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The OECD Role in (re)defining Higher Education Systems in Europe

Public Administration
Public Policy
Policy Change
Policy Implementation
Sara Diogo
Universidade de Aveiro
Teresa Carvalho
Universidade de Aveiro
Sara Diogo
Universidade de Aveiro

Abstract

The way higher education (HE) systems have been organised, has been under discussion since the turning of the millennium due to a myriad of distinct influences. Among them, one finds the influence of the so-called knowledge society, the neo-liberal ideology, the academic and professional drift along with the increase in institutions’ diversity and even to pedagogical restructuring (e.g. the Bologna process). The pertinence of maintaining a binary or dual system has been questioned and the OECD called to advise countries in this domain as the case of Portugal and Finland. Although the two countries differ significantly in their geography, history, culture, and economic status, both are constituted by universities and more vocational/professional higher education institutions (in Portugal this last group of institutions is still called polytechnics, whereas in Finland they were recently labelled as universities of applied sciences, UAS), and they have been going similar HE legislative reforms. Furthermore, both Portuguese and Finnish governments requested the OECD a review of their HE systems in order to adapt to the European guidelines approved in the context of the Bologna process. This Paper analyses how the OECD reviewers tackled the issues related to the operationalisation of the binary system in both countries, namely which recommendations did they provide to both HE systems and how these recommendations were then followed or translated to the national legislation. This documental and legislative analysis is supported by empirical evidence gathered through 26 interviews conducted to key actors at the national and institutional levels. At the national level, we interviewed 12 key actors (policy makers and former HE ministers): 6 in Portugal and 6 in Finland. At the institutional level, we focused on the institutional interviews carried on the vocational subsystem, having interviewed 7 people with different roles (top-management actors and academics with management duties) in one Portuguese polytechnic and in one Finnish UAS. It is thus our aim to understand if the OECD recommendations differed or not between both countries, and if the way the countries translated these guidelines in national legislation evidenced a convergence process in policy formulation and subsequent implementation. A preliminary analysis shows amongst others that even if the OECD reports of both HE systems differed, emphasising distinct aspects in each country, there was a convergence in the recommendations regarding the maintenance and reinforcement of differentiated and collaborative HE systems. However, this duality is weakening and lacks clarification, as detected by the OECD, leading both countries’ governments to translate OECD recommendations into national legislation, although differently. Based on this comparative analysis, this study contributes to shed light on the role that international institutions play in the formulation of national HE policies, contributing simultaneously to clarify the political agenda sustaining this soft political influence.