Massification and Diversity of Higher Education Systems: Interplay of Complex Dimensions


Sarah Guri-Rosenblit, Helena Sebkova and Ulrich Teichler


This paper addresses the following issues in education: external and internal boundaries of higher education systems; top-down and bottom-up forces; globalization and supra-national trends; flexibility; public and private sectors; and the impact of digital technologies on widening access to higher education.

The massive expansion of higher education across all continents has been one of the defining features of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. By 2000 there were approximately 100 million students, representing about 20% of the relevant age cohort worldwide, whereas at the start of the 20th century only around 500,000 students were enrolled in higher education institutions over the globe (Clancy et al., 2007; Schofer & Meyer, 2005). Nowadays, a number of countries have already achieved admission rates of over 50% of the age cohort. This enrolment growth has created huge pressures on national governments trying to cope with problems associated with the expansion of the higher education boundaries, and most particularly with their structures.


External and Internal Boundaries

The extent of the diversity and homogeneity of higher education systems in each national context depends on different variables. Each national higher education system has external and internal boundaries that define its horizontal and vertical structure. The external boundaries define which kind of institutions are included in or excluded from the higher education system. The internal boundaries reflect the horizontal and vertical structures of any given higher education system in relation to a variety of variables: overall structure (unified, binary or segmented into several sectors), the interrelations between the public and private sectors, access policies, study programs, budgeting patterns, research and teaching policies, academic traditions and cultures, evaluation and accreditation, etc.

Comprehensive universities reflect the nature of most higher education institutions in some national settings, while specialized institutions are the leading models in other countries. Liberal education and the cultivation of the human nature constitute the supreme goals of some leading higher education institutions, while professional training and the response to market demands shape the nature of other higher education institutes (Guri-Rosenblit, 2006).

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Forces

The last decades have witnessed both many top-down government policies to broaden access to higher education and to regulate the structure of the higher education system, side by side with growing bottom-up initiatives that are founding a wide range of new higher education providers, such as - private for-profit establishments, various virtual-type institutions and corporate universities.

New mechanisms of government steering and management have a substantial impact on the structures of the higher education systems. During the 1960s, the structure of higher educational systems became a major issue in higher education policies. A move away from relatively extreme structural alternatives discussed and implemented in the 1960s to more moderate alternatives in the 1970s, when the range of models were termed the "diversified model" and the "integrated" model.

The Bologna Process in 1999 began an intensive series of changes that aims to establish a harmonized joint Higher Education Area of Europe by 2010. Restructuring the academic degrees at national jurisdictions has resulted in large changes in many countries; particularly notable changes took place in several Central and Eastern European countries. In order to significantly change higher education functions, restructure higher education systems, and expand higher education infrastructure, several top-down legal actions have been taken in countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia (Guri-Rosenblit & Sebkova, 2004).

Many bottom-up initiatives have contributed to the diversification of higher education systems in many countries, particularly in Eastern and Central European countries and in developing countries. The most notable phenomenon relates to the flourishing of many for-profit private establishments, extensions and virtual type universities. The positive aspects of the initiation of these new institutions include: widening of learning opportunities at various higher education levels by providing more choice for citizens in any given national jurisdictions; challenging traditional education systems by introducing more competition and innovative programs and delivery methods; helping make higher education more competitive; assisting in diversifying the budgeting of higher education; and benefiting through links with prestigious institutions, mainly in developing countries.

However, there are also negative aspects of these new ventures. Currently many unregulated providers of higher education operate for-profit in many countries. They are not subject to external or internal audit/monitoring processes, and their operation remains outside official national quality assurance regimes. The following possibilities should be considered:

Competition might reinforce imitation drifts rather than stimulating diversity.
A strong emphasis placed on rewards and sanctions might undermine intrinsic motivation.
A strong managerial emphasis in higher education might lead to substantial tensions between management and academia. Both might elicit uncontrolled changes of the higher education system as a whole.
The increasing power of evaluation and accreditation mechanisms does not necessarily reinforce horizontal diversity.
Our current knowledge base is shaky as far as the impact of new steering and management systems on the structure of the higher education systems are concerned (ibid).
Globalization and Supra-National Policies

Universities are at present engaged in becoming partners in inter-institutional schemes and pushing towards globalization. Students, academic staff and curricula are transferred and exchanged between institutions; accreditation agencies ensure promptness in accrediting previous experiential learning and previous academic studies; governments afix their signatures to cooperative projects in higher education. Strengthening agreements between academic institutions within a particular country and across national borders will be central to the mobility of adult students (Guri-Rosenblit & Sebkova, 2004).

The Sorbonne Declaration of 1998 and the Bologna Declaration of 1999 were visible starting points for supra-national actions designed to make characteristics of national higher education systems more similar across Europe (Teichler, 2004). The Bologna Declaration seems to be based on convictions that:

Higher education systems in Europe will move quickly towards quite similar patterns;
Levels of higher education programs will be the clearly dominating structural characteristics of higher education as compared to types of higher education institutions and programs, ranks and profiles, etc.
Structures of the higher education systems have an enormous impact on all key features of higher education.
Mobility within Europe can be facilitated through convergent structures only if trust is justified that the quality of teaching and learning is similar in study programs throughout Europe. This indicates that opportunities for the recognition of study abroad are no longer determined by the overall composition of national trends and policies. Rather, national policies are, to a certain extent, shaped by common policies of various countries to stimulate student mobility by facilitating recognition of study abroad.

The term "globalization" suggests that increasing cross- border activities in higher education indicates a "blurring" of borders, while "internationalization" is based on the assumption that national systems continue to play a role in the process of increasing cross-border activities. "Globalization" concepts of this type suggest that relatively steep vertical diversification of higher education is desirable without advocating formal dimensions of vertical diversity, and without taking a clear position on whether vertical diversity is accompanied by horizontal diversity. Often, pre-stabilized harmony between quality and relevance in the elite sector of higher education in the twenty-first century seems to be taken for granted.


It seems that European higher education systems, under the Bologna Process, are becoming more flexible. Each stage involved in advancing the Bologna Process requires greater commitment to the commonality of purpose and action in the field of higher education, so that, by 2010, higher education services will be able to flow freely from one side of the continent to the other, like material goods do today (Commission of the European Communities, 2003; UNESCO, 2003).

The trend of convergence does not abolish the inherent diversity of higher education institutions in European countries.
Various-type higher education institutions will continue to operate in all national settings, and they will portray both vertical differences (based on various hierarchical and ranking criteria) and horizontal differences (targeted to different student clienteles) (Guri-Rosenblit, 200 6; Neave, 2003).
It is most likely that institutes of the same kind, such as "world-class" research universities will exhibit in the future great resemblance (Altbach, 2004; European Commission, 2004).
Public and Private Sectors

The interrelations between public and private higher education institutions portray different academic cultures and have an impact on the structure of higher education systems in many countries. The United States for example, has a very strong sector of private higher education institutions, and it is particularly proud of its private research universities, many of which have established themselves as leading world-class universities, and are envied and imitated by many nations. Japan, China, India and Germany have proclaimed in the last decade that they are opting to establish world-class universities comparable to the American ones. However, the unique interrelations between the academic institutions and the corporate world in the USA are non-existent in any other country.

Nowadays, the Bologna Process aims at establishing accreditation agencies, both state agencies and self-regulatory bodies of academic institutions, in order to enhance a quality assurance culture, setting clear criteria for the evaluation of quality of higher education provided by both old and new higher education institutions. The introduction of the "European Credit Transfer System" is viewed as a principle instrument in achieving transparency of the quality of academic programs. Quality assurance mechanisms, the definition of clear "academic currencies" and diploma supplements will provide a more homogeneous and articulated degree system, which will enable easy comparison of diverse degree requirements and structures (Bolag, 2003, UNESCO, 2003).

The widening of access to higher education in Europe has been linked also to the development of many private higher education institutions. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that experienced enormous increases of students, the proportion of private institutions in the overall number of higher education institutions is remarkably high. For instance, in Slovenia the private institutions constitute 82% of the total number of higher education institutes; in Poland - 63%; in Romania - 60%, in Hungary - 52% (UNESCO, 2003, p. 5).

The Impact of the Digital Technologies

E-learning will greatly contribute to growing flexibility in academic study patterns (Bates 2001; Collis & Moonen 2001; Collis & van der Wende 2002). Flexible learning offers students many opportunities to adjust their interests, needs and learning styles to a variety of learning settings and media combinations. Hybrid courses, combining various components of face-to-face encounters with online provision will emerge as a growing pattern in academic institutions.

However, online teaching as a stand-alone pedagogy will be used to a very limited extent and most e- learning will be employed for add-on functions in teaching/learning processes; (Bates, 2001; Guri-Rosenblit & Sebkova, 2004). More graduate or postgraduate students will study online, whereas the majority of undergraduates will prefer the more conventional face-to-face encounters.

In the long run, the Bologna Process is likely to influence access policies and practices in many other higher education systems in other continents. Many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are in close relations with European countries through globalization and internationalization processes, and the change of higher education structures, diplomas and accreditation are likely to affect their policies and practices. It is most likely that the broadening of access in many third world countries will be characterized as well by greater diversity of their higher education institutions and by a greater flexibility of movement between higher education institutions within national borders and beyond them.


The following changes are recommended to continue the development of quality education systems in Europe:

In order to ensure the harmonization of higher education at the system level stringent quality assurance measures should be set.
While there is no optimum structure for higher education systems, massification and diversification cannot achieve equality of opportunities unless they are accompanied by the development of flexibility within systems to enable students to progress between different levels and sectors within national jurisdictions and between countries.
Flexibility turns to be a most meaningful feature for ensuring greater access, and particularly greater equity in higher education and it should be built into the system.