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The Role of Institutional Design in European Research and Higher Education Policy

Open Panel

Abstract

The European Union has no formal jurisdiction on research institutions or universities. Initiatives promoting transnational integration, e.g. the Lisbon Agenda and Bologna Process, are de-institutionalized; they have no bearing on the achievement of national institutional design or legislative frameworks. For European universities, this division of labor has been a key to their legitimacy. While universities have been working to secure an autonomous institutional sphere, including negotiating national university laws and financial instruments, attempts to push universities in the direction of more homogenous entities or eradicate local contingencies, have to a large extent been avoided. Institutional diversification has allowed universities, faculties and disciplines to justify themselves according to different institutional and functional logics, i.e. economic, social, cultural or historical legitimations. In the humanities, for example, this has meant that arguments based on the general social value system have been mobilized in the institutionalization of humanist research and education. In contrast, the concern has been that a stronger European synchronization of research and higher education will place universities under a uniform institutional logic, i.e. that of economic and industrial competitiveness, while neglecting other cultural or social arguments in favor of research and education. On the other hand, it has become clear from the Bologna and Lisbon process that de-institutionalized policies do indeed impact the institutionalization of research and education. Recognizing that the authority for decisions lies within member states, the European Council of 2003 called for the “open method of coordination” (OMC) to be applied to research policy. OMC is known as a “soft” governance tool, agreed between member states as an instrument for coordinating national policies by collectively defining objectives and indicators, setting up European guidelines and translating them into national benchmarks and evaluations. The policy has been “naming and shaming”; benchmarking is believed to have an institutional effect in the sense that the lower ranked member states will seek to improve their institutions. However, emerging trends are revealing another, more direct process of coordination that are likely to have a far more explicit impact on the institutionalization of science and higher education in Europe, including the humanities. What has become known as Peer Learning Activities between national authorities responsible for universities and conducted within the OMC framework, are working actively to formalize guidelines and best practices for restructuring European universities, including collective guidelines for university funding, university management, openness to private investments, curriculum design and employment structure. In this paper, I claim that it follows that the university as the producer of knowledge is no longer empowered with deciding which aspects of new research are worth incorporating into the institutional design. This raises fundamental questions to the institutionalization of earlier ideas of the university (e.g. humanities) that resides in the ideal of “epistemic diversity” among disciplines.