Implementing the Triple Helix model in Ukraine: Means-ends decoupling at the state level

Myroslava Hladchenko

National Technical University of Ukraine ‘Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’ Photo credits: Oksana Turysheva

National Technical University of Ukraine ‘Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’ Photo credits: Oksana Turysheva

 During the last decades, the development of the knowledge economy in Western societies has significantly changed both the roles played by universities and the relationship between the university, industry and government, resulting in the emergence of the Triple Helix (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000) as one of the global models of world society (Meyer 2010). The main idea behind the Triple Helix lies in the expansion of the role of knowledge in social development more broadly and of the university in the economy more specifically (Etzkowitz 2002). The university is expected to extend its traditional missions of knowledge transmission (teaching) and production (research) to include economic and social development (Pinheiro et al. 2015; Benneworth et al. 2015). 

 Similar to other global models of world society, the Triple Helix originates and has been applied in the context of developed or mature economies, but less developed countries have also made attempts to implement this global model into their specific national contexts. Meanwhile, the specific national context as an institutional environment can be characterisedby a high degree of institutional complexity caused by means-ends decoupling at the state level (Hladchenko and Westerheijden 2018; Hladchenko et al. 2018). Means-ends decoupling (Bromley and Powell 2012) at the state level implies that policies and practices of the state are disconnected from its core goal of creating public welfare. Such means-ends decoupling occurs, for instance, in oligarchic economies, where the state is captured by exploitative, rent-seeking oligarchies in business and politicsThis bleak picture describes numerouspost-communist countries, one of which is Ukraine.

 In a recent article ‘Implementing the Triple Helix model: Means-ends decoupling at the state level?’, co-authored with Romulo Pinheiro we explore how means-ends decoupling at the state level affected the implementation of the Triple Helix model in Ukraine.The data emanate from personal interviews with the senior managers of four universities and science parks established within them who were directly involved with the pursuit of public policy geared towards promoting the implementation of the Triple Helix in Ukraine. For our research we selected the science parks located in universities with different disciplinary profiles: Technical University, Classical University, University of Economics and University of Life Sciences.

Means-ends decoupling at the state level

Decoupling is one of the main concepts of sociological institutionalism. Bromley and Powell (2012) distinguish between policy-practice and means-ends decoupling. The former refers to a gap between policy and practice, the classical object of implementation studies. The latter refers to a gap between practices and outcomes (Bromley and Powell 2012), that is, policies are executed according to plan yet intended outcomes are not achieved. It occurs because the implemented practices are compartmentalised from the core goals of the actor in question, e.g., state, organisation, individual (Bromley and Powell 2012). Consequently, means-ends decoupling entails an “efficiency gap” (Dick 2015) and the diversion of critical resources (Bromley and Powell 2012). Means-ends decoupling at the state level results in institutional complexity for organisations when they confront incompatible prescriptions emanating from a single or multiple institutional logics, thus experiencing institutional complexity (Meyer and Höllerer 2016). Meanwhile, institutional complexity promotes organisations in applying means-ends decoupling to attain legitimacy (Bromley and Powell 2012). 

Backdrop to the Case: Means-Ends Decoupling at the State Level in Ukraine

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was established as an independent state in 1991 which also involved the transition to a market economy.  However, state policies aimed at lustration, de-Sovietisationand decommunisation were not adopted and civil society remained underdeveloped. Moreover, inconsistently implemented privatization allowed a post-Soviet oligarchy consisting of the Soviet political elite and actors from the Soviet shadow economy to emerge. Drawing on our theoretical framework, in the Ukrainian case, means-ends decoupling was sustained at the state level, as the policies and practices of the state were disconnected from its core goal of creating public welfare. It resulted in inconsistencies within the institutional logic of the state, leading to a high degree of institutional complexity experienced by organisations and individuals that did not belong to the privileged group of so-called “rent seekers”.

Diffusion and Implementation of the Triple Helix in Ukraine

The diffusion of the Triple Helix model in the Ukrainian context was initiated by the National Technical University of Ukraine ‘Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’, acting as an institutional entrepreneur. In the period 2004–06, KPI participated in the EU’s TEMPUS project together with European higher education institutions. As a result of this collaboration the first Ukrainian science park (Kyivska Polytechnika) was established in 2006. In 2009-2010, in the context of implementation of the Triple Helix model in Ukraine, the government awarded the status of ‘research university’ to 13 flagship universities. However, the implementation of the Triple Helix in Ukraine turned into means-ends decoupling at the state level due to the rent-seeking behaviour of the powerful actors from the governmental institutions. Urgent domestic reforms to foster the knowledge economy were not undertaken while the research universities lacked funding for infrastructure.

Means-ends decoupling at the state level – the cause of the diversion of intellectual capital

Means-ends decoupling at the state level, caused by the rent-seeking behaviour of business and political oligarchies, led to the implementation of the Triple Helix model in Ukraine also reflecting a case of means-ends decoupling. Consequently, contradictions within the institutional logic of the state resulted in a high degree of institutional complexity experienced by the science parks established at the case universities. What is more, means-ends decoupling at the state level causes the means and ends of the organisational actors to be also decoupled due to the institutional complexity that they confront. That is, institutional complexity triggers means-ends decoupling at the organisational level, as claimed by Bromley and Powell (2012).In addition, the more senior managers of the university and the science park maintain the logic of confidence in practices that deviate from the Triple Helix model, the greater rent-seeking and means-ends decoupling at the organisational level. 

One of the many negative consequences of means-ends decoupling at the state level and rent-seeking behaviour of powerful actors in governmental institutions is the loss of intellectual capital through brain drain. Thus, the longer means-ends decoupling and rent-seeking will persist both at the state and organisational levels, the further will Ukraine move away from the so-called ‘world society’ and its corresponding institutional arrangements.

Myroslava Hladchenkois an associate professor at the University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine.


Benneworth, Paul, Harry de Boer, and Ben Jongbloed. 2015. Between good intentions and urgent stakeholder pressures: Institutionalizing the universities’ third mission in the Swedish context. European Journal of Higher Education5(3): 280–296.

Bromley, Patricia, and Walter Powell. 2012. From smoke and mirrors to walking the talk: Decoupling in the contemporary world. The Academy of Management Annals6(1): 483–530.

Dick, Penny. 2015. From rational myth to self-fulfilling prophecy? Understanding the persistence of means-ends decoupling as a consequence of the latent functions of policy enactment. Organization Studies36(7): 897-924.

Etzkowitz, Henry, and Loet Leydesdorff. 2000. The dynamics of innovation: From national systems and “Mode 2” to a Triple Helix of university–industry–government relations. Research Policy29: 109–123.

Hladchenko, Myroslava, and Romulo Pinheiro. 2018. Implementing the Triple Helix Model: Means-Ends Decoupling at the State Level? Minerva First Online: 7 July 2018.

Hladchenko, Myroslava, Don Westerheijden, and Harry de Boer. 2018. Means-ends decoupling at the state level and managerial responses to multiple organisational identities in Ukrainian research universities. Higher Education Research & Development: 1-14

Hladchenko, Myroslava, and Don Westerheijden. 2018. Means-ends decoupling and academic identities in Ukrainian university after the Revolution of Dignity. European Journal of Higher Education8(2): 152-168.

Meyer, John. 2010. World society, institutional theory, and the actor. Annual Review of Sociology 36: 1–20.

Meyer, Renate, and Markus Höllerer. 2016. Laying a smoke screen: Ambiguity and neutralization as strategic responses to intra-institutional complexity. Strategic Organization14(4): 373-406.

Pinheiro, Rómulo, Patricio Langa, and Attila Pausits. 2015. One and two equals three? The third mission of higher education institutions. EuropeanJournal of Higher Education5(3): 233–249.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledgeblog.

ECPR 2018 – Politics of higher education, research and innovation

Martina Vukasovic

‘The Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’ Standing Group @ ECPR 2018 in Hamburg. Photo credits: Mari Elken

‘The Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’ Standing Group @ ECPR 2018 in Hamburg. Photo credits: Mari Elken

This year’s ECPR (European Consortium of Political Research) General Conference took place at the University of Hamburg (Germany) August 22-25. The conference included 520 panels on a wide array of topics and representation from more than 2,000 academics from around the world. The ECPR Standing Group on the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, for the seventh time in a row (following Oslo 2017,  Prague 2016Montreal 2015Glasgow 2014Bordeaux 2013 and Reykjavik 2011) organised a section with a total of six panels covering various themes related to knowledge policy governance.

European integration in the area of higher education and research continues to be in focus, and this year one panel explicitly focused on differentiated integration, specifically (1) the varied nature of policies and instruments on the European level, and (2) the varied national and institutional adaptation to these instruments. The panel opened with the presentation by Natalia Leskina on several overlapping initiatives in the post-Soviet countries aiming at establishing the Eurasian Higher Education Area and how European integration initiatives (specifically the Bologna Process) have been used as a model by the post-Soviet countries. Simona Torotcoi took the domestic side of differentiated integration as her point of departure and explored compliance and implementation of recommendations concerning two Bologna Process aspects – quality and social dimension – in Portugal and Romania. This was followed by Tim Seidenschnur and Jens Jungblut who identified four distinct narratives – concerns, hopes, beliefs and silent opportunism – that permeate German higher education perspectives on what the consequences of Brexit might be for, among others, student mobility (and in particular mobility of students preparing to be language teachers) and research cooperation. Brexit was also the topic of the paper by Amelia Veiga, who juxtaposed the reflections of academics from 10 European countries (Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Republic of Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland, United Kingdom) concerning Brexit with the European Commission’s scenarios for 2025. Finally, Mari Elken and Martina Vukasovic discussed the European side of differentiated integration in higher education, in particular the implications of the existence of several overlapping policy arenas at the European level, how EU initiatives get diluted over time (shifting from big political aims to rather technocratic considerations) and what is the role of regional level integration (e.g. within the Nordic region) in the overall process of European integration.

The second panel went beyond Europe and explored issues of global knowledge governance. Meng-Hsuan Chou focused on recruitment of academics globally, specifically analysing, on the one hand, the policies and incentives developed in Singapore to attract more academics and, on the other hand, the rationales and motivations of academics themselves to choose Singapore as their academic home. Tero Erkkilä discussed the ideational linkages between the rise of numerical governance (i.e. governance by global indicators) and knowledge based competitiveness, stressing the role international organizations have in promoting these policy scripts. Janja Komljenovic presented her paper (co-authored by Eva Hartmann) on the role of global private actors in governing higher education, with a specific focus on graduate employability and skills and what are the actual practices and measures used by higher education institutions to mediate the transition of students into employment. These global private actors were also discussed by Miguel Antonio Lim, who highlighted how companies and individuals involved in the business of university ranking build their expertise and legitimate themselves and their products to a global audience, specifically positioning themselves as weak experts.

The next panel was dedicated to neo-institutional approaches to analysis of higher education, research and innovation. Jens Jungblut explored the diffusion of innovations from universities to pharmaceutical industry and hospitals and translation challenges that exist both between sectors characterized by different institutional logics as well as between different countries. Georg Krückenand Tim Seidenschnur presented their analysis of why management consultancy projects in universities are not particularly successful, in particular the role of different actors and communities within universities in ascribing or denying legitimacy to management consultants. Emma Sabzalieva presented her review of the concept of major institutional change in higher education, utilizing both the more generic literature on the topic and the higher education specific insights, and exploring the extent to which these perspectives can be utilized beyond its original Western context, e.g. in relation to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and implications this had for higher education systems and institutions. Alexander Mitterle focused on whether and how neo-institutional approaches can be used not only to study similarity, but also stratification in higher education, specifically contrasting several approaches to field theory, in particular how Bourdieu’s and Fligsten/McAdams’ concepts of fields can be enriched by a more phenomenological perspective to actorhood.

The fourth panel focused on a major intersection of science and politics – distribution of funding for research and innovationand is a follow up to a previous panel on research executive agenciesin Oslo. Four papers were presented. Stefan Skupien discussed choices and tensions concerning asymmetrical research collaborations, such as the one concerning European cooperation (supported by both public and private partners) with African partners in the field of renewable energies. Thomas Palfinger and Peter Biegelbauer compared 12 innovation agencies operating in Europe and their 18 programmes, specifically discussing legitimacy of their funding decisions in relation to how evaluators are selected, what is their role, what project selection criteria they use, how are projects ranked and what are the decision-making procedures. Emina Veletanlic and Creso Sá focused on the Canadian largest research-funding agency (The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) and how the shifts away from support for basic research and towards targeted programmes affects basic research in these fields. Thomas König and Sarah Glück concluded the panel with an exploration of agencification of EU research policy, specifically what is the relationship between European executive agencies and (1) the European Commission, (2) other EU institutions and (3) national administrative agencies and ministries involved in research and innovation. 

Nicolas Rüffin presenting at the panel on Politics of Big Science and research infrastructures. Photo credits: Mari Elken

Nicolas Rüffin presenting at the panel on Politics of Big Science and research infrastructures. Photo credits: Mari Elken


The fifth panel continued the focus on research, namely the politics of Big Science and research infrastructures. It was organised by recently launched Big Science and Research Infrastructures Networkthat brings together researchers and practitioners interested in large-scale research facilities and international scientific collaboration. Nicolas Rüffin presented his research on unanimity in decision-making at two large intergovernmental science organizations – CERN and European Space Agency. Isabel Bolliger in turn compared research infrastructure policies in Switzerland and Sweden demonstrating differences in development of their national research infrastructure roadmaps. Finally, Inga Ulnicane discussed political and scientific changes in research infrastructures highlighting that in addition to ‘good old’ intergovernmental large-scale facilities such as CERN new types of digital platform infrastructures are emerging according to differentiated integration approach that involves a number of EU member states as well as associated countries.  

The final panel highlighted the normative power of Europein shaping higher education and science policy environments, as well as the complex relationships between instruments and institutions in higher education, research and innovation. Que Anh Dang addressed theoretical and empirical challenges in using the ‘normative power’ approach for analysing developments in Asia. Specifically, she addressed the roles EU and China played, in particular the differences between a rather high-level promotion of European approaches and the people-to-people exchange policy within China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Claudia Acciai compared developments in innovation policy in France and Italy, primarily addressing the heterogeneity of actors and the implications this has for choice of policy instruments and the overall policy design. Elizabeth Balbachevsky highlighted the nested character of science as an institution, the implications this has for the institutional resilience of the University and what are the similarities and differences in how University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and University of Tampere in Finland responded to environmental expectations.

Standing Group meeting. Photo credits: Mari Elken

Standing Group meeting. Photo credits: Mari Elken

Apart from lively discussions within panels, the Standing Group also had its annual meeting focused on planning future activities, including ECPR 2019, which will take place in Wroclaw. The meeting was also marked by the Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar to Olivier Provini for his paper “Transnational circulations of university reforms: the policy-making of the LMD in Burundi”. ECPR 2018 was another successful year for our Standing Group, gathering researchers currently based on three continents (Asia, Europe and North America). See you at the next ECPR General Conference in Wroclaw in September 2019!

 This entry was initially posted on the Europe of Knowledgeblog.


What we can learn about policy circulation by using non-western case studies

University of Burundi. Photo from

University of Burundi. Photo from

Olivier Provini

The main focus of the paper ‘Transnational circulations of university reforms: the policy-making of the LMD in Burundi’ is to question public policy processes in so-called “fragile” states. Indeed, my research deals with policy analysis in non-western contexts with a special focus on African case studies. Analysing public action in the majority of African contexts raises a certain number of questions given that analytical frameworks are mostly based on empirical and sectorial experiences from studies conducted in North America and Europe. Moreover, institutional and social capacities in Africa are sometimes so low that the very concepts of the state or policies could be problematic. The category of “fragile” states would question several results of the literature on policy science, especially on policy transfer studies. In “fragile” states, the policy process would be delegated to external agents, who would implement internationally manufactured and projected models into national and local policy sectors. The specific aim of my research is to discuss the relation between the dependence of international aid and the circulation of public policies. Therefore, I use the empirical example of the implementation of the European higher education model LMD (“Licence-Master-Doctorate”) at the University of Burundi in Africa.

 What is the LMD model at the University of Burundi about?

 Since 2007, the Burundian higher education sector has been involved in a reform process which is financed by the French cooperation. Through the implementation of the PARES programme (“Projet d’Appui au Renforcement de l’Enseignement Supérieur”), the Burundian government, with the assistance of the French donors, has organised a new tertiary system, which has been widely destructured through the Burundian civil war (1993-2006). The aim of the French cooperation and the Burundian government has been to implement the LMD reform throughout the whole territory including the private institutions in order to improve the recognition of the university community. The reform is structured into several steps: i) the creation of a steering group to supervise the reform; ii) an overview of the situation of the sector after the civil war; iii) and an audit of the university curricula and different classes to develop new programmes at the University of Burundi. The making of new curricula and classes for the University of Burundi is achieved by imitating the programmes offered in European universities, where most of the Burundian experts, lecturers and professors have pursued their university education. A Burundian expert explains this copy-and-paste practice: 

“First, there is the task of doing literature research. Which means, for instance, at the Faculty of Law [of the University of Burundi], we use the example of the Faculty of Law of [the French University of] Nanterre. And we study the structure of the organisation of the teaching units, the included teaching elements, and after that, depending on the needs and the priorities of the country, we then see which courses we have to adjust and which one we pick. That is the way we proceed. We do not invent the wheel which is turning”[i]

 How can policy-makers (re)negotiate the policy process in Burundi?

 The making of the university curricula and classes implicates discussions on numerous technical aspects, which are widely depoliticised in Burundi. Given this technical nature of the policy, experts play a major role in the reform process which can also explain the top-down circulation of the external engineering. Nevertheless, some elements of the LMD reform aggregate critical challenges, which involve political stakeholders and issues. In the paper, I show that the transfer of the LMD model in Burundi presents an opportunity for political and academic stakeholders to reshape the system of elite formation and to reconsider the delicate balance between Hutu and Tutsi in the administration, which is one of the core questions of the higher education system in the Burundian post-conflict situation.

For instance, the debates on the Law on Higher Education of November 2011 question the norms regulating the appointment process within the university administration regarding the ethnic balance between Hutu and Tutsi occupying higher positions of political responsibility or in the public administration. During an interview, one of the policy makers reveals that the debates in the Burundian Parliament are essentially related to the issue of the appointments of Deans based on ethnic criteria rather than on technical aspects of the implementation of the LMD in the private and public institutions: 

“The law was not well understood by the Assembly. I have to say that our Parliament is not like yours, the quality of debates is very poor [he is laughing]! […]. We could see that the tendency was rather to consider only political aspects rather than academic and scientific aspects. The debates were related, for instance, to the appointment of Deans, it was rather that: of which ethnicity and of which political party must the Deans come from?”[ii]

 What are the impacts for the theoretical debate?

 The case study of the LMD reform in Burundi reveals several insights to the theoretical debate:

First, the empirical study of the circulation of the LMD reform highlights two contrasting results. When focussing on the technical aspects of the reform, like the establishment of the curricula offered at the University of Burundi, we observe a top-down transfer. The local administrators of the institution imitate, copy and paste the programmes offered in European universities. However, by shifting the focus on the voting process of the Law of November 2011, my paper highlights new and diverging results. The transfer of the LMD model in Burundi presents an opportunity for political and academic stakeholders to transform the system of elite formation and power-sharing between Hutu and Tutsi, which constitutes one of the core question of the higher education system in the Burundian post-conflict situation.

Second, the study confirms broader results of the scientific literature on policy transfers in Western contexts about the (re)negotiation of policy models. Even in a “fragile” state, which heavily depends on the financial support of donors and international organizations, policy circulations are shaped by bargaining and compromising between international, national and local actors.

 Finally, we can discuss, through the theoretical framework of policy analysis, the adjectives describing and categorizing the capacities and attributes of states (as “fragile”, “failed”, “ghost”, “neopatrimonial”, “liberal” or “developing”). By using concepts of policy analysis, this paper questions the category and the nature of “fragile” states. I demonstrate to what extent policy analysis highlights the multifaceted nature of the state rather than restricting its shape to one characteristic.

This blog post is based on the paper “Transnational circulations of university reforms: the policy-making of the LMD in Burundi”. This paper won the 2017 Award of Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholarfrom the ECPR Standing Group ‘Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’. The paper was presented at the International Conference on Public Policy in Singapore in 2017

Olivier Proviniis an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of La Reunion (France) and an affiliate member of the Legal Research Center (CRJ, University of La Reunion). In his PhD he dealt with the circulation of higher education reforms in East Africa, by comparing reform processes in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. His scientific interest lies in public policy analysis, state building and higher education reforms. He currently coordinates the research programme "Making public policies in Africa" (FAPPA) at Sciences Po Bordeaux (France). He is the editor of a special issue dealing with public policies in Africa published in the French review “Gouvernement et action publique. He has also published a comparative study on the marketization of higher education reforms in Kenya and Tanzania in the journal Higher Education

 This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledgeblog.

 [i]Interview with a Burundian expert (27/03/2013, Bujumbura).

[ii]Interview with a policy maker (27/03/2013, Bujumbura).

Higher education: regional, global and international

Pauline Ravinet ad Meng-Hsuan Chou

Pauline Ravinet ad Meng-Hsuan Chou

On 9 and 10 July 2018, Meng-Hsuan Chou (NTU Singapore) hosted three seminars on higher education issues at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Speaking on ‘What does comparative regionalism offer to higher education research?’, Pauline Ravinet (University of Lille) and Meng-Hsuan Chou introduced the concept of ‘higher education regionalism’, a heuristic framework to examine regional cooperation in the higher education policy domain, and empirically compared and analysed two instances of higher education regionalisms (Europe and Southeast Asia). In so doing, this talk engaged with and challenged the diffusion argument common in both European higher education studies and new comparative regionalism. The empirical case comparisons used publicly accessible documents from regional bodies active in higher education policy coordination, and more than 50 semi-structured interviews with key policy actors involved in these developments. Specifically, the empirical application identified and traced the policy ideas of European and Southeast Asia higher education regionalisms, and considered whether the extant models of regional cooperation and knowledge discourse affected their evolution. Their findings revealed that the so-called ‘Bologna Process export thesis’ and the diffusion assumptions of comparative regionalism were too simplistic and somewhat misleading. Indeed, they concluded that an interdependent perspective offered more traction to understanding the emergence and evolution of higher education intra- and inter-regionalisms.

Andrea Gideon and Meng-Hsuan Chou

Andrea Gideon and Meng-Hsuan Chou

In ‘What is the role of the EU in the global market for higher education and research?’, Andrea Gideon (University of Liverpool) and Meng-Hsuan Chou discussed the influences that the European Union (EU) exerts globally in the areas of research and higher education from political science and legal perspectives. At first glance, it is not obvious that a regional organisation would have any role beyond coordinative support in sensitive policy domains such as higher education and scientific research. However, they described how the EU has been playing a role since the very early years of integration; this role has been expanding since the 1990s with new initiatives being increasingly developed and centralised at the supranational level. They then discussed the emergence of a potential EU model with regards to higher education and research, and considered whether and how this model could be promoted and defended within and beyond the European territorial borders.

Jens Jungblut

Jens Jungblut

Presenting on ‘What determines membership in meta-organisations? The case of higher education and the international association of universities’, Jens Jungblut (Stanford University / University of Oslo) identified what determined membership in the International Association of Universities (IAU) – the only global meta-organisation in higher education. Barriers to IAU membership are low and yet, at the same time, not all universities are members. Using multi-level regression analysis on data from the World Higher Education Database, he tested multiple predictors. The findings suggested that younger private institutions from peripheral areas and those with high status ranks were more likely to be IAU members. International offices, membership in regional university associations and international curricula were also strong predictors, which suggest that members are of a particular type—the internationally-oriented university. He concluded that meta-organisational membership is a complex process involving multiple factors, while being conditioned by the degree of fragmentation and stratification in an organisational field. 

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Politics of big science, large-scale research facilities and international research collaboration

Isabel K. Bolliger, Katharina Cramer, David Eggleton, Olof Hallonsten, Maria Moskovko, Nicolas Rüffin

Construction site of the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden. Image credit: ESS

Construction site of the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden. Image credit: ESS

We are witnessing the emergence of ‘grand challenges’ impacting societies on a global scale. These include climate change, artificial intelligence, and access to resources. Large-scale research and internationally coordinated collaboration in science, technology and innovation (STI) policy are viewed as the means by which we may find solutions to these challenges while at the same time contributing to scientific progress and basic research. The importance of international research organisations that combine large-scale research andmultilateral collaboration are therefore expected to increase.

Considering these developments, it is time to thoroughly examine the main concepts and the role and influence of actors and different processes in policymaking on research infrastructureand ‘Big science’. An understanding of these phenomena will help professionals optimise these collaborations and may have further applications elsewhere in STI policy.

Rising attention for research infrastructures in Europe and beyond

In the past two decades, the European Union (EU) has established itself as a key actor in European innovation policy by virtue of the European Research Area (ERA) framework, as well as the intensified programmes under Horizon 2020 and the creation of the European Research Council (ERC). Another important component of current EU innovation policy is the focus on research infrastructures (RIs) and the identification that pan-European RIs function as a “pillar” of ERA and a “motor” of the European knowledge-based economy. This prominent role of RIs in EU policy-making is an under-researched area in science and innovation policy studies, as well as European studies. Although there is much to suggest that the institutions and processes of policy-making act out in partly new ways in this area, with new dynamics of decision-making and new constellations of actors involved. 

In the United States, we observe pronounced research systems that developed in the post-war period. Many of the technologies we depend on today developed as a result of mission-oriented research policies where the government took active steps to shape markets. Through its many funding agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the American research system provides a model that many try to emulate with varying results. Now we witness a retreat in some fields of publicly funded research as government allows the private sector to fund significant basic research. We also observe some sub-domains of applied research, particularly in space, being yielded to private enterprise with the government incentivising such work in the form of resupply contracts to the International Space Station. While the gravity of some research has shifted to Europe such as high energy physics, the United States still plays an important role in providing funding and industrial capacity.

Elsewhere, new players are entering the stage of big science research. China is investing heavily in new laboratories such as the China Spallation Neutron Source (CSNS). Both China and India are pursuing ambitious programmes for space exploration. The increasing interest in mega science projects may present new opportunities for international collaboration.

Each of these developments deserves to be studied in detail from multiple disciplinary and international perspectives.

A new network for research on big science and large-scale research infrastructures

In January 2018, a group of junior researchers focusing on research infrastructures were brought together for seminar at Lund University, where a research project on “The Rise of the New Big Science: Opportunities and challenges for nations, universities and science” studying present efforts in Lund to construct a new Big-Science facility the European Spallation Source (ESS).

The seminar resulted in a successful panel proposal for the ECPR General Conference 2018. The next step planned is the establishment of an interdisciplinary network to bring together researchers focusing on big science and research infrastructures. The aims of the network is to provide a forum for researchers around the world to exchange knowledge and experience on various aspects of big science and research infrastructures and therefore bring forward a very young field of research. Network members have a variety of backgrounds and analytical perspectives; these include historical studies, political science, psychology, sociology and physics. If you are interested in our activities or would like to get involved please contactNicolas Rüffinfor further information.

The next major event will be the panel on “Research infrastructures in Europe: Big science, Big Politics, Big Decisions”at the ECPR General Conference in August 2018, which is composed of four papers reporting on a variety of studies. The contributors of the panel deal with different aspects of European scientific collaboration in view of Big Science and Research Infrastructures, which is characterized by incoherent policymaking andad hocsolutions. Nevertheless, European countries are able to come together and establish world-leading RIs despite the lack of pre-existing frameworks. The panellists examine different facets of this puzzling contradiction. These include looking at the role of the EU in coordinating and improving strategic planning, the history and politics of bilateral and intergovernmental collaboration, and different tools of policy-making such as foresight and roadmapping.

The panel will constitute a much-needed effort to raise visibility to these topics and begin a debate on the main concepts by analysing what actors and processes are involved in policy-making around RIs in Europe. Furthermore, we hope to be able to reach other researchers interested in the topic, in order to continually growing the network. 

Authors: Isabel K. Bollinger, PhD Researcher at University of Lausanne (Switzerland).Katharina Cramer, Research Fellow at University of Konstanz (Germany)Dr David Eggleton, Associate Tutor at University of Sussex (UK).Dr. habil. Olof Hallonsten, Researcher at Lund University (Sweden).Maria Moskovko, PhD Researcher at Lund University (Sweden).Nicolas Rüffin, Research Fellow at Berlin Social Science Center (Germany).

This post was initially published on Europe of Knowledgeblog.

[i]Authors are listed in alphabetical order.

Transnational actors: Gateway to exploring the multi-level and multi-actor aspects of higher education and research governance

Martina Vukasovic

Embodying multi-level and multi-actor characteristics of governance

EHEA Ministerial conference in Yerevan in 2015. Photo credits: Fernando Miguel Galan PalomaresEHEA Ministerial conference in Yerevan in 2015. Photo credits: Fernando Miguel Galan Palomares

EHEA Ministerial conference in Yerevan in 2015. Photo credits: Fernando Miguel Galan PalomaresEHEA Ministerial conference in Yerevan in 2015. Photo credits: Fernando Miguel Galan Palomares

That governance of higher education and research takes place across several governance levels – institutional, national, European – is, arguably, common knowledge. The beginning of the Bologna Process and the launching of the Lisbon Strategy almost 20 years ago greatly intensified European integration and Europeanization in these two domains, as evident in European funded cooperation programmes, national reforms and institutional adaptations. While these developments are marked with various tensions between governance levels, as well as different policy domains, they are also characterized by strong involvement of stakeholder organizations, adding the ‘multi-actor’ aspect to the ‘multi-level’ description of governance arrangements. 

What is interesting is that many of these ‘new’ actors are multi-level organizations themselves. For example, the European University Association (EUA), a consultative member of the Bologna Follow Up Groupand contributor to public consultations organized by the European Commission, has national rectors’ conferences and individual universities as members, both of which are active in policy development in their own domestic policy arenas. The same goes for other university associations and alliances (e.g. EURASHELERU), European Students Union (ESU), professional and disciplinary organizations. Moreover, institutions, decision-making and advisory structures at the European level – such as the European Research Councilor the Advisory Group on the European Qualifications Frameworks – are connected to national or institutional policy-making through their individual members and their own connections that span governance levels. 

It is such collective non-state actors that operate across governance levels – i.e. transnational actors – that are the focus of the recently published special issue of the European Educational Research Journal, co-edited by Tatiana Fumasoli (Institute of Education, University College London), Bjørn Stensaker (Department of Education, University of Oslo) and Martina Vukasovic (Centre for Higher Education Governance, Ghent University).

Transnational actors as expert platforms, (latent) interest groups, meta-organizations, and linkages between governance levels

In the introduction to the special issue, the co-editors present various theoretical perspectives that have been employed thus far in analysis of transnational actors, including European integration, multi-level governance, comparative politics, policy analysis, organizational sociology and higher education research. These perspectives highlight different attributes of these transnational actors, e.g. their role in interest intermediation is particularly interesting for comparative politics, while the fact that many of them are meta-organizations – organizations of other organizations – is specifically visible through the lens of organizational sociology. The five contributions to the special issue each employ one or more of these perspectives, focusing on the shifting relationship between governance and knowledge, and on how new actors influence the processes and outcomes of decision-making within the field of higher education.

The European Qualifications Framework Advisory Group (EQFAG) is analysed by Mari Elken, who sheds light on the conditions conducive to organizational stability and legitimacy of a key organization in European knowledge governance. Elken’s study of how EQFAG was institutionalized shows that, while the EU constructs policy arenas to be filled up, actors profit from room to manoeuver and flexibility with regards to their new roles, suggesting that European level policy arenas can (also) act as opportunity structures for policy entrepreneurs.

Martina Vukasovic and Bjørn Stensaker compare two university alliances – EUA and LERU– focusing on how diverse membership bases (i.e. comprehensive vs selective) and diverse resources lead to somewhat differentiated roles and representation of interests in European policy-making. While both alliances have rather easy access to EU decision-makers, the bases for their legitimacy are different, affecting their positioning as well as the breadth and ambiguity of interests they advocate for. 

Looking at three European student organizations (ESU, ESN, and AEGEE) Manja Klemenčič and Fernando Miguel Galan Palomaresinvestigate the conditions determining insiders and outsiders in European knowledge policy processes. Their article shows how legitimacy plays a major role in accessing EU institutions and policy processes, even when organizational structures and resources are similar. 

Tatiana Fumasoli and Marco Seeber provide a mapping of European academic associations, focusing on their missions, structures, and positioning. Their findings articulate a nuanced landscape where traditional scholarly associations coexist with socially orientated academic associations. Equally, their article offers an insight into the different patterns of centre–periphery structures from a geographical, political, and resource perspective and highlights the coexistence of traditional and innovative academic organizations with varied levels of access to European institutions.

Finally, Bo Persson investigates the role played by key Swedish science policy actors in the process of building the European Research Council (ERC) in the 2000s. The article shows how national policy actors have leveraged on their organizational capacity and legitimacy to contribute to European agenda-setting and policy formation. Importantly, the article shows how national policy actors are able to do this partly through bypassing their own state authorities, thus becoming embedded in the European policy arena. 

Key ingredients for understanding governance of the Europe of knowledge

The in-depth analyses provided in this special issue show how European transnational actors can be conceptualized and compared according to their mandates and missions, organizational structures and decision-making processes, through their linkages to the EU institutions, the levels and types of influence in policy-making, and their position in the broader arena of European knowledge policies. These characteristics can be seen as the outcome of policy design, and of strategic intent, but also as the result of incremental and organic changes. Overall,while expertise and legitimacy could be considered requirements to access and influence policy processes, we suggest that organizational structures, resources, identities, and decision-making processes of these transnational actors need to be scrutinized further. The latter point implies that insights from comparative politics and organizational studies might be combined into a valuable framework for studying European governance in general, and that we need more studies in this area if we are to understand the governance of the Europe of Knowledge. 

Martina Vukasovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent

(CHEGG) at Ghent University. In her research she combines insights from comparative politics, policy analysis and organizational sociology in order to analyse multi-level multi-actor governance in knowledge intensive policy domains (e.g. higher education, research). More specifically, she focuses on the role of stakeholder organizations in policy processes, the interaction between European, national and organizational level changes, and the relationship between policy coordination and policy convergence. She holds a PhD from the University of Oslo and a joint MPhil (Erasmus Mundus) degree by the universities of Oslo, Tampere and Aveiro.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledgeblog.





Science diplomacy – a catch-all concept in public policy?

Nicolas Rüffin

International Space Station. Photo: ESA

International Space Station. Photo: ESA

Science diplomacy has attracted a lot of attention during the last decade. Actors as different as the US State Department, the European Commission, the Royal Society, UNESCO and a great many of other intermediary organizations have adopted the term to rebrand their activities, programs, and agendas. The contexts in which the term science diplomacy emerges are just as diverse as the actors. It almost seems like science has become a panacea for most of the problems in public policymaking. For instance, when looking through the volumes of the journal Science & Diplomacy, we encounter topics like the global challenges, health diplomacy, issues of security and proliferation, international mega-science projects, and trade policies, not to mention regional priorities like the Arctic, Africa, the Middle East, or East Asia.

The rise of the concept of science diplomacy

Science diplomacy thus is first and foremost a new umbrella term to characterize the role of science and technology in numerous policy fields that have an international, boundary-spanning, component. As a matter of fact, a number of examples and documents illustrate that considerations regarding science and technology (S&T) have played a role in international policymaking before (e.g. Neureiter & Turekian, 2012). For instance, policy instruments like bilateral science and technology agreements (STAs) have been used at least since the 1950s (Rüffin & Schreiterer, 2017). These STAs formed a global network of legal commitments long before any remarks on a strategic use of science diplomacy emerged. 

However, the scope and number of S&T related policies have increased over time. For instance, we are witnessing the emergence and differentiation of agencies explicitly dedicated to matters of international science policymaking (Flink & Schreiterer, 2010; Rüffin, 2018). Several countries, including Germany, the UK, Switzerland, and Denmark, have established S&T outposts abroad in order to access new markets, buttress their innovation capacities, and to foster bilateral relationships. In addition, non-state actors like academies or research associations pursue their own objectives in terms of international science policy. They maintain offices overseas, conclude collaboration agreements, and some even establish joint research laboratories (e.g. the FrenchCentre national de la recherche scientifiqueor the German Max-Planck Society). The idea of science diplomacy, then, provides a new, more strategic and—more or less—coherent framework to integrate existing instruments in international S&T policymaking. Actors use the concept to propel their own agenda regardless of policy field or research area.

From my point of view, there are two items on the current research agenda regarding science diplomacy: The aspirations for the meaningful, “optimal” use of the concept (Van Langenhove, 2017) and the scholarly reflection on its role in a broader context. 

 Future directions for science diplomacy

There are several well-known and often cited examples of successful science diplomacy. For instance, physicists were the trailblazers in establishing diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel in the 1950s. The Pugwash conferencesprovided venues for low-key exchanges between scientists and policymakers from Western and Eastern countries during the Cold War. International research organizations like the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, or the International Space Station, ISS, illustrate the opportunities that emerge if international partners join forces to pursue daring and high-quality big science research.

But aside from these famous examples, we know that the systematic implementation of the concept of science diplomacy faces serious challenges. Sometimes, scientists and officials from research organizations even are reluctant to use the term, stating that they would rather prefer to stay “under the radar” of politics. It is true that science diplomacy, as a type of track 2 diplomacy, always constitutes a balancing act between governmental interests and scientific autonomy. A strategic use of science diplomacy must take these concerns into account. Moreover, questions arise from the tension between competition versus collaboration of different actors. 

In Europe, both the European Commission and a great number of Member States are engaging in science diplomacy, yet the relations between the different players, the division of labor as it where, often remains unclear. Propelling European science diplomacy thus means that the stakeholders must define the domains of (shared) responsibility, explore areas of common interests, and coordinate joint programs where advisable. Hence, scholars should investigate the subjects where science diplomacy can contribute to the peaceful and sustainable coexistence, increased scientific collaboration, and eased tensions between countries across the globe. But they should also continue to examine the limitations of the concept and how it might play into increasingly tough economic competitions and races for innovation. Overall, researchers should be aware that they contribute to the evolution of the concept by introducing new tools, structuring established instruments, and by identifying new applications.

Contemplating the nature of science diplomacy

However, it is important to remember that science diplomacy is only one expression of a broader “elusive transformation” of policymaking (Skolnikoff, 1993). We need to put science diplomacy into perspective by drawing connections to other mega-trends in science policy like the turn towards innovation and the increasing importance of the global challenges. This strand of research could include historical studies on the origins of the concept, analyses of coalition building, or in-depth case studies of how foreign affairs and S&T interact.

Luckily, the community of researchers engaging with science diplomacy—both in substantial and in reflexive ways—is growing. Already, scientists from many countries are contributing to this endeavor, and within Horizon 2020, there are a number of projects that advance the study and implementation of science diplomacy (e.g. EL-CSID,InsSciDE, and S4D4C). 

After all, science diplomacy is a moving target and it will be interesting to watch which directions, trajectories and shapes the concept will take in the future.

Nicolas Rüffinis Research Fellow of the President's Project Group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. He joined the WZB in 2016, after receiving a master’s degree in science studies from the Humboldt-University of Berlin, and a bachelor’s degree in business psychology from the University of Bochum. Before moving to Berlin, he had worked as Programme Manager at Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, a joint initiative of companies and foundations for the advancement of education, science, and innovation in Germany. His research mainly focuses on issues of international science policy, the politics of intergovernmental big science projects, and science diplomacy.


Flink, T., & Schreiterer, U. (2010). Science diplomacy at the intersection of S&T policies and foreign affairs: towards a typology of national approaches. Science and Public Policy 37(9), 665–677.

Rüffin, N. (2018): Science and Innovation Diplomacy Agencies at the Nexus of Research, Economics, and Politics. EL-CSID Working Papers 10. Brussels: Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Rüffin, N., & Schreiterer, U. (2017): Science and Technology Agreements in the Toolbox of Science Diplomacy. Effective Instruments or Insignificant Add-ons?. EL-CSID Working Papers 6. Brussels: Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Skolnikoff, E. B. (1993). The Elusive Transformation: Science, Technology, and the Evolution of International Politics. Princeton, NJ: University Press. 

Turekian, VC; Neureiter, NP (2012) Science and Diplomacy: The Past as Prologue. Science & Diplomacy. A Quarterly publication from the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. March, 2012;

Van Langenhove, L. (2017). Tools for an EU Science Diplomacy. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Improved coordination of research infrastructures policies in Europe

Isabel K. Bolliger, Alexandra Griffiths and Martin Müller

InRoad 2nd Engagement workshop in Brussels, January 2018

InRoad 2nd Engagement workshop in Brussels, January 2018

In 2000 the European Commission (EC) launched the European Research Area (ERA) initiative, with the intention to improve coordination and collaboration in research and innovation in Europe. ERA became a key element of the ambitious Lisbon strategy in order for the EU “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” (European Council 2000). The development and the coordination of large-scale research infrastructures have been recognized by the EC as an essential pillar of the ERA. Relevant policy documents prioritized the stocktaking of “material resources and facilities optimized at the European level” (European Commission 2000, p. 10), with the intention to formulate a coherent European approach for research infrastructures. Two years later the European Council established the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) and mandated it to develop a coherent and strategic approach to policymaking on research infrastructures in Europe. Furthermore, it was asked to compose an inventory of existing research infrastructures of pan-European relevance as a roadmap. The first ESFRI Roadmap for Research Infrastructures was published in 2006 with iterations following in 2008, 2010 and 2016. Over time the ESFRI roadmap has been very influential in modernising national research infrastructure policies and planning.

International initiatives and challenges for research infrastructures

Already prior to developments related to ERA, research infrastructures had attracted increased policy attention at international level. In 1992 the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) established the Megascience Forum (today Global Science Forum GSF), with the mandate to encourage international cooperation and common policy strategies for large-scale research infrastructures. At global scale, it was decided to establish the Group of Senior Officials (GSO) on global Research Infrastructures during the first G8 Science Ministers’ meeting in 2008. Reflecting discussions at EU and OECD level, the GSO is mandated to explore and take stock of cooperation on Global Research Infrastructures. As a result, the first International Conference for Research Infrastructures (ICRI) was organized in 2012 in Denmark to broaden the scope of its European predecessor and include the international bodies GSO and GSF.

Although research infrastructures are considered a key component of ERA, the ERA remains fragmented and imbalanced in regard to particular scientific fields and aspirations for world-class research infrastructures. In many countries, strategic priority-setting exercises are taking place or being developed. Procedures depend on the strategic and political objectives of the exercise and on the requirements of the national decision-making processes, including those of national budget regulations. Therefore, the results are very diverse in scope and there is a mismatch between strategic priority-setting exercises for research infrastructures between the European, national and regional levels. As soon as research infrastructures gain a European or global scope, this diversity risks making the funding of construction and operation of research infrastructures across Europe inefficient and not transparent. Thus, it threatens the overall long-term sustainability of the system.

The InRoad project

InRoad is a coordination and policy support action project funded under Horizon 2020 that aims to support a better alignment of research policies in Europe and hence responds to the challenges described above. InRoad was launched in January 2017 and supports research infrastructure policy development and the exchange of good practices for national research infrastructures roadmap processes and evaluation procedures, in order to promote harmonisation and coordination of national procedures in Europe.

 The InRoad project executed a first round of data collection through a broad online consultation addressing the actors responsible for the national roadmap process in all EU member states and associated countries represented in ESFRI. The consultation covered all aspects leading to national research infrastructures roadmaps. Twenty-two EU Member States and five Associated Countries responded to the consultation and the results confirmed the large diversity of practices and methodologies among countries in Europe. Some countries are very advanced in the process and have already conducted a series of research infrastructure roadmap exercise, while many others are only starting. Moreover, the purposes behind national roadmap processes also vary greatly across countries, ranging from identifying scientific gaps to providing a guide to funding decisions (see Graph 1 below). Nevertheless, the consultation also identified some areas of convergence, such as a shared interest in mutual learning and increased collaboration, as well as the importance of sound research infrastructure roadmap processes and evaluation methodologies in a national context.

Graph 1. Results of InRoad consultation

Graph 1. Results of InRoad consultation


 Case studies on national roadmap processes for research infrastructures

As a next step the InRoad project will execute more in-depth data collection through case studies on the national roadmap processes in specific countries. The following cases were selected: Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The aim of the case studies is to identify the factors of success in national research infrastructure roadmap processes and lessons to be learned in order to establish in ideal benchmark towards which national processes should converge.

The consultation and preliminary literature reviews showed that national decision-making on prioritizing and funding of research infrastructures is very complex, considering the multiple actors and levels involved. This is why the case studies aim first at a thick description of these roadmap processes in order to identify the relevant context. Based on the input of all the relevant actors, including the user community, funders, policy- and decision-makers, the benchmark shall be elaborated. In view of the aim of the InRoad project, an ideal process should allow for better coordination at European level.

Outreach and outlook

The InRoad project has the opportunity to present and feed-in preliminary results at several upcoming events this year. The next possibility to meet and exchange with InRoad members will be during the Research Infrastructures Flagship Conference in Sofia (22-23 March), which is hosted by the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU. Related research will be presented by Isabel Bolliger at the ECPR General Conference 2018 in Hamburg (22-25 August) within the panel „Bringing the politics of international large-scale research into play“. Furthermore, the InRoad project looks forward to welcome interested audience to its sessions at the EuroScience Open Forum ESOF 2018 taking place in Toulouse during 9-14 July, as well as at the International Conference for Research Infrastructures (ICRI) 2018 in Vienna during 12-14 September.

Isabel K. Bolliger is a PhD researcher at the Swiss Graduate School for Public Administration (IDHEAP) at the University of Lausanne and interested in Science and technology studies and science communication. In her thesis, Isabel focuses on national decision-making processes for prioritizing and funding of large-scale research infrastructures. As a consortium member of the InRoad project she was responsible for the consultation and the design of the case studies.

Dr. Martin Müller is co-heading the Swiss Contact Office for Education, Research and Innovation (SwissCore) in Brussels and coordinating the InRoad project on behalf of the Swiss National Science Foundation. Martin has broad expertise on European research and innovation policy and chairs the Science Europe Working Group on FP9. He is very interested and committed to enhance the efficiency of European research and innovation policy and the interplay between national and European levels as well as between the different stakeholders involved. Martin holds a D.Sc. in biomedical engineering from ETH Zurich.


Alexandra Griffiths is currently a Master student at IDHEAP and Trainee for research at SwissCore, as well as Project Administrator for InRoad. As such, Alexandra is participating in the case study research within the InRoad project. Additionally, she is writing her Master thesis on research infrastructure roadmap processes, in relation to broader trends of science and research policy in Europe.


European Council (2000): Presidency Conclusions. Lisbon European Council, 23 and 24 March 2000 (Council of the European Union, Brussels).

European Commission (2000): Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Towards a European research area.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.





Shaping the idea of the world-class university from outside the global “core”

Emma Sabzalieva

Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Image source: Author

Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Image source: Author

We live in an era of intense and growing international connections, but also in a world of significant positional differences between localities, states and regions.

In this context, how can the idea of the world-class university be used by states to survive and succeed? What does this idea look like in states that are outside of the European and North American “core”?

 Out of the frying pan and into the fire

The global legacy of colonialism and imperialism bears a clear imprint on today’s world order. This is highly evident in the politics and policies of contemporary post-Soviet Central Asia, the area I study. Bissenova and Medeuova (2016) have compellingly argued that the Central Asian countries have in effect jumped out of the 20th century “frying pan” of the Marxist-Leninist discourse of development straight into the 21st century “fire” of a globalized capitalist discourse of modernization, in which states outside the West will always be trying to catch up to an ideal they didn’t create.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, public policy in the Central Asian states has looked not just to former centre Russia but globally for influence and ideas. In the sphere of education, all five of the Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have adopted elements of the European Union’s Bologna Process, and – uniquely so far – Kazakhstan is also a member of the European Higher Education Area.

In my recent article ‘The Policy Challenges of Creating a World-Class University Outside the Global “Core”’ (Sabzalieva 2017), I explored in further depth the public policy challenges and opportunities Kazakhstan faces as it seeks to create a brand new world-class university.

 The world-class university as public policy tool

The idea of the world-class university has become widespread not only as a seemingly replicable model in higher education, but as a policy pursuit of governments around the world. Public policy in Kazakhstan too has followed this logic.

I believe that the institutionalization of the idea of the world-class university is reinforced by three major dynamics:

·       Firstly, the neoliberal logic of efficiency has led to much greater selectivity in the areas that are supported financially by the state, with world-class or excellence policies being one such funding stream;

·       Secondly, there is growing convergence around the concept of the knowledge economy, the notion that brain power will bring prosperity and competitiveness to a state. Universities play a key role in this discourse, with the result that governments use policy levers such as world-class university projects to fulfil their objectives;

·       Thirdly, despite the impact of intensifying globalising forces that push for greater international engagement with and by higher education, the nation-state persists, using public policy to seek or consolidate national competitive advantage, for example through the creation of world-class universities.

Faced with these dynamics, the rapid spread of the world-class university around the globe can be understood as a policy tool used by states to survive and succeed in the contemporary era.

 A world-class university for Kazakhstan

In 2006, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev proclaimed that “to establish a unique academic environment in our capital, a prestigious international-standard university needs to be created” (Nazarbayev 2006).

In a stunning feat of planning and construction, that “international-standard university” – now known as Nazarbayev University – has not only been built and populated, but celebrated the graduation of its first cohort of students less than a decade later.

With the opening of Nazarbayev University, opportunities have been created for academically excellent students to pursue high quality programmes and for a strong and highly international faculty to pursue teaching and research, all housed in an extremely well-equipped and generously funded environment. The legally bound commitment to academic freedom and institutional independence gives the university rights and responsibilities in governance that are currently unparalleled in Kazakhstan.

I discuss these three factors of human resources, funding, and governance in more detail in the article. As the Nazarbayev University project is still very new, I also raise a number of policy challenges that warrant further and detailed investigation.

 Both global and national: a unique example

Global higher education watchers will identify some parallels between the rapid ascent of Nazarbayev University and other institutions also claiming to be world-class, such as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology or the National University of Singapore.

However, I consider Kazakhstan’s journey to a world-class university to be unique in three respects.

Firstly, in Kazakhstani public policy, the role of higher education in the knowledge economy is a critical element of the country’s strategy to reposition itself in the world system as one of the top 30 (the policy goal was originally to be a top 50 global economy, but this has since been raised to the top 30) global economies. Nazarbayev University was founded to act as a figurehead for the reforms that are expected to be adopted and adapted throughout the tertiary sector in Kazakhstan.

Secondly, although some nation-building ventures in Central Asia have been seen as contrived, the Nazarbayev University project, whilst experimental, is nevertheless a credible demonstration of a commitment towards national consolidation and improvement, substantiated by its ‘role model’ status within the national higher education system.

Thirdly, this dual policy commitment to both the national and the global sets Kazakhstan apart from many of the other states similarly investing in select higher education institutions.

 Where to from here: adopt, adapt, or invent anew?

There seems to be no question that the notion of the ‘world-class university’ is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and that it currently shows a continuing dominance of what is essentially a Western model of higher education.

This suggests another policy challenge for the states that do choose to develop their own world-class university: should they seek to replicate what they have seen elsewhere, or diversify the idea, thus making it a new one?

My case study of Nazarbayev University offers a worked example of the Kazakh government’s openness to aligning with international “best practices”, wherever these may be found (Tamtik and Sabzalieva forthcoming). This reflects a pragmatic ideology, recognizing that the world-class university model has benefits and seeking to build on these by domesticating the concept for a different context.

Continuing to study Nazarbayev University and the public policies of Kazakhstan will be critical to understanding the scope for states such as Kazakhstan to move beyond “frying pans” and “fires”, and innovate in ways that influence and diversify the positioning of a future world order.


Emma Sabzalieva is a doctoral candidate and Vanier Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE), University of Toronto, Canada. Her core research interests are the global politics of higher education, social change, and contemporary Central Asia. Her wider research interests span ideas and knowledge creation, public policy, social institutions, university/community engagement, and the history of universities. Her website is



Bissenova, Alina, and Kulshat Medeuova. 2016. “O problemakh regionalnikh issledovanii v/po Tsentralnoi Azii [Issues of regional research in/on Central Asia].” Antropologicheskii Forum [Forum for Anthropology and Culture] 28:35–39.

Nazarbayev, Nursultan. 2006. “Poslaniye Prezidenta Respubliki Kazakhstan N. A. Nazarbayev Narodu Kazakhstana. Strategiya Vkhozhdeniya Kazakhstana v Chislo 50-Ti Naibolee Konkurentosposobnikh Stran Mira: Kazakhstan Na Poroge Novovo Ryvka Vpered v Svoem Razvitiyi [Address by President of the Republic of Kazakhstan N. A. Nazarbayev to the People of Kazakhstan. A Strategy to Include Kazakhstan in the List of the 50 Most Competitive Countries in the World: Kazakhstan on the Threshold of a New Leap Forward in Its Development].” Official Site of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. March 1, 2006.

Sabzalieva, Emma. 2017. “The Policy Challenges of Creating a World-Class University Outside the Global ‘core.’” European Journal of Higher Education 7 (4): 424–439.

Tamtik, Merli, and Emma Sabzalieva. forthcoming. “Emerging Global Players? Building International Legitimacy in Universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan.” In Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations: Education in Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Union, edited by Iveta Silova and Maia Chankseliani. Oxford: Symposium Books.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.