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Innovation and Adaptation in European Higher Education - Changing Relationships Between Higher Education and the State
April 2, 1999

Good comparative public policy studies can be like a breath of fresh air. There you are, stuck in the assumptions of your own system, accepting that "there is no alternative". Then along comes a study that reveals how, why and to what effect different governments pursue particular courses of action. Windows of opportunity open for policy works.

The merit of these two books is that they adopt a European canvas to analyse the relationship of higher education and the state. The problematique , as summarised by Maurice Kogan, editor of Jessica Kingsley's Higher Education Policy series and a pioneer in this field, is that academics plead for exceptional arrangements on assumptions that pull in different directions. High-quality education requires autonomy in the performance of its prime functions, but higher education cannot survive without the funds that only nation-states can find.

The book, edited by Claudius Gellert, comes at the question empirically. Papers on each of the systems in the Europe of the 12 (before the latest enlargement) focus on changes in the syllabus of four disciplines: economics, engineering, history and physics. Gellert, however, has let his authors have their heads. The result is a collection of papers showing the factors that different countries see as crucial as they negotiate the path between autonomy and state support. The cris de coeur from Greece and Italy make one understand why membership of the European Union has, for them, been such a bonus.

The EU scarcely features in the book edited by Mary Henkel and Brenda Little, which grew out of a seminar funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It builds, however, on the European contacts of their respective research institutes at Brunel and the Open University, in an attempt to sharpen the conceptual frameworks that will advance comparative study on these themes. The variables that interest their contributors are the academic-administrative interface and the funding mechanisms that create or destroy the distance from government and other stakeholders. How does higher education preserve the "essentialism" -in which, as Henkel and Little put it, conceptions of knowledge are mediated by strong internal control and adherence to epistemic rules of inquiry and testing, of logic, use of evidence, norms of conceptual and theoretical rigour, and creativity - while the traditional monopolies of higher education systems are being eroded.

The theme of liberty, or lack of it, is taken up in some well-footnoted British analyses on funding by Gareth Williams, Ian MacNay and John Barnes. Ulrich Teichler from Kassel University takes the issue of higher education and the world of work. Kogan and Peter Scott focus on institutional responses and academics.

Yet whether or not Europe features explicitly as the playing field, the point that most of the contributions underline is that the notional structuring of relations between higher education and state is not irremediably fixed and cultural. Rather, it is political, a reflection of power relationships between the different players. In Europe, we are looking at two models. Jussi Valimaa from Finland describes the market-led model, familiar to the British, in which, despite preserving the rhetoric of self-regulating institutions, universities and academics are in competition, and significant funding follows performance. Christine Musselin from France, in a valuable paper contrasting the French and German structures of relations between state and higher education, describes an alternative as the French begin to move away from a structure still powerful on the continent in which those relations have been determined by faculties rather than institutions. They are not moving helter-skelter towards the market. The process is one of contract and "funding by negotiation", which she describes as not so much another public policy but as a redefinition of what universities are (or should be) and of the place of state regulation in the higher education system.

Gellert observes that it is odd that the UK system, which is one of the most successful in Europe in preserving high standards of quality and efficiency, is among the least publicly appreciated. My suggestion for those interested in alternative ways of thinking about the aims, objectives and structures of higher education's systems is to get going quickly on these two books.

Anne Corbett is a doctoral student in the department of government, London School of Economics. She attended some of the ESRC seminars.

Innovation and Adaptation in European Higher Education

Editor - Claudius Gellert
ISBN - 1 85302 535 6 and 628 X
Publisher - Jessica Kingsley
Price - £29.50 and £19.95
Pages - 320

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