Organizational Fields and Competitive Groups in Higher Education: Some Lessons from the Bachelor/Master Reform in Germany**

Article excerpt

The implementation of the Bachelor and Master reform in German universities happens at a surprisingly rapid pace. Apparently, a higher education system which by most observers is characterized as being reluctant to change can quickly embrace the Bologna process, which aims at a common European higher education area until 2010. In this article the main driving-forces underlying the rapid reform process are identified with the help of some conceptual tools from the new institutionalism in organizational analysis and based on qualitative empirical research. According to my analysis, the process can only be explained by the strong interactions within an "organizational field". Among the organizations involved, the state as a coercive actor seems to be the single most important driving-force. In addition, one can witness a stronger role for accountability and leadership in universities and the emergence of new regulatory actors like accreditation agencies. As the Bachelor and Master reform is rather implemented in a "top down" way, "bottom up" competitive processes among universities play a weaker role than expected. The "competitive groups", in which universities position themselves with regard to students are mostly regional. This opens up further questions with regard to the effects of the Europeanization of higher education.

Key words: Organizational Field, Competition, Bologna Process, German Universities, Higher Education Reform

1. Introduction

Currently one can witness a strong trend towards the Europeanization of higher education. This trend is most obviously spurred by the so-called Bologna process, which aims at a common European higher education area until 2010. Among other things, the Bologna declaration states that the heterogeneous systems of programs and degrees in Europe should be substituted by an internationally comparable system, in which a clear distinction between undergraduate and graduate studies should be drawn. Following the Anglo-American model, "Bachelor" should be the degree given after having completed the undergraduate studies, while, based on this degree, graduate studies should lead to the "Master's" or doctoral degree (Ph-D.).1 The introduction of Bachelor and Master programs and related degrees implies a drastic reform of national systems and university organizations. In Germany, for example, traditional degrees like Diplom, Magister, and "Staatsexamen" in law, medicine, pharmacy, and teaching are gradually substituted. The traditional degrees are not based upon a distinction between an undergraduate and a graduate level. They are awarded after three (primary teaching) to six and a half years (medicine, including internships). Diplom and Magister programs typically take four to five years.

This transformation of both national and organizational systems in Europe can be seen as a gigantic field experiment. As actors involved in this transformation process we typically have mixed feelings. As researchers, however, we have to consider the Bachelor/Mas ter reform as a windfall, a fantastic opportunity, because in the social sciences one hardly has the chance to study institutional change on such a scale.

With regard to the management of higher education, two sets of questions seem to be of particular importance here, which will be discussed by focusing on the German case. First, one has to address issues of the governance and organization of higher education. What are the basic driving-forces of the Bachelor and Master reform? Can we witness, for example, a retreat of the state and the emergence of new regulatory actors? How is the internal decision-making structure of universities affected by the reform? Does the reform give way to a new mode of university governance? A second set of questions is about the issue of competition in higher education. As the Bologna process strives for a stronger emphasis on competitive forces, the reform has to be regarded as a research site to reflect upon the possibilities and limits of competition in higher education. …

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