A Comparative View on Policy Trends in Western European Higher Education

Article excerpt


This paper gives an overview of the most relevant policy developments (1999-2001) regarding higher education in a number of Western European countries. The focus is on Austria, Denmark, Finland, Flanders, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The following issues are addressed. Firstly, which issues are major issues in these countries in this three-year period? Secondly, can we explain why these issues are on the agenda? Thirdly, do the policy developments suggest increasing convergence in policies? We maintain that current policy issues reflect the existence or emergence of five global trends in and around higher education. The ubiquitousness of these trends explains why Western European governments are considering similar policy issues. However, this does not necessarily imply that governments in practice are offering similar policy solutions. It would be more accurate to state that the similar trends challenge governments to find policy solutions most suitable to reach specific national solutions in specific national contexts.


It is not a secret that higher education systems across the continent--let alone those further away--have their particular characteristics. Historical legacies (bearing on philosophical traditions, such as those of Von Humboldt, Newman, etc.), but also more recent developments, including governmental policies, have shaped the higher education landscapes. Such contingencies help us to understand, for instance, why research in one country is organised differently from that in another, why professors in some countries have a stronger power position than in other countries, etc.

The logic of the above would challenge us to put forward the expectation that policy trends are path-dependent. That is, each (public) system has its own development and dependent on the problems and challenges a government is confronted with, policies will be developed to steer higher education in the desired direction. Only in the case of global trends, seriously affecting higher education, could one possibly expect that governments develop fairly similar policy solutions to similar problems. The massification of higher education (following the increasing demand for higher education) may be considered as such a global trend. Many Western European governments have introduced similar solutions to the problem of the overcrowding universities and its concomitants: budget problems for governments, a concern for the maintenance of quality, a concern of universities being unable to meet new demands, etc. The solution was to establish a non-university sector, a solution aimed at both meeting the demands and to safeguard the universities. However similar the general policy solutions to massification may seem, the differences should not be downplayed. Not only the pace of change is different: some countries introduced or upgraded non-university sectors in the 1960s (polytechnics in the United Kingdom, Fachhochschulen in Germany, hoger beroepsonderwijs in the Netherlands), others did only recently (Fachhochschulen in Austria, Ammattikorkeakoulo in Finland), whereas still more are considering introducing such sectors. Even more important than when these changes occurred, are the specific details of the changes and their consequences. Throughout the countries that implemented non-university sectors, there are clear differences regarding the degrees to be offered, the size of the non-university sector (both in actual enrolments and the range of disciplines offered), the governmental control on these sectors, etc. (see also Teichler, 1988; Huisman & Kaiser, 2001). Given these differences, it is not surprising that the developments in the countries have different dynamics, leading to different outcomes over time. Systems differ to the extent whether non-university sectors still exist or have disappeared, but they also differ in the role these sectors play in the higher education system. …