Integration and Public Steering

Authors

Ivar Bleiklie

Abstract

This paper argues that there are two important political-economic concerns that may push development in education systems. The first is that the level of education in the population affects the competitiveness of a nation. The second concern is that higher education systems need to be flexible in order to be efficient. The paper also examines how the individual peculiarities of higher education institutions are to a large extent determined by their relation to the labor market. Education may mean that students are taught a specific occupational skill, where the content of their education is mainly determined by what is considered the knowledge relevant to the occupation it may mean a more generalist or abstract orientation.

As higher education systems in much of the Western world have become steadily more integrated, questions relating to their organization have been brought into focus. Changing beliefs within national governments and among university leaders about how such systems ought to be organized have been an important driving force of change.

Assumptions

The question of institutional autonomy will have serious consequences for education. In this context autonomy reflects the extent to which the institutions themselves are free to make choices and formulate strategies that shape their relationships. There are two important political-economic concerns that may push development in education systems. The first is that the level of education in the population affects the competitiveness of a nation. The second is that higher education systems need to be flexible in order to be efficient.

There are ample reasons to believe that the real picture is somewhat more complicated than the above assumption indicates:

Firstly, institutions within today’s integrated higher education systems constitute a complex set, in which different categories of institutions have had vastly different relationships with public authorities and demonstrate considerable variation with respect to their degree of autonomy
Secondly, institutions may try to adapt to the integration process by means of different strategies
Thirdly, national systems vary considerably with regard to the degree that they are placed into a hierarchy, both across categories of institutions, and within categories
Fourthly, knowledge has gained importance in society amongst other reasons, because of the emergence of mass education and the steadily more extensive use of research in private business and public administration
This paper argues that even if higher education institutions are brought under one formally unitary and hierarchical system, the two types of order will continue to co-exist, they will be supported and sustained by diverse forces that partly pull in the same direction and partly in opposite directions (Clark 1983).

What do we need to learn – occupational knowledge or the ability to learn?

The individual peculiarities of higher education institutions are to a large extent determined by their relations with the labor market. Education may mean that students are taught a specific occupational skill, where the content of their education is mainly determined by what is considered the knowledge relevant to the occupation. This is the kind of education that characterizes many vocational colleges, for example in nursing or engineering. However, education may also have as its purpose teaching students a specific academic discipline that is considered to provide no other direct occupational knowledge than teaching and research within the discipline itself. An education system that consists exclusively of vocational institutions – each one with its particular criteria of valuation of qualifications related to the ability to exercise a specific profession – results in a purely horizontally diversified specialized model.

The degree of vocational specialization, as opposed to liberal generalist orientation, may vary along a number of dimensions:

Variation across disciplines or subject areas may be illustrated by the difference between degree studies in arts and sciences or liberal undergraduate college education on the one hand as opposed to professional degree studies in medicine, law and engineering or vocational college education on the other
Variation over time takes place as notions about the functions of higher education evolve
Variation across countries demonstrates that there are distinct educational traditions in which countries differ on the importance and prestige accorded to vocational specialization versus generalist qualifications
Institutional integration, whereby higher education institutions in a number of countries in recent years have been brought under common public, legislative and budgetary systems, has contributed to pushing higher education systems in the direction of more hierarchical structures. More recent attempts at formal integration – e.g. by the 29 countries that have signed the ‘Bologna declaration’ – aim at standardizing the degree structure across institutions, opening the system to competition and cross-national mobility.

Many of the objections that may be raised in connection to the integration of higher education systems may be understood as reactions from disciplinary and professional groups that feel pressured by authorities in their attempts to exercise political-administrative control.

However, integration into a higher education system where all institutions compete for the same resources based on a common set of criteria may also be seen to provide a set of new opportunities. Vocational and other shorter cycle institutions may attract new groups of students when it becomes easier to integrate college education with graduate education at a university.

Although it may be difficult to predict the exact course of future developments, it is likely that the tension between hierarchical and functional principles will live on. The tension is not just found between traditional research universities and vocationally oriented institutions but is far broader than this.

Mass higher education and the extended concept of knowledge

The process of integration of higher education systems is easier to understand if it is seen in the context of the transition of higher education from elite to mass system such as was witnessed in North America, Europe and elsewhere. The transition meant that a system that for centuries catered to a very small fraction of the population, in the matter of four decades grew from serving a few percent, to encompassing about one half of each new generation. Increased participation rates made higher education and research important to steadily increasing population groups, but at the same less exclusive and less associated with elevated social status.

The changing social function of universities, it has been argued, is sometimes confused with their scientific function (Kogan et al. 2000, Nowotny et al. 2001).

Whereas there is little evidence to support the notion of deteriorating academic quality in students and faculty, it is obvious that both students and faculty enjoy a less elite social status than they used to.
Counter strategies aiming at preserving an elitist element within the higher education system by creating binary or stratified systems in a number of European countries have failed.
Whilst non-university institutions have tried to become research institutions, research universities have never given up more utility oriented, applied research and vocationally oriented education programs.
On the contrary, university-industry ties, particularly for major US research universities, have become increasingly important (Powell and Owen-Smith 1998, Ramirez 2003, Slaughter and Leslie 1997, Turk-Bicakci and Brint 2004).
Once established, formal divides between types of higher education institutions have tended to break down. The reason for this failure is that the attempts to isolating the ‘scientific’ core have been based on premises (the aim of preserving elite status) that underestimated the forces – of ‘academic’ as well as ‘applied drift’ – within higher education itself.
These observations should highlight the complexity of the relationship between higher education, state and society. They demonstrate how an apparently simple and straightforward process, higher education integration as a response to massification, has become linked to a number of tendencies that raise the question of the consistency as well as the direction of future developments within higher education systems.

Conclusions

It is still a possibility that a further strengthening of hiearchization will lead to fragmentation within higher education systems and the emergence of more varied mixes of functional specialization and hiearchization across national systems. One assumption might be based on the observation that much of the institutional specialization within educational systems is based on trades and occupations of the industrial economy. As industrial society fades away and as post-industrial society rises, knowledge alliances between industry, its occupational groups, and the state are likely to be transformed. It is tempting to speculate that since many occupations in the expanding new sectors of the economy – e.g. computer-technology and bio-technology - are based on academic skills and forms of education that more easily lend themselves to integration in hierarchical systems, this will weaken specialized knowledge. To what extent this will weaken functional specialization in general is still an open question. Future developments in the organization of higher education systems is therefore likely to be determined by what public authorities, businesses, academic institutions and students define as their knowledge interests and what kind of alliances they will form in the future.

These observations should highlight the complexity of the relationship between higher education, state and society. Approaches towards higher education integration as a response to massification should therefore be aware of linkages to a number of tendencies that raise the question of the consistency as well as the direction of future developments within higher education systems.
Future development of the educational system should be based on dynamic educational ideals that characterize and shape higher education systems. This kind of ideal most closely represents the changing requirements of the labour market.
It should also be recognized that future developments in the organization of higher education systems are therefore likely to be determined by what public authorities, businesses, academic institutions and students define as their knowledge interests and what kind of alliances they will form in the future.

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