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Failures in the context of soft policy coordination of higher education policy in Europe

European Union
Governance
Knowledge
Education
Mari Elken
Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education
Mari Elken
Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education

Abstract

Analysis of policy failures is traditionally focused on analysing this in a context of the nation state, where specific implementation processes are analysed to examine the attainment of stated goals. In this paper, focus is shifted to knowledge policies in the EU domain, more precisely on higher education policy. This is a policy domain with generally low legal enforcement capacity on EU level, thus policy-making is characterised by soft coordination, marked by consensus-orientation and incrementalism, often with heavy expertise involvement to assure legitimacy (Wallace, 2010). Recent developments emphasize standards, benchmarking and common targets, with considerable ambiguity in terms of defined objectives to assure a broad enough common denominator. Overall, the complexity of the policy processes is marked both in the horizontal and vertical dimension (Chou & Gornitzka, 2014). The question then becomes – if policy coordination emphasizes soft law, targets and gradual changes towards these targets, how can one identify failures? The aims of the paper are twofold. First, it is to provide a conceptualisation of how one can define policy failure in this context of ambiguity and soft coordination. Second, the paper studies possible failure avoidance strategies that can be seen as relevant in the context of soft coordination. A key question here is whether these strategies are employed on in a “new” policy initiative, or whether they represent a repackaging and continuation of an existing policy initiative. For both, multiple explanations can be constructed. Ambiguity itself can be seen as a failure avoidance strategy, and processes over time can bve viewed from an interest-based view with focus on policy entrepreneurs, a learning process related to trial and error, as linked to the ideational power of specific ideas. Empirically, these two questions correspond to analysis of the extent to which it is possible to identify examples of policy failures in EU higher education policy initiatives, and the kinds of failure avoidance strategies employed by the Commission in recent policy initiatives in the area of higher education. A starting point for the empirical analysis are EU policy documents – policy documents as well as evaluations conducted (both ex-ante and ex-post). Second source of empirical data is interviews with policymakers within the Commission and how they view policy development over time, in particular to study the incremental nature of the policy processes.