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Centralization and Decentralization of German and Swiss Higher Education

Federalism
Comparative Perspective
Higher Education
Michael Dobbins
Universität Konstanz
Michael Dobbins
Universität Konstanz
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Abstract

The aim of international and European initiatives such as the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area is to strengthen the competitiveness of European higher education systems vis-à-vis other countries and regions by dismantling barriers and promoting cross-border mobility. The challenge of creating a common higher education area thus compelled many European states to fundamentally reform their higher education systems. Yet as the Bologna Process (and other bi- and multilateral higher education policy agreements) primarily affect study structures, quality assurance measures, academic mobility and mutual recognition, most previous studies have understandably focused on the policy dimension as well as the analysis of government mechanisms applied at the international level. Yet it was often not only necessary to reform and modernize educational programs, admissions procedures and the recognition of study achievements, but there were also strong demands to adapt higher education decision-making processes, thus the higher education polity. This process cannot be characterized as a top-down process in which the international level prescribes nation-states how to design their structures and polities. Instead, we assume that reforms of higher education polity and politics can also be seen as side-effects of perceived challenges due to internationalization. At the heart of these changes was the intention to make national policy-making structures more flexible and efficient in order to react to changing external conditions. In particular countries with federal structures in education policy have been compelled to streamline decision-making processes. Generally such changes oscillated between the poles of “centralization” (i.e. higher education decision-making authority is shifted to the central state level) and “decentralization” (higher education decision-making authority is shifted to the decentralized territories or universities themselves). Two countries with federally organized education polities which have implemented extensive reforms of their higher education systems catch our attention in this regard: Switzerland and Germany. Switzerland has shown a strong tendency towards educational centralization, while Germany has visibly moved towards greater educational decentralization. This situation poses several interesting questions: Why did two countries facing identical challenges (globalization, competition pressures, Europeanization) seize nearly entirely contrary measures (centralization/decentralization)? And second, why were reforms ultimately introduced which ran contrary to our assumptions in view of the socio-political and cultural configurations in both countries? In our paper we argue that the introduced reforms were a by-product of internationalization and that the diverging reform measures can be explained by institutional conditions which shape the interests of national actors and channel political conflicts in certain directions. Our historical-institutional theoretical approach provides an explanation on how established national structures impact ongoing reform processes, resulting in nearly opposite outcomes despite highly similar starting conditions. In this regard, domestic political institutions are deemed important. They can indicate how international impetus are received and transmitted to the national system. Based on the methodological perspective of historical comparative analysis we will trace the reform process in Switzerland and Germany across time and identify how institutions and actors influence the policy outcomes.