultural changes. Investment in education, technical training, and research and development is clearly central to a high-wage, high-skill, knowledge-based economic strategy. State education strategies may have many components and education policy touches on a number of different areas of state activity, from the provision of primary school education to the retraining of older workers. Because it is impossible to cover all of this here, the focus is narrowed to higher or third-level education and training. While research and development policy, in which higher education institutions sometimes play a key role, is the explicit focus of students of the ‘knowledge economy’, the labour market focus of this book steers the analysis more towards the broader educational role played by these institutions. More specifically, the interest is in (1) the extent to which the university system has been reoriented towards vocational training or maintains a more traditional role, and (2) the extent to which the non-university sector has been expanded to meet new needs through such measures as ‘life-long learning’ programmes, job re-training, and the establishment of technical colleges or similar institutions. The focus is less on apprenticeship training schemes and other forms of secondary-level education both inside and outside the traditional school system since these are not usually considered part of higher education provision.

There are a number of mechanisms by which states may reorient the higher education system toward meeting new economic needs. Most notably, states may enact legislation or reallocate funding to various parts of the education system. It is helpful, however, to break the analytical framework down into four main dimensions in order to focus and guide the case study discussions which lie ahead. These are (1) action the state takes in order to balance technical training against non-technical education; (2) whether or not the state uses private provision in order to meet new needs; (3) how and to what extent higher education is funded by the state; (4) and how funding and other measures aim to increase participation in education, usually referred to as ‘access’ policies. Running through these four dimensions are also three enduring concerns - ensuring quality, increasing quantity, and the issue of institutional autonomy - which are often in conflict with one another.

One of the most overarching and difficult problems is how to balance technical and non-technical education. At its most philosophical (and ideological) level is the age-old debate over whether education is for education’s sake, personal fulfilment and the enlightenment of society as a whole, or whether, in a tough modern world, education is about providing for the labour market. In the European context, both goals are valued, although many would argue that labour market, increasingly utilitarian, concerns are winning the day in the wake of the Lisbon Strategy.10 Most European countries gradually turned to technical education as early as the 1950s, by which time traditional apprenticeship schemes and trade schools seemed no longer capable of meeting modern needs. States can achieve an appropriate balance between technical and non-technical education by a number of different means, but a crucial decision is whether to encourage the establishment of technical institutions parallel to the university system or to somehow force universities to provide technically oriented education and the general transferable skills emphasized by theorists of the knowledge economy. The latter strategy often runs up against the traditionally fiercely protected autonomy of universities, at least in democratic circumstances. Frequently, both strategies are pursued, creating debate over the proper function of ‘the university’ and whether new types of institution can apply for university status. One way to avoid some of these conflicts is to create or encourage the technical sector as a separate and parallel, functionally differentiated, set of institutions that do not compete with the universities so much as cater to different types of student. While countries often try to avoid creating a hierarchy between the university and non-university sector here, this is usually unavoidable. Referred to as a ‘binary’ approach, this can be more or less self-consciously pursued on the part of the state, and more or less successfully.

A second important distinction is between public and private institutions, which can cut across both the technical and university sectors. Traditionally, the state has played a major role in funding higher education in much of Western Europe because of the lack of private funding sources, setting the region apart from the United States in particular. However, the need for new technical and vocational training to respond to the needs of the market and to the need to increase participation rapidly without great expense to the state has led to a larger role for the private sector in some cases. On the third question of funding, it is important to focus on who funds education, to what levels, and on what basis. While public funding levels are usually a good indicator of state support for higher education in general, the basis of funding is also important because it has a major impact on the types of course offered. If, for example, universities are funded on the basis of how many students they can attract, or per student, there is a danger that the quality of degrees and other courses will be reduced in order to make course requirements lighter and more entertaining. Alternatively, research-output based funding may cause teaching programmes to be increasingly oriented toward the interests of researchers, and standards for measuring research output might be manipulated to favour the ‘hard’ sciences over other subjects. If overall levels of state funding are decreased, providers may have to turn to private donations for extra support, and private funding in turn may bring with it new teaching and research agendas.

Fourth, access policies regulate which and how many students enter the higher education system. On the one hand, access policies are about ensuring more equitable social outcomes by assisting students who, because of socioeconomic background, age, ethnicity or disability, need extra help gaining entry to and completing higher education. Not only are funding structures important here, through the use of scholarship, student benefits and the like, but so are admittance systems, which in all three cases analysed here are highly centralized, causing potential difficulties for ensuring equality of access. On the other hand, access is also an issue tied strongly to labour market concerns. Encouraging mature students to participate in third-level education might be important for equity reasons, but it is also important for an economy increasingly based on new technical skills. In Ireland, access policies have become more important in an era of labour and skills shortages created by economic growth, but the debate in Greece and Portugal, for reasons discussed in the following chapters, is much more muted.

For Greece, Ireland, and Portugal at least, Europeanization - along with globalization more generally - raises an additional concern about quality assurance. The main mechanism for ensuring quality across technical and university, public and private sectors, is the qualifications system. The system can be used to control degree and diploma content and can provide a way of ‘registering’ (or accrediting) and ‘deregistering’ institutions and programmes even in highly variegated and privatized systems such as the Portuguese. However, national degree structures and accreditation regimes in Europe have recently come under pressure to harmonize, prompting increasing concerns about quality control. The 1999 Bologna Declaration, designed to bring national degree structures into line with the three-year undergraduate, two year Masters’ and separate Doctoral degrees identified most readily with the English speaking nations outside North America. Quality concerns arise because the aim of the process is to make degrees and courses more easily transferable among EU member states, so that students may study abroad, transfer, and have their degrees recognized more easily when applying for jobs overseas.

The mix of strategies adopted by Greece, Ireland, and Portugal delivers quite different results in terms of funding, number of students in education, and the subjects they study. Using data compiled from the OECD’s Education at a Glance, Ireland generally appears to provide the highest-quality higher education out of the three countries analysed here. Over the past two decades, Ireland has spent more than the OECD average on higher education, and significantly more than either Portugal or Greece. Since the 1960s, the Irish state has put great effort into expanding higher education, first through the development of new institutions and infrastructure, and later through the dedication of increased resources in order to improve the quality of teaching and research. Higher education policy has centred on a long-term self-conscious strategy on the part of policy-makers to develop and maintain a ‘binary’ higher education system, differentiating between technical and university education. The ability to supply technically trained, highly skilled workers helped fuel multinational-led job creation, especially during the 1990s, witnessed by the fact that Ireland has a much greater concentration of science graduates than the two Southern European countries.

Most analyses of Greek education policy since redemocratization in 1974 focus not only on the elite and restricted nature of the university sector in particular, but also the extremely low quality levels offered across the higher education system as a whole (Gavroglu, 1981; OECD, 1982 and 1987). Table 2.5 shows that, overall, Greek access rates to higher education are now similar to those of Ireland and Portugal. There is, however, a greater concentration in polytechnic, rather than university-type education, with only 23 per cent gaining access to this latter form of education out of high school. In fact, access to university education was severely restricted before 2000, with many Greeks continuing an intergenerational pattern of gaining university education elsewhere in Europe or in North America, given the tight restrictions placed on the number of places available. While the entrance criteria have been loosened since 2000,

Table 2.5 Higher education indicators






1 Expenditure on higher education institutions as a percentage of GDP, from both public and private sources (2000)





2 Graduation rates in tertiary education (2007)*





3 Entry rates to tertiary education (2007)

Tertiary A** Tertiary B

  • 44
  • 21
  • 64
  • 1
  • 23
  • 43
  • 56
  • 15

4 Ratio of students to teachers in higher education (2007)





5 Science graduates among 25-34 year olds in employment, per 100,000





Source: OECD (2009), tables B.2.1; A3.1; A.2.4; D.2.2; A.3.7, respectively.


  • * Graduation rates from Tertiary A institutions only.
  • ** Tertiary A programmes are of three years full-time equivalent minimum study and are largely theory-based, being designed to provide sufficient qualifications for entry to advanced research programmes and professions that require a high level of skills. Tertiary B programmes are typically shorter in nature, although with a minimum of two years full-time equivalent study, and focus on practical, technical, or occupational skills.

higher education in Greece has suffered from low quality standards for several decades, at least in comparison with much of Europe. While efforts have been made to expand the non-university sector since the 1980s, technical education is seen as vastly inferior to university education, and there is a significant problem matching training to labour market needs: Greece has an extraordinarily high percentage of unemployed graduates. This is underscored by the low number of technically trained graduates: witness the very low number of science graduates reported in Table 2.5. Additional data in the same table also speaks to the issue of low quality higher education. The ratio of students to teachers is twice that of Portugal’s, and drop-out rates and rates of students who fail to finish courses within a five or six-year period are extraordinarily high. While Indicator 3 does not exactly measure drop-out rates, it does show that a comparatively small percentage of the university-age cohort manages to complete their programme in any given year.

As in Ireland, Portugal has also greatly expanded participation in higher education, since the mid-1980s in this case. However, the means by which this expansion has been achieved has differed greatly from the Irish. A two-pronged approach involved the establishment of several new public universities and a network of polytechnic institutions, but, more significantly, the stimulation of the private sector to increase participation levels. Government policy directed at stimulating the development of private institutions involved altering the access system to higher education; changing rules to allow professors to work in both the public and private sectors simultaneously; and the provision of subsidies to private providers. The privatization strategy has been credited with delivering better than expected outcomes in terms of participation in education, although, as Table 2.5 illustrates, first degrees tend to be highly theoretical in focus (Tertiary A courses), rather than technically-focused (Tertiary B). Even so, Portugal produces a relatively high number of science graduates, and, on one other measure of quality at least, has a lower than average student-teacher ratio. This mix of results is also reflected in ongoing concerns about some of the consequences of the privatization strategy. While stimulating the private sector may have helped expand participation in higher education, serious concerns have often been raised not only about the quality of education provided by many private institutions, but also about the inability of the private sector in particular to respond to labour market needs. In addition, despite the rapid expansion of educational participation since the late 1980s, Portugal spends less than average on higher education, at just 1 per cent of GDP. In terms of expenditure on higher education per student, excluding research and development, in 2007 Portugal spent US$7,208, lower than the OECD average of $8,455, and lower than the EU-19 average of $7,592, a total which includes a number of Central and Eastern European low spenders (OECD, 2009: 188).

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