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Convergence, coooperation, coordination : higher education governance and the Bologna process King, Conrad Alexander

Abstract

Twenty-nine national ministers of education from across Europe signed the Bologna Declaration in 1999 to establish a European Higher Education Area by 2010. This initiated the Bologna process, which had broad objectives in the realm of higher education: to increase mobility and improve the comparability and competitiveness of European universities. Since 1999, the process has encompassed forty-six signatory states along with various NGOs and supranational bodies, including the European Commission. Through a historical and descriptive analysis using multiple theoretical frameworks (neo-institutionalism and IR integration theories), this paper examines the driving forces behind the extensive university reform, asking which actors have been the dominant agenda-setters during the initial phases of the Bologna process. European higher education has been a multi-actor and multi-level policy field characterized by a politico-normative body of literature, and so the discourse – especially pertaining to the effects of globalization – is examined to determine how the dominant agenda-setters have legitimized their policy agendas. Universities in Europe, traditionally path dependent institutions, were setting their own policy agendas during the 1980s and 1990s, and the result was an uncoordinated institutional convergence towards a perceived ‘world model’ of structure and governance. With the signing of the Bologna Declaration in 1999 (and its predecessor the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998), national ministries of education became the dominant agenda-setters for higher education, pursuing intergovernmental national cooperation legitimized through a discourse of international collaboration to mitigate the risks of the competitive global environment. Between 1999 and 2001, the European Commission regarded the reform process as an aspect of European integration and seized the opportunity to be the dominant agenda-setter, legitimizing this through a discourse of lifelong learning as part of the Lisbon Agenda. Utilizing aspects of the new open method of coordination, the Commission’s agenda focused on endogenous horizontal coordination, so that the national systems of higher education would be more attractive in the competitive external environment. After 2001, the methods of European-level steering continued as part of the process, but new actors and stakeholders began to cloud the policy field and diffused the dominant agenda-setting capacity of any single level or actor.

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