Higher Education Dynamics Volume 25, 2009, pp 227-246

Universities Steering between Stories and History

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This last chapter brings us back to interpretation. An inadvertent observer reading governmental white papers from our seven countries could infer from their repertoire similarities that convergence is on its way in Europe. Yet, by paying more attention to national histories of public policies implementation, the former chapter shows a paradoxical result: reforms of higher education (HE) in Western European countries have much in common and yet each is path dependent. In each of the countries studied, universities seem to have changed dramatically, although at various degrees, and exhibit new traits, compared to 25 years ago. The new traits are not stabilized, however: reforms continue everywhere. Change is still in process of redefining national higher education and research (HER) systems, in terms of their missions and operation. It is at least as evident as continuity. There is little difference in the pattern of high organizational turbulence in the HE systems between well known reform-prone countries such as those in Northern Europe, and supposedly rigid societies like France.

This significant shift from the expected pictures of high continuity, or conversely of radical reorganization, is as much due to top-down reform and shifts in steering as to traditional bottom-up and academically-driven forms of micro-institutional change in national specific contexts. Therefore it is indeed important to expand the traditional micro focus of much writing in the HE sector with an awareness of macro forces shaping the sector as a whole, bringing in the public management and political science literatures. This leads us to explore diversity using the more generic concepts of public policies developed in Chapter 1, in order to reincorporate HE as a case consistent with a general approach of key public services reform.