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‘It’s the Autonomy, Stupid! …Or not?’ Governance Reforms and Higher Education Performance in Western Europe

Governance
Qualitative Comparative Analysis
Comparative Perspective
Higher Education
Giliberto Capano
Università di Bologna
Giliberto Capano
Università di Bologna
Andrea Pritoni
Scuola Normale Superiore

Abstract

Following domestic pressures or international prescriptions, over the last thirty years many national higher education systems in Europe have undergone structural changes, mainly meant for enhancing the overall performance – conceived as students’ access, quality of teaching and excellence in research – of universities. With regard to this, almost all countries have decided to adopt similar policy strategies, fostering more organizational autonomy and differentiation, as well as greater managerial steering. However, even though similar policy patterns have been replicated nearly everywhere, indicators of performance still show a remarkable variation across Western European countries. This leads to our main research question: which are the determinants of performance improvement in higher education? So far, neo-liberal economists and policy analysts have been stressing the role of institutional autonomy, competitive funding mechanisms and the assessment of the quality of research and teaching in improving higher education system performances; yet this explanation seems to be an over-simplification of reality. Precisely the fact that similar recipes have produced different outputs in different countries asks for the refinement of a taken-for-granted causal explanation. We argue that this causal explanation is conjunctural in nature: in other terms, (social and institutional) context matters for higher education performances. For example, giving more institutional autonomy and/or modifying funding criteria may lead to different outcomes depending on: i) national policy legacies and traditions; ii) the strength of the academic community; iii) the level of trust the whole higher education system enjoys. We test this expectation(s) with respect to fifteen higher education systems in Western Europe: Belgium (both Flanders and Walloon community), Denmark, England, France, Italy, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and three German regions: Bavaria, North-Western Westphalia and Saxony. In order to unravel conjunctural causation, we recur to Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA): this methodological approach is indeed very useful in analysing configurations of different conditions leading (or not leading) to a particular outcome (i.e. the improvement of higher education performances).