Inconsistencies in the Governance of Interdisciplinarity: Lessons from the Italian Higher Education System


University of Bergamo. Source: HERe research

University of Bergamo. Source: HERe research

Davide Donina

In recent decades, science studies have increasingly recognized that single academic disciplines are ill equipped to address complex problems that modern societies and science face (Nature 2015). Accordingly, interdisciplinarity has become a hot topic and a buzzword in the policy discourse for science and higher education. Yet, translating policy discourse into policy design and governance arrangements is not straightforward. Regarding interdisciplinarity, scholars showed that so far the discourse on interdisciplinarity conflicts with the persistence or even reinforcement of modes of governance that almost exclusively rely on rigid discipline-based classification systems.

As a matter of fact, it is the interaction of several policy instruments and governance domains that is crucial for achieving any policy goal. Therefore, in a recent article ‘Inconsistencies in the Governance of Interdisciplinarity: The Case of the Italian Higher Education System’, co-authored with Marco Seeber and Stefano Paleari (Donina et al. 2017), we took a comprehensive view on the governance of the Italian higher education system, and how this relates to the interdisciplinary target. Such perspective is particularly relevant in higher education systems like continental European ones where steering mainly occurs via laws and regulations developed by the governments and state-dependent agencies (Bleiklie and Michelsen 2013; Capano 2014; Donina et al. 2015). We examined whether the policy portfolio creates or hinders the conditions that favour interdisciplinarity by exploring the potential presence of different types of inconsistency –namely ambiguity, conflict, and incompatibility- between elements of the same policy instrument, between different policy instruments in the same governance domain, and between different governance domains. We considered four governance domains: i) universities’ internal organization, ii) institutional research assessment exercise, iii) doctoral education, and iv) academic recruitment/careers.

Interdisciplinarity: Between rhetoric and practice

The idea of dividing knowledge into discrete categories dates back to Plato and Aristotle. Nowadays, academic disciplines are the commonly accepted classification system for the production, communication, acquisition, dissemination, and validation of knowledge. However, disciplines could also create cognitive boundaries, which affect the organization and production of new knowledge by limiting research practices and their scope, and institutionalizing knowledge fragmentation.

For this reason, there has been a rise of interdisciplinarity rhetoric, which implies the integration of knowledge, methods, concepts, and theories in order to create a holistic view and common understanding of complex problems.

However, melding disciplines presents challenges. Science policy literature highlights barriers and disincentives that prevent researchers from engaging in interdisciplinary research. First, there are organizational barriers that arise from the organization around departments that promote disciplinary knowledge and reward scholars mainly for the outcomes within their home discipline. Second, research evaluation procedures are typically organized around disciplines. Third, doctoral courses are mostly embedded within a well-defined discipline, thus not fostering the development of the integration skills regarded essential to effectiveness in real-world problem solving. Finally, academic labour market values less interdisciplinarity since hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions are controlled by disciplinary departments and disciplinary professional associations, thus discouraging researchers from moving into interdisciplinary endeavours, particularly during early academic career stages. In sum, interdisciplinarity tends to be hindered by established governance arrangements in different domains.

Interdisciplinarity in the Italian policy design

Our analysis shows that elements promoting interdisciplinarity have been introduced in Italy, but the disciplinary rationale is still prevalent and, overall, dominates Italian higher education system governance. Therefore, inconsistencies are recognizable.

Conflict and/or Ambiguity between laws, ministerial decrees, and evaluation agency guidelines emerge within every governance domain. Inconsistencies are evident also among governance domains. In example, the regulation of doctoral programmes is the most strongly oriented to interdisciplinarity, but Ph.D. graduates must cope with the fact that their research outcomes will be assessed predominantly from the viewpoint of a single discipline, while calls for new hires are made by disciplinarily homogenous departments and within disciplinary recruitment sectors. Thus, deviating from the disciplinary interests may reduce (national) career prospects. Another inconsistency among governance domains emerges among evaluation procedures, since the same research output can be evaluated differently for individual career purposes and institutional research assessment.

As a result, the interdisciplinary target is hindered by different types of inconsistencies between both policy elements, instruments, and governance domains.

Practical way to nudge interdisciplinarity

The use of a disciplinary taxonomy to regulate curricula, organizational structures, research assessment, and careers, reinforce each other and represent a resilient disciplinary ‘iron-cage’ that is unlikely to melt soon. Reducing some of the inconsistencies and the creation of parallel structures and processes that emancipate from strict disciplinary principles can represent a realistic and pragmatic way to nudge interdisciplinarity in the short term. In example, the removal of the obligation of departments’ disciplinary homogeneity, the establishment of problem-oriented organizational structures, and the introduction of innovative recruitment procedures open to interdisciplinary profiles (such as cluster hiring and co-funded dual appointments; Sà 2008) alongside the disciplinary ones would benefit the interdisciplinary target. Clearly, similar innovations alone would not solve the problem of the governance of interdisciplinarity, unless the other governance domains are properly redesigned in line with our key message, namely that consistency in the policy portfolio is crucial in order to nudge interdisciplinary in practice.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog

Davide Donina is a post-doc Research Fellow at Cisalpino Institute for Comparative Studies in Europe-Higher Education Research group (CCSE-HERe) where he undertakes research on Higher Education Policy and Governance, particularly on the Italian HE sector, and at Department of Management, Information and Production Engineering, University of Bergamo (Italy), where he teaches Corporate management and Corporate finance. His recent articles are published on Higher Education Policy, Tertiary Education and Management, Journal of Technology Transfer, Small Business Economics, Science and Public Policy.


Bleiklie, I., & Michelsen, S. (2013) ‘Comparing HE policies in Europe’, Higher Education, 65/1: 113-33.

Capano, G. (2014). The re-regulation of the Italian university system through quality assurance. A mechanistic perspective. Policy and Society 33(3), 199-213.

Donina, D., Meoli, M., & Paleari, S. (2015) ‘Higher Education Reform in Italy: Tightening Regulation Instead of Steering at a Distance’, Higher Education Policy, 28/2: 215-34.

Donina D., Seeber, M., & Paleari, S. (2017) ‘Inconsistencies in the Governance of Interdisciplinarity: The Case of the Italian Higher Education System’, Science and Public Policy, 44(6), 865-875.

Nature (2015) ‘Why Interdisciplinarity Research Matters’, Nature, 525/7569: 305.

Sà, C. (2008) ‘“Interdisciplinary Strategies” in U.S. research universities’, Higher Education, 55/5: 537-52. 


Discussing indicators in research funding: What role do altmetrics play?

Grischa Fraumann


At any rate, altmetrics, or alternative metrics, are gaining momentum in higher education (Holmberg, 2016). This post is based on my master’s thesis (Fraumann, 2017) that explores the usage of altmetrics with a focus on research funding. Altmetrics track down and count the mentions of scholarly outputs in social media, news sites, policy papers, and social bookmarking sites. Then altmetrics data providers aggregate the number of mentions. This allows an observation of how many times research has been viewed, discussed, followed, shared, and downloaded.

By following this line of thought, one might relate these mentions to impact or attention in the wider public or the society outside of the scientific community. As such, everyone with an internet connection would be able to engage with scholarly outputs online, even if only a fraction of the overall number of users do so. Nevertheless, it is important to note these mentions do not correlate with the quality of a scholarly output, they mostly visualise a community of attention, that is internet users that engage in some or way or the other with a scholarly output, such as a journal article. Altmetrics is an innovation with potential for further development (Bornmann, 2014; CWTS, 2017; Holmberg, 2016; Liu & Adie, 2013; Piwowar, 2013; Priem, Taraborelli, Groth, & Neylon, 2010; Robinson-García, Torres-Salinas, Zahedi, & Costas, 2014; Thelwall, Haustein, Larivière, Sugimoto, & Bornmann, 2013).

Following this development, altmetrics have reached the highest levels in European policy debates, and have been discussed, for instance, during the Open Science Mutual Learning Exercise (MLE) by the Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility. MLEs are carried out under the Joint Research Centre Research and Innovation Observatory (RIO), and are aimed at providing the best practice examples from European Union (EU) Member States, and Associated Countries (European Commission, 2017b). Further evidence can be found in EU high-level expert groups that advise the European Commission, among others, on science, research, and innovation. From 2016 until 2017, altmetrics have been discussed in several reports of these high-level advisory bodies (European Commission, 2017a).

 Key Findings

For this study, representatives of a research funding organisation, and policymakers were first interviewed. Second, reviewers of a research funding organisation and researchers registered with an institutional altmetrics system were invited to take an online survey. Overall, the survey respondents and interviewees were unaware of the usage of altmetrics. The data also suggests a few of respondents are well-aware of the debates on altmetrics. If one closely follows the international debates on the usage of altmetrics, it might come as a surprise that the concept is so widely unused in this sample. It was expected that more respondents would be aware on the usage of altmetrics. In particular, if altmetrics are discussed in high-level policy debates in EU research policy, researchers need to be made aware of it, because this might also affect their academic career to some extent.


As discussed before, altmetrics seems to be on the rise in policy papers and further international initiatives, such as at the level of EU policy. In turn, the findings that could be drawn from this sample of stakeholders suggest that altmetrics are not yet widely spread. In fact, they were unknown to the vast majority of the study participants. Furthermore, findings from the interviews also showed that different organisational types, academic disciplines, and further categories have to be treated differently. As proven in several technical studies, altmetrics are not yet ready for routine use in research evaluations, and several challenges need to be addressed (Erdt, Nagarajan, Sin, & Theng, 2016). Nevertheless, through altmetrics, it is possible to make a certain impact on the society visible or to visualise attention. How this impact is interpreted and set into context is essential.

Additionally, it was suggested by some interviewees that altmetrics might play a larger role in reporting on funded research rather than demonstrating impact in research funding applications. Criticisms were put forward by some respondents on altmetrics. Further, altmetrics should only be seen as a complementary measurement compared to citation counts and, especially, peer review. For instance, the impact of sharing a research data set can be made visible in a timely manner compared to citation counts of a journal article. The context of altmetrics data and aggregated scores needs to be analysed, as suggested by several scholars. As previously mentioned, the study findings for this sample of stakeholders in research funding indicate that altmetrics are mostly unknown. This needs to be considered if and when the usage of altmetrics is proposed by policymakers.  


Grischa Fraumann is a recent graduate of the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education (MARIHE) at University of Tampere (Finland) and Danube University Krems (Austria). This blog post is based on his master’s thesis: ‘Valuation of altmetrics in research funding’.




Bornmann, L. (2014). Do altmetrics point to the broader impact of research? An overview of benefits and disadvantages of altmetrics. Journal of Informetrics, 8(4), 895–903.

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Erdt, M., Nagarajan, A., Sin, S. J., & Theng, Y. (2016). Altmetrics: an analysis of the state-of-the-art in measuring research impact on social media. Scientometrics, 109(2), 1117–1166.

European Commission. (2017a). Europe’s future – open innovation, open science, open to the world: reflections of the Research, Innovation and Science Policy Experts (RISE) High Level Group. Brussels.

European Commission. (2017b). Mutual Learning Exercise on Open Science: Altmetrics and Rewards under the Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility (PSF). Second Workshop on “How to use Altmetrics in a context of Open Science.” Retrieved from MLE Open Science_Meeting 31 May 2017_Helsinki.pdf

Fraumann, G. (2017). Valuation of altmetrics in research funding. Master’s Thesis. University of Tampere.

Holmberg, K. (2016). Altmetrics for information professionals: Past, present and future. Waltham, MA: Chandos Publishing.

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Thelwall, M., Haustein, S., Larivière, V., Sugimoto, C. R., & Bornmann, L. (2013). Do Altmetrics Work? Twitter and Ten Other Social Web Services. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e64841.

 This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.



Public research funding streams and the perspective of system actors

Olivier Bégin-Caouette

In the Europe of Knowledge, there are strong pressures on national governments to increase funding for research; one of Europe 2020’s headline indicators is to increase combined public and private investment in R&D to the equivalent of 3% of the GDP (see graph below). Beyond the amount of resources invested, it appears critical for both scholars and policymakers to question whether funding coming from different sources or taking different forms have a similar impact.

Progress towards investing 3% of GDP in research and development in EU member states. Source: European Commission

Progress towards investing 3% of GDP in research and development in EU member states. Source: European Commission

Focusing our analysis on four Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden), public funding and research produced in academic settings, we have attempted to analyze the impact of four funding streams, according to the perspectives of actors located within different levels of the higher education systems. Complementing studies based on bibliometric data, our actor-centered approach aimed at grasping the multifaceted and complex phenomenon of research production in a holistic manner. Part of a lager study (see also Bégin-Caouette, 2016), our recent article ‘The perceived impact of research funding streams on the level of scientific knowledge production in the Nordic higher education systems’ published in Science and Public Policy (Bégin-Caouette, Kalpazidou Schmidt, and Field, 2017) relied on a MANOVA processed on 456 questionnaires and a thematic analysis processed on 56 interview transcripts to explore how actors perceived the impact of four funding streams, defined as the funding flows at the actor level including various instruments and consisting in an intermediary layer between public authorities and researchers (Lepori et al., 2007): block funding, competitive funding, excellence funding and strategic funding.

The quality, equity and efficiency of funding streams

Analyzing the average survey scores obtained by the four funding streams, we noted that all streams obtained positive scores, but that, in all countries, competitive funding (defined as funding allocated to researchers based on “traditional” a peer-review process) was perceived as having the greatest impact. On the contrary, strategic funding (defined as a stream stimulating research in specific predefined areas) obtained the lowest scores in all countries but Sweden where it tied with excellence funding (defined as long-term peer-reviewed funding to groups of researchers).

Funding arrangements in Nordic countries have for long being characterized by a large block funding, and participants from all countries and at all levels confirmed it contributed to an equitable distribution of funding, and that equity was linked to the quality of the research produce since no funding body can know in advance where groundbreaking discoveries will occur (Öquist and Benner, 2012). Block funding based on performance measures would also increase research production in an efficient way since the small premium would create a signaling effect and generate symbolic capital for high achievers (Bloch and Schneider, 2016).

The competitive stream was perceived positively across countries because it enhanced quality research in an equitable manner since researchers from all institutions and disciplines could apply. It was however also perceived as being increasingly inefficient because of the diminishing acceptance rates, the correlated ‘Matthew Effect’ (Langfeldt et al., 2013) and the burden of writing multiple applications (von Hippel and von Hippel, 2015). Participants made similar comments regarding an excellence stream, which, despite concerns over equity and efficiency, would enhance the quality of the research production by being more stable, facilitating further grant applications (Bloch and Schneider, 2016) and fostering a critical mass of researchers (Bloch and Sorensen, 2015). Whether commenting on the block, competitive or excellence streams, participants made an association between an equitable allocation of resources and efficiency in research production. Strategic funding, although at the core of multiple recent policy initiatives, was still perceived at the periphery of traditional academic research systems, becoming a niche for emerging areas with less academic prestige (Benner and Sörlin, 2007).

Differences between the four Nordic countries

The MANOVA comparing survey scores by countries revealed some small but significant differences. Finnish participants attributed less importance to block funding than their Danish and Swedish counterparts. Swedish participants, for their part, attributed less importance to excellence funding than their Finnish and Norwegian counterparts. Like previously noted by Öquist and Benner (2012), Swedish participants considered research funding as being decentralized, complex and contradictory. In Denmark, actors attributed significantly higher scores to the block stream, which does represent a higher percentage of their country’s HERD than in other countries. Our thematic analysis is consistent with Välimaa’s (2005) observation that Danish policymakers were more concerned about supporting basic research than innovation, and with Öquist and Benner’s (2012) remark that the Danish National Research Foundation had channeled a massive increase of funding into the excellence streams, thus contributing to the increase in publications and citations.

In Norway, the excellence stream mitigated the negative impact of a scattered competitive stream by stabilizing the research system, fostering strong interdisciplinary centers and allowing promising scholars to attract sufficient funding for path-breaking discoveries (Asknes et al., 2012). It is finally interesting to note that, although the strategic stream is particularly important in Finland and could accelerate the innovation process, participants did not think it had a strong positive impact on the level of academic research produced.


This study provides concrete example of how different funding arrangements intertwine with existing academic traditions and are interpreted differently by actors located in different contexts. Streams’ adequacy to countries’ culture, history, national environment, industrial R&D and military development could have as much impact as the amount of funding or the specificities of the instrument developed. Despite shortcomings regarding national nuances and differences in actors’ perceptions, our article suggests that funding streams are perceived to have the most impact when they are consistent with academic traditions and the norms regarding an open, equitable and meritocratic competition between scholars.

Olivier Bégin-Caouette, former Canada-Vanier Scholar, is a postdoctoral research at the Inter-University Center for Research on Science and Technology (CIRST), based at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). He also holds a PhD in higher education (comparative, international and development education) from at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on interactions between political-economic structures and academic research production. He also held the position of visiting scholar at HEGOM (University of Helsinki) and the Danish Centre for Studies on Research and Research Policy (Aarhus University).

 Evanthia Kalpazidou Schmidt is an associate professor and research director at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark. Kalpazidou Schmidt´s research interests include European science policy and evaluation, science and society studies, higher education studies, and gender equality in science. She has been involved in a number of European Union funded projects and has frequently been engaged as expert in the evaluations of projects funded by the European Union.

 Cynthia Field is a doctoral candidate in higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include institutional differentiation, academic drift, sessional faculty and the academic profession.


Asknes, D., Benner, M., Borlaug, S.B., Hansen, H.F., Kallerud, E.K., Kristiansen, E., Langfeldt, L., Pelkonen, A. and Sivertsen, G. (2012) ‘Centres of excellence in the Nordic countries’. Working Paper 4/2012. <> accessed Jan 25 2017.

Bégin-Caouette, O. (2016). Building comparative advantage in the global knowledge society: Systemic factors contributing to academic research production in four Nordic higher education systems. In C. Sarrico, P. Texeira et al. (Eds).  Global Challenges, National Initiatives, and Institutional Responses: The Transformation of Higher Education, Edition: 9 (pp. 29-54). Netherlands: Sense Publisher.

Bégin-Caouette, O., Kalpazidou-Schmidt, E. & Field, C. (2017). The perceived impact of research funding streams on the level of scientific knowledge production in the Nordic higher education systems. Science and Public Policy. Doi: 10.1093/scipol/scx014.

Benner, M. and Sörlin, S. (2007). ‘Shaping strategic research: Power, resources and interests in Swedish research policy’. Minerva, 45(1): 31-48.

Bloch, C. and Schneider, J.W. (2016). ‘Performance-based funding models and researcher behavior: An analysis of the influence of the Norwegian Publication Indicator at the individual level’. Research Evaluation, 47(1): 1-13.

Bloch, C., Sørensen, M.P. (2015). ‘The size of research funding: Trends and implications’. Science and Public Policy, 42(1): 30-43.

Evans, L. (2015) ‘What academics want from their professors: Findings from a study of professorial academic leadership in the UK’. In U. Teichler and W. Cummings (eds.), Forming, Recruiting and Managing the Academic Profession, pp. 51-78. Dodrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.

Frølich, N. (2011). ‘Multi-layered accountability. Performance-based funding of universities’. Public Administration, 8(3), 840-859.

Langfeldt, L., Borlaug, S.B., Asknes, D., Benner, M., Hansen, H.F., Kallerud, E., Kristiansen, E., Pelkonen, A. and Sivertsen, G. (2013) ‘Excellence initiatives in Nordic research policies’. Working Paper 10/2013. <> accessed Jan 25 2017.

Lepori, B., van den Besselaar, P. Dinges, M. Poti, B. Reale, E., Slipersæter, S., Thèves, J., and B. van der Meulen (2007), ‘Comparing the Evolution of National Research Policies: What Patterns of Change?’, Science and Public Policy: 34(6), July, pp. 372-388.

Öquist, G. and Benner, M. (2012) Fostering breakthrough research: A comparative study. Stockholm: Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

The Economist (2011) ‘Academic publishing: Of goats and headaches; One of the best media businesses is also one of the most resented’. Economist, 399(8735), 69. <http://www.economist. com/node/18744177> accessed Jan 22 2017.

Välimaa, J. (2005) ‘Globalization in the context of Nordic higher education’. In: A. Arimoto, F. Huang, and K. Yokoyama (eds.). Globalization and Higher Education, pp. 93-114. Higashi-Hiroshima, Japan: Research Institute for Higher Education and Hiroshima University.

Von Hippel, T., von Hippel, C. (2015) ‘To apply or not to apply: A survey analysis of grant writing costs and benefits’. PLoS One 10(3): doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118494.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Universities and the production of elites

Roland Bloch and Alexander Mitterle


Universities have become central crossing points in modern society. They coproduce the narratives of our time, ranging from politics over neurogenetics to climate change. Universities educate students for diverse roles in society: nurses, musicians, lawyers, physicists, managers, neuroscientists, and philosophers have all been credentialized by higher education systems. In recent decades, there has been a consistent increase in the number of participants in higher education. The move from elite to mass education, has led to the emergence of an expansive, self-enforcing dynamic (Trow 2006).

Mass education implies that higher education has become crucial to securing access to labor markets, especially to positions with higher social status (Collins 1979). Over the decades, scholars have confirmed that educational credentials are door openers, which legitimate exclusive access to high-status professions and lead to occupational attainment (Abbott 2005). With the expansion of higher education, a growing differentiation, professionalization, and stratification within higher education systems can be perceived (Teichler 2008). Surprisingly, there has been less attention paid to how exactly the organization and (vertical) structure of higher education impacts on social structures and on occupational attainment. Beyond acknowledging the role of higher education in constructing elites, there has been a serious lack of research on the link between higher education and high-status positions.

Bringing the university back in

While acknowledging the important work that emphasizes the role of higher education in reproducing elites, our new book ‘Universities and the Production of Elites. Discourses, Policies, and Strategies of Excellence and Stratification in Higher Education’ (Bloch, Mitterle, Paradeise and Peter 2018) focusses on how universities as organizations produce elites.

As education provider and a research institution, the university “forms basic ideologies and creates academic degrees and expertise around these ideologies” (Baker 2014, p. 84). As a “sieve”, “incubator” or “hub” of society (Stevens et al. 2008), it both co-constructs and legitimizes “new classes of personnel with new types of authoritative knowledge” (Meyer 1977, p. 56). As an organization its forms of educational provision and its ties with the labour market are impacted by constant policy changes in the name of internationalization, excellence, New Public Management, quality improvement, efficiency and cost reduction (Paradeise and Thoenig 2015; Bloch and Mitterle 2017).

The aim of our book is to highlight the relationship between higher education institutions and the production of elites by focusing on how organizational change and increasing stratification in higher education impact on – or try to adjust to – the production of new elites for labor markets and academia. Its purpose is to provide new empirical and theoretical perspectives on this relationship and it focuses on the role of the university, rather than the labor market.

Discourses, policies, and strategies of excellence and stratification

The contributions originate from a small, intense workshop held at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in September 2015. The workshop brought together scholars from Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States to explore these issues. The endeavor is of course much greater than an edited book can handle. We see it as a starting point for a longer discussion. It thus provides relevant theoretical approaches that help to think the relationship anew, such as discourse analysis, new institutionalism, institutional habitus approaches, or visibility theory. The approaches are developed along concrete case studies in the respective countries on multiple levels along which this ordering takes place (such as programs, organizational units, universities, global business school fields, and nation states).

The book begins with addressing some of the discursive rationales that underlie recent policy changes toward increasing stratification in higher education and that emphasize individual actorhood, responsiveness, and competition. We then examine how governments take up these rationales – in response to massification and internationalization in higher education – when formulating policy changes. Examples from Finland, France, Germany, and Ireland describe how such policy changes impact on and reshape the structure of higher education systems. Policy devices that exemplify verticality in programs and institutions (such as rankings) are key to implementing and sustaining these changes in higher education. We show how policy devices – as objective status distributors – make hierarchies visible along specific indicators and how such devices impact on universities. Universities respond to these policy changes by adjusting to status demands. Common indicators play an important role in comparative positioning but local organizational arrangements are very heterogeneous. With regard to educational pathways, we draw on case studies from China, the United States, and Germany (business education and doctoral programs) to show how universities and their schools seek to employ international faculty, visualize elite architectures, or build privileged pathways to job positions. Finally, we discuss the role of specific logics of elite production. Examples from the United States and France each show that even if internationalization strategies are in place and although universities are global institutions, they still largely follow national production logics in the way that they educate and socialize their students.

Connecting the various empirical studies in this book opens up a new perspective for future research on the nexus between higher education and labor markets. The vertical differences and the way that they rebuild higher education matter, and they matter particularly for educational pathways leading to high-status positions.

Roland Bloch is a research associate at the Institute of Sociology and the Center for School and Educational Research at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. He received his PhD at University of Leipzig with a dissertation on the study reforms in the course of the Bologna process and has worked on the structure of academic work at German universities. His latest research concerns stratifications in higher education, especially doctoral education.

Alexander Mitterle is a research associate at the Institute for Sociology and the Center for School and Educational Research at Martin-Luther-University. His recent research focuses on the development of stratification in German higher education. He has worked and published on various aspects of higher education including internationalization, private higher education, teaching structure and time as well as real-socialist higher education.


Abbott, A. (2005). ‘Linked Ecologies: States and Universities as Environments for Professions‘. Sociological Theory, 23(3), pp. 245–274.

Baker, D.P. (2014). The Schooled Society: The Educational Transformation of Global Culture. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Bloch, R. and Mitterle, A. (2017). On stratification in changing higher education: The 'analysis of status' revisited, Higher Education, 73(6), pp. 929–946. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-017-0113-5.

Bloch, R., Mitterle, A., Paradeise, C. and Peter, T. (eds.) (2018). Universities and the Production of Elites. Discourses, Policies, and Strategies of Excellence and Stratification in Higher Education. Palgrave Studies in Global Higher Education. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Collins, R. (1979). The credential society: an historical sociology of education and stratification. New York: Academic Press.

Meyer, J.W. (1977). The Effects of Education as an Institution. The American Journal of Sociology, 83(1), pp. 55–77.

Paradeise, C. and Thoenig, J.C. (2015). In search of academic quality. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stevens, M.L., Armstrong, E.A. and Arum, R. (2008). Sieve, Incubator, Temple, Hub: Empirical and Theoretical Advances in the Sociology of Higher Education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34(1), pp. 127–151.

Teichler, U. (2008). Diversification? Trends and explanations of the shape and size of higher education, Higher Education, 56(3), pp. 349–379. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-008-9122-8.

Trow, Martin (2006). Reflections on the transition from elite to mass to universal access: forms and phases of higher education in modern societies since WWII. In: James J. F. Forest und Philip G. Altbach eds., International Handbook of Higher Education. Vol. 1. Global Themes and Contemporary Challenges. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 243-280.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Research Executive Agencies in Europe: Some Reflections

Que Anh Dang. Photo credits: Thomas König

Que Anh Dang. Photo credits: Thomas König

Que Anh Dang

·       How might we understand the changing governance of scientific research at national, regional and supranational levels in Europe?

·       What are the prevailing and conflicting political, economic, cultural and ideational discourses, discursive contexts and rationales for constituting and governing intermediary research executive agencies? How do they operate?

·       What are the consequences/outcomes caused by the tensions and compromises between these supposedly independent agencies and the national governments or regional institutions?

·       What are the implications for research policies and academic practices at higher education institutions?

These are some overarching questions addressed by the panel ‘Research Executive Agencies – between Independent Organisations and Governments’ organised by Lisa Kressin and Sarah Glück in the Section on the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation at the European Consortium for Political Research ECPR General Conference 6-9 September in Oslo. The papers in this panel examine the historical trajectories, discursive contexts in the institutionalisation processes and the actual workings of the research funding executive agencies in Germany, Austria, the Nordic region and the European Union.

National Contexts: Agencification and Autonomy

In some German-speaking national contexts, there is a practice of agencification in which the principals (ministries) play the role of defining political strategies, framework and rules, and let the agents (the executive agencies) be in charge of implementation processes and manage public research funds on the government’s behalf. Rupert Pichler and Sascha Ruhland, in their paper titled ‘The role of research funding agencies in policy discretion and coordination in Austria’, examined multiple funding agencies and focus on the case of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) – a merger of several fragmented funding organisations. FFG has a legal form of a limited company and has the mandates to serve many ministries, provincial governments and the EU. They argued that the very nature of multi-principal and multi-sector agency has put FFG in a position to propose strategic plans that are to be approved by the various ministries. Sometimes the inter-ministerial negotiations are outsourced to FFG. In essence, the principals are coordinated by the agent rather than being in the driver’s seat, thus blurring the boundaries between principal’s and agent’s tasks and roles. They concluded that although principals and agents are deeply entangled, there are always ‘lasting tensions’ oscillating between agency capture and government interference. Therefore, the principal-agent relationship is constantly adjusted.

Regional Contexts: Changing Governance Architecture

Que Anh Dang presented the paper ‘Nordic Umbrella Organisations for Higher Education and Research: Region-building and Market-making and highlighted the case of the Nordic research funding executive agency – NordForsk. Although NordForsk was established in 2005 in the aftermath of the Lisbon Strategy with a competitiveness boosting agenda, it was rooted in the long-standing Nordic regional cooperation in many sectors. NordForsk is ‘old wine in a new bottle’ and it represents a continuation of previous regional initiatives and the Nordic informal and pragmatic approach to cooperation. However, NordForsk has constituted new spaces for policy making which alter regional governance pattern. She argued that, in the Nordic case, these new spaces are not located above the state, rather, regional frontiers are created within the national policy-making apparatus including its political institutions. NordForsk is not about the emergence, consolidation or sustainability of the supranational authority but about the rescaling of governance and pubic authority to regional spaces – a politics of regionalism that is simultaneously regional and national. The legitimacy of intermediary agencies, like NordForsk, is secured through various forms of accountability. Such accountability is ensured by ‘accountability communities’- a complex ensemble of public and private organisations endowed with capacities to perform legislative, monitoring and compliance activities. Que Anh concluded that these communities also possess particular understandings of accountability (soft law of standards and codes) and provide the basis for new ways of region-building and market-making.

Inga Ulnicane presented her research on Grand societal challenges asking if challenge-orientation represents a new policy paradigm in science, technology and innovation policy. She compared recent challenge-orientation with earlier mission-oriented science, technology and innovation policies and discussed a number of policy initiatives to address societal challenges launched by NordForsk, European Union and Sweden’s innovation agency Vinnova.

Panel chair Sarah Glück

Panel chair Sarah Glück

Thomas König, one of the panellists, launched his new book ‘The European Research Council’ (ERC) during the conference. This book is a comprehensive research into the creation and development of the ERC. With an ethnographic method, Thomas gives a detailed account of how a group of strong-minded European scientists succeeded in establishing the ERC by pushing for a single goal: more money for scientific research with fewer strings attached. The book also critically analyses the achievements and challenges faced by the ERC and engages with a broader question concerning the relationships between politics, science and public money.

Some Reflections

Presentations in this panel prompted some reflections and ideas for further empirical studies:

-        The classical principal-agent theory is deficient in explaining the complex relationships between the research funding executive agencies and their founders and funders (be it national or regional bodies). We need new theories and novel ways of understanding the power relations between the principals (ministries, group of states, supranational union) and the agents (intermediary agencies);

-        Although the agents derive their authority from their expertise, they have to constantly negotiate and secure their legitimacy and autonomy in various ways and with a range of actors including the principals, academic communities, the society and the wider public (tax-payers);

-        Neoliberalism constitutes the hegemonic economic discourse within science and innovation which introduces a new mode of regulation premised on the belief that competition – in the name of ‘Excellence’– is the most efficient and a morally superior mechanism for allocating resources and opportunities. The workings of all these agencies are governed, albeit at varying degrees, by this economic discourse and its accompanied contractual relations;

-        The research funding executive agencies take on multiple identities depending on which actors they interact with. Despite their motto to uphold academic freedom and support investigator-driven research, they often act as translators and mediators between politics, science and administration.

In summary, the panel provides deep insights into concrete case studies and offers new ways of understanding intermediary agencies and the implications for research policies in the complex governance structures in Europe. We wish to exchange ideas and learn from more case studies in other national and regional contexts to broaden our scholarship.

Dr. Que Anh Dang is a researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg.

Her research interests include higher education and regionalism, the role of international organisations in policy making, higher education in the knowledge economy, and education diplomacy. She is a co-editor and an author of the book ‘Global Regionalisms and Higher Education’ (2016).


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Globalization and Change in Higher Education: Economic, Political, and Social Explanations

Beverly Barrett


The internationalization of higher education is a response to the pressures of globalization. There are economic, political, and social explanations for the reforms that have taken place in Europe since the Bologna Process launched 18 years ago on June 19, 1999 in the historic university city of Bologna, Italy. 

Correspondingly, these explanations for internationalization of higher education are globalization (economic), intergovernmentalism (political), and Europeanization (social). The progress of the Bologna Process to create the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) originated with the Sorbonne Declaration among the education ministers of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom on May 25, 1998.

My new book Globalization and Change in Higher Education: The Political Economy of Policy Reform in Europe (published by Palgrave Macmillan) explains the institutional change that has taken place as a response to these pressures.[1]  The 21st century’s increasing demands for knowledge reflect a knowledge society that is driven by a knowledge economy (David and Foray 2002).[2] This is defined as an economy in which growth is dependent on the quantity, quality, and accessibility of the information available. Universities and all types higher education institutions have experienced unprecedented institutional change in the knowledge society (Cantwell and Kauppinen 2014).[3] Educational sociologists have concurred that the international convergence of academic programs’ criteria that comes from the Bologna Process is unprecedented (Frank and Meyer 2007:299).[4]

History, Ideas, and Institutions

When the Bologna Process started, it had been less than a decade since the end of the Cold War. As a social explanation, the central and eastern European countries were eager to show solidarity with the leadership initiative from the countries in western Europe. The growth of the Bologna Process from 29 countries originally to 48 countries today reflects how it has complemented the expansion of the European Union’s  Single Market, as the EU has grown from 15 countries in 1999 to 28 countries today. 

The history, ideas, and institutions that frame our understanding of higher education are set out in the initial Chapters of the book, which frame the analysis in a historical institutional theoretical perspective.  The three primary objectives of the Bologna Process are convergence of higher education policies in 1) academic degree structure, 2) quality assurance, and 3) automatic recognition of degrees within the EHEA. Chapter 4 explains the dual roles of higher education institutions, as recipients of policy change from the national and European levels and as agents of policy change in the knowledge economy. The Bologna Process intersects with the higher education attainment objective of the Europe 2020 economic growth strategy of the Europe Commission. Chapter 5 explains, in quantitative assessment, that the most statistically significant relationship for higher education attainment is with GDP per capita among other variables in the political economy including employment, trade, R&D investment, population, and education spending.  

With similar histories of political governance and distinct structures of government, the Iberian countries, Portugal and Spain, provide qualitative assessment case studies for countries within the EU.  Chapters 6 to 9 explain that given the unitary government of Portugal, the process of reform has proceeded with more uniformity than in the quasi-federal government of Spain. In the country of 17 autonomous communities of sub-national regions, Spain has 11 higher education qualifications agencies as compared to most EHEA countries that have one, indicating the complexity of higher education in the country.  Portugal has made greater progress, from 11 to 31 percent, than Spain’s progress, from 29 to 42 percent, toward the Europe 2020 target objective for 40 percent (of 30-34 year-olds) for higher education attainment, though Spain has reached the target (Eurostat 2016).  

Model for Regional Integration and Key Findings

Referencing back to my posting in 2013, the Bologna Process has been a model for the regionalization of higher education throughout the world. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has developed its own Qualifications Reference Framework.  In North America, the Canadian and U.S. structures are similar. The U.S. and Mexico, together with Canada, have opportunities to collaborate, once able to overcome uncertainties around security, funding, and availability of academic mobility programs.[5]  The next step following graduates’ mobility is mutual recognition of professional qualifications, for which the ASEAN region continues to make progress.[6]

Among the key findings in the book are that these aspects of domestic politics matter for higher education policy reforms:

1) Structure of government (unitary v. (quasi-)federal)

2) Leadership consistency providing support for the reforms

3) Funding available for education or national wealth (measured by GDP per capita)

Today the 48-country EHEA, with the European Commission as a partner, continues to develop a higher education space where academic qualifications become recognized across countries. Competitive external economic pressures are part of globalization, while domestic politics influencing international cooperation drive intergovernmentalism. Leadership from the supranational EU that socially engages stakeholders and constructs regional norms is Europeanization. Approaching the end of the second decade of the Bologna Process, the change in higher education finds economic, political, and social explanations.      


Beverly Barrett has served as Lecturer at the Bauer College of Business in Global Studies and at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. She served as Associate Editor of the Miami European Union Center of Excellence following her doctoral fellowship. Current research interests include international political economy, regional integration, and governance with particular emphasis on education and economic development.    


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.


[1] Barrett, Beverly. 2017. Globalization and Change in Higher Education: The Political Economy of Policy Reform in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

[2] David, Paul A. and Dominique Foray. 2002. “An introduction to the economy of the knowledge society.” International Social Science Journal, 54:171, 9-23. Paris: UNESCO.

[3] Cantwell, Brendan and Ilkka Kauppinen (Eds). 2014. Academic capitalism in the age of globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[4] Frank, David J. and John W. Meyer. 2007. University expansion and the knowledge society. Theory and Society, 36(4), 287–311.

[5] Vassar, David and Beverly Barrett. 2014. “U.S.-Mexico academic mobility: Trends, challenges, and opportunities.” Mexico Center Issue Brief. Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, Houston, Texas.

[6] Asian Development Bank. 2016. Open windows, closed doors: Mutual recognition agreements on professional services in the ASEAN region. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.

ECPR 2017 – continuing our focus on higher education, research and innovation

Hannah Moscovitz and Martina Vukasovic

This year’s ECPR (European Consortium of Political Research) General Conference took place at the University of Oslo between September 6-9. The conference included hundreds of panels on a wide array of topics and representation from close to 2,000 academics from around the world. The ECPR Standing Group on the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, for the sixth time in a row (following Prague 2016, Montreal 2015, Glasgow 2014, Bordeaux 2013 and Reykjavik 2011) organised a section with a total of six panels covering various themes related to knowledge policy governance.

The section opened with the panel European Integration in the Knowledge Domain –
Taking Stock and Forward Outlook.
The panel was based on the research agenda presented in Maassen and Olsen’s (2007) seminal book “University Dynamics and European Integration”. Peter Maassen began by reflecting on the book’s contribution to empirical and theoretical work on higher education research. Mari Elken presented a paper outlining ideas for further developing the research agenda on European higher education and emphasizing the importance of considering the complex ecology involved. Jens Jungblut followed with a discussion of the political contestations involved in the implementation of European policy ideas at the national level. Finally, Meng-Hsuan Chou and Pauline Ravinet presented their research on higher education regionalism, discussing its potential for contemporary political research as well as the importance of comparing regions ‘beyond Europe’ to further develop this field.

Nicoline Frolich and Ivar Bleiklie chair panel on higher education policy

Nicoline Frolich and Ivar Bleiklie chair panel on higher education policy

The following panelPolicy translation, adaptation and complexity in higher education, research and innovation – explored the various conditions which shape knowledge policy design. Hila Zahavi presented her research assessing the manner in which the EU’s foreign policy interests are embedded in various EU funded higher education programs. Teresa Patricio’s paper explored the research and higher education policy implications involved in complex international collaborations through the example of Portuguese university partnerships. Davide Donina then presented his paper on the examination of New Public Management features in Portuguese and Italian higher education systems, through a comparative and multi-level analysis. Hannah Moscovitz’s paper addressed the role of territorial identity-related interests in the design of knowledge policy from a subnational perspective. Finally, Sandra Hasanefendic’s paper examined the different responses to a new research policy implemented in two Portuguese poly-technics, revealing that the heterogeneous responses can be attributed to unique organisational structures.

The third panel highlighted empirical and theoretical contributions to research on the Policy, Governance and Organisational Change in Higher Education. Martina Vukasovic opened the panel with a discussion of the term ‘loose coupling’ in higher education research – outlining how it has been used, discussing some lacunas in its empirical application and opening avenues for future use. Sara Diogo then presented her paper on the influence of the OECD on European higher education, highlighting the diffusion of educational trends in Portugal and Finland. Roland Bloch followed with a presentation on the role played by the German Excellence Initiative in the proliferation of doctoral programs and its impact on the overall structure of German higher education. Agnete Vabo’s paper assessed how university mergers affect institutional autonomy and strategic steering, shedding light on the diversification involved. The panel concluded with a presentation by Ivar Bleiklie on the potential for discussing a Scandanavian model for higher education through a consideration of the commonalities and differences between Scandinavian countries’ higher education models.

The panel on Research Executive Agencies – Independent Organizations or the Extension of Research Policymakers?, aimed to prompt a discussion on research executive agencies (REAs) and their implications for knowledge policy research. Sarah Glück introduced the panel by highlighting the importance of scrutinising REAs in order to understand the competing logics inherent in science policy systems. Rupert Pichler and Sascha Ruhland’s paper analysed the normative framework governing research funding agencies, focusing on a number of dynamics impacting Austrian government policies in this domain. Que Anh Dang’s presentation explored Nordic higher education regionalism revealing how regional research agencies have contributed to new forms of region-building and market making in the area. Thomas König and Tim Flink’s paper assessed the challenges of the ERC for European research policy which they attribute to both its organisational framework and discursive compromises it undertakes. Finally, Inga Ulnicane presented her work on the concept of ‘grand challenges’, assessing whether it represents a new paradigm in science, technology and innovation policy.

The panel Unbundling knowledge production and knowledge dissemination aimed to conceptualise the ‘unbundling’ of knowledge policy; examining the different actors involved, understanding the consequences of such processes and implications for the university’s perceived role in society. Farah Purwaningrum’s paper discussed the understanding of the university’s third mission in Malaysia, specifically asking how the idea of the third mission as perceived by the Malaysian Ministry of Education affects knowledge production in Malaysian universities? Joonha Jeon’s paper assessed how New Public Management has influenced the realization of universities’ ‘third mission’, highlighting university-industry links in South Korea. Finally, Janja Komljenovic presented her paper assessing the unbundling processes evident in university social media marketing strategies. Through the example of LinkedIn, the study shows an important connection between higher education, markets and digital platforms.

The topic of the last panel in the section was Quality and Effectiveness of Governance in Higher Education: Unpacking the Quality of Governance and Effects of Governance Changes in Higher Education Policies. The panel comprised five papers. First, Michael Dobbins presented a comparative study on German and Swiss higher education reforms which, in response to similar challenges such as globalization and competition pressures, took two distinct (and somewhat unexpected routes) – decentralization and centralization, respectively. Giliberto Capano presented the study he co-authored with Andrea Pritoni on whether increasing autonomy can account for changes in education performance in Western European higher education systems. Meng-Hsuan Chou presented the paper co-authored with Pauline Ravinet concerning effectiveness of inter-regional policy dialogues, in particular focusing on cooperation between EU and ASEAN in the form of EU-SHARE project. Beverly Barrett presented a paper on higher education in Latin America, Portugal and Spain. The panel concluded with a paper by Jens Jungblut and Peter Maassen focusing on quality of governance in sub-Saharan Africa, which, amongst other, provided also a conceptual contribution concerning two dimensions of quality of governance – autonomy and capacity.

Apart from the panels in this section, the members of the Standing Group also took part in other sessions, including:

-       Roundtable on the consequences of internationalization of political science education

-       Featured Panel: The European Research Council @ 10: What has it done to us?

-       Transformation of the Political Studies Profession: What does it mean to be an Active Academic in the Current Era?


Standing Group dinner at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education NIFU

Standing Group dinner at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education NIFU

As has become tradition, the Standing Group also had its annual meeting focused on planning future activities, including ECPR 2018 which will take place in Hamburg. The meeting was also marked by the Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar to Que Anh Dang for her paper “The Bologna and ASEM Education Secretariats: Authority of Transnational Actor in Regional Higher Education Policy”. Standing Group members attended the keynote lecture by Johan P. Olsen “Democratic Accountability and the Changing European Political Order” and enjoyed the very generous hospitality of the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education NIFU, which hosted the traditional Standing Group dinner.

ECPR 2017 was another successful year for our Standing Group, gathering researchers from 20 different countries, currently based on three continents (Asia, Europe and North America). See you in the next ECPR General Conference in Hamburg in August 2018!

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.



Unbundling and reassembling knowledge production

Janja Komljenovic and Que Anh Dang at the conference

Janja Komljenovic and Que Anh Dang at the conference

Janja Komljenovic

‘Unbundling and reassembling knowledge production’ was the title of the panel that I have convened with Susan Robertson at the recent General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) that this year took place in Oslo, 6-9 September; this panel was part of the section organized by the ECPR Standing Group ‘Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’. I have organised this panel to tackle the increasing set of processes that are targeting the traditional university, unpacking its activities and reassembling them in such a way to transform the higher education sector. The university was traditionally the key or ‘only’ social institution engaged in advanced, credentialed knowledge production and dissemination in the higher education sector. Now we witness the increasing number of actors who are attempting to unbundle the university and its functions. The panellists were curious about who these actors are, what are their strategies and tactics and what the consequences are for the sector and society at large. Most importantly, we were attempting to look closer at the ‘unbundling’ as a process, which is defined as: “the differentiation of tasks and services that were once offered by a single provider or individual (i.e. bundled) and the subsequent distribution of these tasks and services among different providers and individuals” (Gerhke and Kezar, 2015, p. 96).

The first presenter, Joonha Jeon from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, tackled the so-called third mission of the university and how the policy intervention of the state is un-bundling and re-bundling the relationship between universities and the industry. He focused on the key South Korean funding programme starting in 2012, Leaders in Industry-university Cooperation (LINC). Based on the study encompassing document analysis and in-depth interviews, he found that the programme was not fully successful in bringing universities and companies closer together for the purpose of companies contributing to study courses and research and on the other hand universities opening up to the needs of the industry. Instead, the programme had a different effect. It stirred universities towards becoming the ‘industry serving agencies’ in that they are increasingly taking over the role of the public agencies to deliver the labour, but without adequate payment. This is in opposition to the general perception of a university as a public service institution. Moreover, LINC resulted in institutional isomorphism at universities. The type of unbundling that we see here is that the the cooperation between universities and the industry is re-bundled in such a way that universities are becoming a funnel for government funds and labour into the private companies.

The second presenter, Farah Purwaningrum from the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, analysed the third mission of universities as well, but on the case of Malaysia. She focused on a different angle, i.e. she was interested in how the third mission as envisaged by the state ministry affect the knowledge production at the university. She analysed the government policy documents and then narrowed her research for in-depth study of the case of the University Science Malaysia in Penang in Malaysia. She concludes that there is a paradigm shift in the overall conditions for higher education and science in the country, which poses new expectations towards the universities.

Finally, I presented a study on social media and how they might unbundle the university’s operations more generally. Using the case of LinkedIn I focused not only on unbundling of the study courses and research process, but the managing of the university including its wider functions, such as caring for employability of graduates. Building on the study of LinkedIn’s documents including its platform and the case study of the two UK universities, I found that LinkedIn could be conceptualised as serving four main functions that are interwoven in practice. First, it provides use value to students, alumni and universities as institutions. Second, it is a device for ordering and expanding higher education markets (see also our post on making global education markets). Third, it is a marketplace for labour and skills. And finally, it is a source of big data in the digital economy. After analysing these functions, I have asked the following questions about unbundling. First, whether we can talk about re-bundling of knowledge as a consequence of a renowned focus on skills and unbundling the provision of knowledge, endorsed by LinkedIn. Second, whether we can talk about re-bundling competition and markets in higher education as a consequence of new forms, scale, scope and temporality of competition between universities and their valuation that LinkedIn’s platform is providing. Third, if we can talk about re-bundling employability as a consequence of the focus on personal branding and using institutional alumni networks. Finally, if we can talk about re-bundling ‘the expert’ as a consequence of the platform promoting particular forms of content and expert knowledge as well as specific people as opinion leaders.

Panel at the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation section

Panel at the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation section

The three papers and the panel as a whole found that on the one hand we can witness clear examples of the unbundling process, while on the other there is still a ‘gold standard’ of the integrated research university. “The process of unbundling is, therefore, an incipient one, and concentrated in a few countries. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that it will spread and accelerate, in particular in light of its close link with the for-profit sector, in which much current HE expansion is located, and the transnational nature of many for-profit companies” (McCowan, 2017, p. 2). The panel thus contributed to the emerging literature on unbundling in the higher education sector and it called for future empirical and theoretical work on this process.


My attendance at the ECPR conference was supported by the Micro Travel Grants of the Marie Curie Alumni Association.

Janja Komljenovic is Lecturer in Higher Education at Lancaster University. Her research interests concern higher education policy and governance, political economy of higher education and the digital economy.


Gehrke, S. & Kezar, A. (2015). Unbundling the faculty role in higher education: Utilizing historical, theoretical, and empirical frameworks to inform future research. In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (pp. 93–150). Berlin: Springer International Publishing

McCowan, T. (2017). Higher education, unbundling, and the end of the university as we know it. Oxford Review of Education.


This entry was originally poste on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Innovating regional ecosystems and modernizing professional higher education

Sandra Hasanefendic

Giving a tutorial on practice based and problem solving research

Giving a tutorial on practice based and problem solving research

Fostering regional and innovation ecosystems through strengthening professional higher education and related research activities has been an imperative in recent years in Europe and globally. I have been personally involved both as a researcher, and expert adviser in understanding how and through which mechanisms can this be achieved. In recent years, I have been following and supporting the development of a program for the Modernization and Valorization of Polytechnic Institutes in Portugal. The comprehensive policy program was launched in 2016 at the initiative of the Portuguese Government and acts in more than fifty cities all over Portugal and aims to: a) promote local innovation partnerships through collaborative initiatives and co-creation mechanisms between polytechnics, local communities and a wide variety of small and medium size companies; b) foster problem based and practice oriented learning and research approaches to help innovate in professional higher education; and c) to secure knowledge sharing on educational practices and professional development across Europe through international collaboration among regional-based partnerships.

The policy program is built on inclusive, open and fully participatory community principles. It is a symbol of participatory policymaking in Europe centered around dialogue, negotiation and decision making among and between academic leaders and teachers/researchers, students, experts from local communities and companies in a wide variety of sectors, as well as across different countries. Its consequences are already greatly felt in Portugal, but it is predicated that the program will have far reaching consequences for the state of polytechnic education and research in Europe. Namely, it will promote internationalization of professional higher education which has mostly been local, while at the same time stimulate innovative research activities based on regional partnerships. This is expected to additionally strengthen the role of professional higher education institutions as intermediaries in regional and innovation ecosystems which has been recently discussed by me and my colleague Hugo Horta in “Training students for new jobs: Intermediary role of technical and vocational higher education”.

In the first phase of the program, targeted visits of polytechnic representatives to Finland, Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland were stimulated. It was expected that this experience would lead to learning and gaining experience about the emerging professional higher education and related practice-based research activities in Europe. The second phase involved knowledge dissemination workshops, organized throughout the country and at different institutions, through which acquired knowledge and developments in other visited countries were shared. These workshops stimulated dialogues about lessons learned, but they also aimed to explore the current state of professional higher education and related research activities in Europe through tutorials and potential opportunities for improvement and innovation based on experience, yet within the limits of the national socioeconomic context.

The third phase of the program consisted of introducing targeted initiatives exploring aforementioned opportunities and promoting change at Portuguese polytechnics. The initiatives concentrated around the promotion of funded collaborative research projects between polytechnics and local industry and community, setting up creative research labs to promote polytechnics’ integration with their region through problem based and practice oriented research activities, and the promotion of short cycle technological courses resting on innovative learning methodologies promoting problem based and practice oriented research. It has involved the use of European structural funds and national funds in a total of 46 million Euros for a period of 18 months.

The current phase concentrates on the promotion of internationalization activities and partnerships between European professional higher education institutions and associated research groups. Within this framework, the Portuguese Minister of Science, Technology, and Higher Education recently visited Dutch polytechnics in Rotterdam and Leeuwarden and agreed on strategic international partnerships promoting long term collaborative activities between polytechnic institutions in Europe.

These international partnerships are critical in sharing learning perspectives and developments in professions to train resilient and engaged students and professionals of the future. It is expected that the partnerships will benefit students by fostering dual and joint programs, exchange in research projects among others, and contribute in gaining a more rounded understanding of their profession. Professions are not local but globally developed and by exposing students and staff to the same profession, yet in different environments and contexts, and through problem based and practice oriented research activities, the idea is that they will be able to advance the state of the profession in their local and regional contexts within Portugal.

Sandra Hasanefendic is a double doctoral degree student from the Vrije University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL) in Portugal. She researches organizational behavior in higher education. Her focus lies on non-university higher education (or professional higher education) and responses to policy pressures regarding research and innovation in education and training. Sandra also teaches, consults and advises policymakers on issues relevant to advancement of professional higher education and research activities in Portugal and the Netherlands.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

How do higher education institutions use internal quality assurance for quality improvement?

Michaela Martin and Christine Emeran

A result of the rapid expansion and diversification of the higher education sector is that academic quality has come under greater scrutiny. The development of internal quality assurance (IQA) systems by higher education institutions (HEIs), as a means of monitoring and managing quality, constitutes one of the most important reform initiatives to address this concern.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) confront a number of challenges in IQA design, such as choosing an appropriate focus, integrating IQA tools into a cost-effective and coherent system, considering graduate employability, and finding an appropriate balance between centralized and decentralized structures. For these reasons, a demand exists for reliable empirical knowledge about how to make IQA effective while sustainable for the enhancement of quality and relevant for higher education in different national and institutional contexts.

UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) research on internal quality assurance

To provide more knowledge on factors that condition IQA, IIEP, in coordination with the International Association of Universities (IAU), conducted an international survey to understand the purpose, orientation, structures, tools and processes, drivers, and obstacles of IQA practices in HEIs worldwide. In addition, IIEP conducted case studies on eight universities to document good principles and innovative IQA practices, analyze their effects, and identify factors (both internal and external) that contribute to an effective IQA system. The universities studied under the project are: American International University (Bangladesh), University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany), University of Talca (Chile), Daystar University (Kenya), University of the Free State (South Africa), Xiamen University (China), University of Bahrain (Bahrain), and Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria).

This research followed a multi-stakeholder approach in the primary data collection to compare different actor groups’ perspectives on IQA, such as academic and administrative staff, students, and academic and administrative leaders. In each of the case universities interviews were held with university leadership at different levels, focus groups discussions with programme directors and students and survey conducted with academic and administrative staff. The overall purpose of the research was to highlight approaches to IQA and study their effectiveness with a view to providing good principles to inspire other HEIs to better design and implement an IQA system.

Benefits of Internal Quality Assurance

The research project revealed that, in the institutions examined, IQA has initiated a large set of reforms, particularly, in the domain of teaching and learning that has generally improved the coherence of study programmes and its alignment with labour market needs. In addition, as an IQA effect, management processes were streamlined and better integrated with data analysis and evaluation.

The research data also found a number of common factors for success, although they largely depend on the context of each individual institution and modes of implementation. Overall, the participating universities agreed that leadership support, stakeholder involvement, IQA integrated with strategic planning and an effective management information system were of tremendous importance. Leadership support was identified by both academic and administrative staff as a necessary and commonly present factor in the case universities in facilitating the integration of centralized and decentralized management of IQA. Linking IQA with decision-making can close the loop at three levels: individual level; academic programmes, and strategic planning of the whole university. Indeed, strategic planning provides a framework of orientations and goals, including on quality, at all levels towards which IQA works most effectively if all levels are engaged.

Lastly, the effectiveness of the IQA system also relied heavily on the level to which students and staff were aware of and involved in its processes and tools. For instance, programme reviews and job market analysis were found effective if they incorporated employer recommendations to revise academic programmes in line with employment needs. In terms of limits, students and staff felt that they did not receive enough feedback from certain IQA tools, such as course evaluations or student satisfaction surveys, the study found. In addition, the data from certain tools was not always used for maximum benefit by all stakeholders. For instance, the results of graduate tracer studies were predominantly used by management rather than academics who are in charge of the revision of study programmes.

Overall, the study concluded that IQA is most effective if it leads to a regular internal dialogue on quality. A dialogue that fosters a quality culture that is also the ultimate purpose of IQA and will contribute to improved academic quality and graduate employability.

Visit here for more information on this study.

Michaela Martin and Christine Emeran work on higher education issues at the UNESCO International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP-UNESCO).

This post was initially published on Europe of Knowledge blog.