Universities and the production of elites

Roland Bloch and Alexander Mitterle


Universities have become central crossing points in modern society. They coproduce the narratives of our time, ranging from politics over neurogenetics to climate change. Universities educate students for diverse roles in society: nurses, musicians, lawyers, physicists, managers, neuroscientists, and philosophers have all been credentialized by higher education systems. In recent decades, there has been a consistent increase in the number of participants in higher education. The move from elite to mass education, has led to the emergence of an expansive, self-enforcing dynamic (Trow 2006).

Mass education implies that higher education has become crucial to securing access to labor markets, especially to positions with higher social status (Collins 1979). Over the decades, scholars have confirmed that educational credentials are door openers, which legitimate exclusive access to high-status professions and lead to occupational attainment (Abbott 2005). With the expansion of higher education, a growing differentiation, professionalization, and stratification within higher education systems can be perceived (Teichler 2008). Surprisingly, there has been less attention paid to how exactly the organization and (vertical) structure of higher education impacts on social structures and on occupational attainment. Beyond acknowledging the role of higher education in constructing elites, there has been a serious lack of research on the link between higher education and high-status positions.

Bringing the university back in

While acknowledging the important work that emphasizes the role of higher education in reproducing elites, our new book ‘Universities and the Production of Elites. Discourses, Policies, and Strategies of Excellence and Stratification in Higher Education’ (Bloch, Mitterle, Paradeise and Peter 2018) focusses on how universities as organizations produce elites.

As education provider and a research institution, the university “forms basic ideologies and creates academic degrees and expertise around these ideologies” (Baker 2014, p. 84). As a “sieve”, “incubator” or “hub” of society (Stevens et al. 2008), it both co-constructs and legitimizes “new classes of personnel with new types of authoritative knowledge” (Meyer 1977, p. 56). As an organization its forms of educational provision and its ties with the labour market are impacted by constant policy changes in the name of internationalization, excellence, New Public Management, quality improvement, efficiency and cost reduction (Paradeise and Thoenig 2015; Bloch and Mitterle 2017).

The aim of our book is to highlight the relationship between higher education institutions and the production of elites by focusing on how organizational change and increasing stratification in higher education impact on – or try to adjust to – the production of new elites for labor markets and academia. Its purpose is to provide new empirical and theoretical perspectives on this relationship and it focuses on the role of the university, rather than the labor market.

Discourses, policies, and strategies of excellence and stratification

The contributions originate from a small, intense workshop held at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in September 2015. The workshop brought together scholars from Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States to explore these issues. The endeavor is of course much greater than an edited book can handle. We see it as a starting point for a longer discussion. It thus provides relevant theoretical approaches that help to think the relationship anew, such as discourse analysis, new institutionalism, institutional habitus approaches, or visibility theory. The approaches are developed along concrete case studies in the respective countries on multiple levels along which this ordering takes place (such as programs, organizational units, universities, global business school fields, and nation states).

The book begins with addressing some of the discursive rationales that underlie recent policy changes toward increasing stratification in higher education and that emphasize individual actorhood, responsiveness, and competition. We then examine how governments take up these rationales – in response to massification and internationalization in higher education – when formulating policy changes. Examples from Finland, France, Germany, and Ireland describe how such policy changes impact on and reshape the structure of higher education systems. Policy devices that exemplify verticality in programs and institutions (such as rankings) are key to implementing and sustaining these changes in higher education. We show how policy devices – as objective status distributors – make hierarchies visible along specific indicators and how such devices impact on universities. Universities respond to these policy changes by adjusting to status demands. Common indicators play an important role in comparative positioning but local organizational arrangements are very heterogeneous. With regard to educational pathways, we draw on case studies from China, the United States, and Germany (business education and doctoral programs) to show how universities and their schools seek to employ international faculty, visualize elite architectures, or build privileged pathways to job positions. Finally, we discuss the role of specific logics of elite production. Examples from the United States and France each show that even if internationalization strategies are in place and although universities are global institutions, they still largely follow national production logics in the way that they educate and socialize their students.

Connecting the various empirical studies in this book opens up a new perspective for future research on the nexus between higher education and labor markets. The vertical differences and the way that they rebuild higher education matter, and they matter particularly for educational pathways leading to high-status positions.

Roland Bloch is a research associate at the Institute of Sociology and the Center for School and Educational Research at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. He received his PhD at University of Leipzig with a dissertation on the study reforms in the course of the Bologna process and has worked on the structure of academic work at German universities. His latest research concerns stratifications in higher education, especially doctoral education.

Alexander Mitterle is a research associate at the Institute for Sociology and the Center for School and Educational Research at Martin-Luther-University. His recent research focuses on the development of stratification in German higher education. He has worked and published on various aspects of higher education including internationalization, private higher education, teaching structure and time as well as real-socialist higher education.


Abbott, A. (2005). ‘Linked Ecologies: States and Universities as Environments for Professions‘. Sociological Theory, 23(3), pp. 245–274.

Baker, D.P. (2014). The Schooled Society: The Educational Transformation of Global Culture. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Bloch, R. and Mitterle, A. (2017). On stratification in changing higher education: The 'analysis of status' revisited, Higher Education, 73(6), pp. 929–946. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-017-0113-5.

Bloch, R., Mitterle, A., Paradeise, C. and Peter, T. (eds.) (2018). Universities and the Production of Elites. Discourses, Policies, and Strategies of Excellence and Stratification in Higher Education. Palgrave Studies in Global Higher Education. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Collins, R. (1979). The credential society: an historical sociology of education and stratification. New York: Academic Press.

Meyer, J.W. (1977). The Effects of Education as an Institution. The American Journal of Sociology, 83(1), pp. 55–77.

Paradeise, C. and Thoenig, J.C. (2015). In search of academic quality. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stevens, M.L., Armstrong, E.A. and Arum, R. (2008). Sieve, Incubator, Temple, Hub: Empirical and Theoretical Advances in the Sociology of Higher Education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34(1), pp. 127–151.

Teichler, U. (2008). Diversification? Trends and explanations of the shape and size of higher education, Higher Education, 56(3), pp. 349–379. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-008-9122-8.

Trow, Martin (2006). Reflections on the transition from elite to mass to universal access: forms and phases of higher education in modern societies since WWII. In: James J. F. Forest und Philip G. Altbach eds., International Handbook of Higher Education. Vol. 1. Global Themes and Contemporary Challenges. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 243-280.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Research Executive Agencies in Europe: Some Reflections

Que Anh Dang. Photo credits: Thomas König

Que Anh Dang. Photo credits: Thomas König

Que Anh Dang

·       How might we understand the changing governance of scientific research at national, regional and supranational levels in Europe?

·       What are the prevailing and conflicting political, economic, cultural and ideational discourses, discursive contexts and rationales for constituting and governing intermediary research executive agencies? How do they operate?

·       What are the consequences/outcomes caused by the tensions and compromises between these supposedly independent agencies and the national governments or regional institutions?

·       What are the implications for research policies and academic practices at higher education institutions?

These are some overarching questions addressed by the panel ‘Research Executive Agencies – between Independent Organisations and Governments’ organised by Lisa Kressin and Sarah Glück in the Section on the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation at the European Consortium for Political Research ECPR General Conference 6-9 September in Oslo. The papers in this panel examine the historical trajectories, discursive contexts in the institutionalisation processes and the actual workings of the research funding executive agencies in Germany, Austria, the Nordic region and the European Union.

National Contexts: Agencification and Autonomy

In some German-speaking national contexts, there is a practice of agencification in which the principals (ministries) play the role of defining political strategies, framework and rules, and let the agents (the executive agencies) be in charge of implementation processes and manage public research funds on the government’s behalf. Rupert Pichler and Sascha Ruhland, in their paper titled ‘The role of research funding agencies in policy discretion and coordination in Austria’, examined multiple funding agencies and focus on the case of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) – a merger of several fragmented funding organisations. FFG has a legal form of a limited company and has the mandates to serve many ministries, provincial governments and the EU. They argued that the very nature of multi-principal and multi-sector agency has put FFG in a position to propose strategic plans that are to be approved by the various ministries. Sometimes the inter-ministerial negotiations are outsourced to FFG. In essence, the principals are coordinated by the agent rather than being in the driver’s seat, thus blurring the boundaries between principal’s and agent’s tasks and roles. They concluded that although principals and agents are deeply entangled, there are always ‘lasting tensions’ oscillating between agency capture and government interference. Therefore, the principal-agent relationship is constantly adjusted.

Regional Contexts: Changing Governance Architecture

Que Anh Dang presented the paper ‘Nordic Umbrella Organisations for Higher Education and Research: Region-building and Market-making and highlighted the case of the Nordic research funding executive agency – NordForsk. Although NordForsk was established in 2005 in the aftermath of the Lisbon Strategy with a competitiveness boosting agenda, it was rooted in the long-standing Nordic regional cooperation in many sectors. NordForsk is ‘old wine in a new bottle’ and it represents a continuation of previous regional initiatives and the Nordic informal and pragmatic approach to cooperation. However, NordForsk has constituted new spaces for policy making which alter regional governance pattern. She argued that, in the Nordic case, these new spaces are not located above the state, rather, regional frontiers are created within the national policy-making apparatus including its political institutions. NordForsk is not about the emergence, consolidation or sustainability of the supranational authority but about the rescaling of governance and pubic authority to regional spaces – a politics of regionalism that is simultaneously regional and national. The legitimacy of intermediary agencies, like NordForsk, is secured through various forms of accountability. Such accountability is ensured by ‘accountability communities’- a complex ensemble of public and private organisations endowed with capacities to perform legislative, monitoring and compliance activities. Que Anh concluded that these communities also possess particular understandings of accountability (soft law of standards and codes) and provide the basis for new ways of region-building and market-making.

Inga Ulnicane presented her research on Grand societal challenges asking if challenge-orientation represents a new policy paradigm in science, technology and innovation policy. She compared recent challenge-orientation with earlier mission-oriented science, technology and innovation policies and discussed a number of policy initiatives to address societal challenges launched by NordForsk, European Union and Sweden’s innovation agency Vinnova.

Panel chair Sarah Glück

Panel chair Sarah Glück

Thomas König, one of the panellists, launched his new book ‘The European Research Council’ (ERC) during the conference. This book is a comprehensive research into the creation and development of the ERC. With an ethnographic method, Thomas gives a detailed account of how a group of strong-minded European scientists succeeded in establishing the ERC by pushing for a single goal: more money for scientific research with fewer strings attached. The book also critically analyses the achievements and challenges faced by the ERC and engages with a broader question concerning the relationships between politics, science and public money.

Some Reflections

Presentations in this panel prompted some reflections and ideas for further empirical studies:

-        The classical principal-agent theory is deficient in explaining the complex relationships between the research funding executive agencies and their founders and funders (be it national or regional bodies). We need new theories and novel ways of understanding the power relations between the principals (ministries, group of states, supranational union) and the agents (intermediary agencies);

-        Although the agents derive their authority from their expertise, they have to constantly negotiate and secure their legitimacy and autonomy in various ways and with a range of actors including the principals, academic communities, the society and the wider public (tax-payers);

-        Neoliberalism constitutes the hegemonic economic discourse within science and innovation which introduces a new mode of regulation premised on the belief that competition – in the name of ‘Excellence’– is the most efficient and a morally superior mechanism for allocating resources and opportunities. The workings of all these agencies are governed, albeit at varying degrees, by this economic discourse and its accompanied contractual relations;

-        The research funding executive agencies take on multiple identities depending on which actors they interact with. Despite their motto to uphold academic freedom and support investigator-driven research, they often act as translators and mediators between politics, science and administration.

In summary, the panel provides deep insights into concrete case studies and offers new ways of understanding intermediary agencies and the implications for research policies in the complex governance structures in Europe. We wish to exchange ideas and learn from more case studies in other national and regional contexts to broaden our scholarship.

Dr. Que Anh Dang is a researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg.

Her research interests include higher education and regionalism, the role of international organisations in policy making, higher education in the knowledge economy, and education diplomacy. She is a co-editor and an author of the book ‘Global Regionalisms and Higher Education’ (2016).


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Globalization and Change in Higher Education: Economic, Political, and Social Explanations

Beverly Barrett


The internationalization of higher education is a response to the pressures of globalization. There are economic, political, and social explanations for the reforms that have taken place in Europe since the Bologna Process launched 18 years ago on June 19, 1999 in the historic university city of Bologna, Italy. 

Correspondingly, these explanations for internationalization of higher education are globalization (economic), intergovernmentalism (political), and Europeanization (social). The progress of the Bologna Process to create the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) originated with the Sorbonne Declaration among the education ministers of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom on May 25, 1998.

My new book Globalization and Change in Higher Education: The Political Economy of Policy Reform in Europe (published by Palgrave Macmillan) explains the institutional change that has taken place as a response to these pressures.[1]  The 21st century’s increasing demands for knowledge reflect a knowledge society that is driven by a knowledge economy (David and Foray 2002).[2] This is defined as an economy in which growth is dependent on the quantity, quality, and accessibility of the information available. Universities and all types higher education institutions have experienced unprecedented institutional change in the knowledge society (Cantwell and Kauppinen 2014).[3] Educational sociologists have concurred that the international convergence of academic programs’ criteria that comes from the Bologna Process is unprecedented (Frank and Meyer 2007:299).[4]

History, Ideas, and Institutions

When the Bologna Process started, it had been less than a decade since the end of the Cold War. As a social explanation, the central and eastern European countries were eager to show solidarity with the leadership initiative from the countries in western Europe. The growth of the Bologna Process from 29 countries originally to 48 countries today reflects how it has complemented the expansion of the European Union’s  Single Market, as the EU has grown from 15 countries in 1999 to 28 countries today. 

The history, ideas, and institutions that frame our understanding of higher education are set out in the initial Chapters of the book, which frame the analysis in a historical institutional theoretical perspective.  The three primary objectives of the Bologna Process are convergence of higher education policies in 1) academic degree structure, 2) quality assurance, and 3) automatic recognition of degrees within the EHEA. Chapter 4 explains the dual roles of higher education institutions, as recipients of policy change from the national and European levels and as agents of policy change in the knowledge economy. The Bologna Process intersects with the higher education attainment objective of the Europe 2020 economic growth strategy of the Europe Commission. Chapter 5 explains, in quantitative assessment, that the most statistically significant relationship for higher education attainment is with GDP per capita among other variables in the political economy including employment, trade, R&D investment, population, and education spending.  

With similar histories of political governance and distinct structures of government, the Iberian countries, Portugal and Spain, provide qualitative assessment case studies for countries within the EU.  Chapters 6 to 9 explain that given the unitary government of Portugal, the process of reform has proceeded with more uniformity than in the quasi-federal government of Spain. In the country of 17 autonomous communities of sub-national regions, Spain has 11 higher education qualifications agencies as compared to most EHEA countries that have one, indicating the complexity of higher education in the country.  Portugal has made greater progress, from 11 to 31 percent, than Spain’s progress, from 29 to 42 percent, toward the Europe 2020 target objective for 40 percent (of 30-34 year-olds) for higher education attainment, though Spain has reached the target (Eurostat 2016).  

Model for Regional Integration and Key Findings

Referencing back to my posting in 2013, the Bologna Process has been a model for the regionalization of higher education throughout the world. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has developed its own Qualifications Reference Framework.  In North America, the Canadian and U.S. structures are similar. The U.S. and Mexico, together with Canada, have opportunities to collaborate, once able to overcome uncertainties around security, funding, and availability of academic mobility programs.[5]  The next step following graduates’ mobility is mutual recognition of professional qualifications, for which the ASEAN region continues to make progress.[6]

Among the key findings in the book are that these aspects of domestic politics matter for higher education policy reforms:

1) Structure of government (unitary v. (quasi-)federal)

2) Leadership consistency providing support for the reforms

3) Funding available for education or national wealth (measured by GDP per capita)

Today the 48-country EHEA, with the European Commission as a partner, continues to develop a higher education space where academic qualifications become recognized across countries. Competitive external economic pressures are part of globalization, while domestic politics influencing international cooperation drive intergovernmentalism. Leadership from the supranational EU that socially engages stakeholders and constructs regional norms is Europeanization. Approaching the end of the second decade of the Bologna Process, the change in higher education finds economic, political, and social explanations.      


Beverly Barrett has served as Lecturer at the Bauer College of Business in Global Studies and at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. She served as Associate Editor of the Miami European Union Center of Excellence following her doctoral fellowship. Current research interests include international political economy, regional integration, and governance with particular emphasis on education and economic development.    


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.


[1] Barrett, Beverly. 2017. Globalization and Change in Higher Education: The Political Economy of Policy Reform in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

[2] David, Paul A. and Dominique Foray. 2002. “An introduction to the economy of the knowledge society.” International Social Science Journal, 54:171, 9-23. Paris: UNESCO.

[3] Cantwell, Brendan and Ilkka Kauppinen (Eds). 2014. Academic capitalism in the age of globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[4] Frank, David J. and John W. Meyer. 2007. University expansion and the knowledge society. Theory and Society, 36(4), 287–311.

[5] Vassar, David and Beverly Barrett. 2014. “U.S.-Mexico academic mobility: Trends, challenges, and opportunities.” Mexico Center Issue Brief. Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, Houston, Texas.

[6] Asian Development Bank. 2016. Open windows, closed doors: Mutual recognition agreements on professional services in the ASEAN region. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.

ECPR 2017 – continuing our focus on higher education, research and innovation

Hannah Moscovitz and Martina Vukasovic

This year’s ECPR (European Consortium of Political Research) General Conference took place at the University of Oslo between September 6-9. The conference included hundreds of panels on a wide array of topics and representation from close to 2,000 academics from around the world. The ECPR Standing Group on the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, for the sixth time in a row (following Prague 2016, Montreal 2015, Glasgow 2014, Bordeaux 2013 and Reykjavik 2011) organised a section with a total of six panels covering various themes related to knowledge policy governance.

The section opened with the panel European Integration in the Knowledge Domain –
Taking Stock and Forward Outlook.
The panel was based on the research agenda presented in Maassen and Olsen’s (2007) seminal book “University Dynamics and European Integration”. Peter Maassen began by reflecting on the book’s contribution to empirical and theoretical work on higher education research. Mari Elken presented a paper outlining ideas for further developing the research agenda on European higher education and emphasizing the importance of considering the complex ecology involved. Jens Jungblut followed with a discussion of the political contestations involved in the implementation of European policy ideas at the national level. Finally, Meng-Hsuan Chou and Pauline Ravinet presented their research on higher education regionalism, discussing its potential for contemporary political research as well as the importance of comparing regions ‘beyond Europe’ to further develop this field.

Nicoline Frolich and Ivar Bleiklie chair panel on higher education policy

Nicoline Frolich and Ivar Bleiklie chair panel on higher education policy

The following panelPolicy translation, adaptation and complexity in higher education, research and innovation – explored the various conditions which shape knowledge policy design. Hila Zahavi presented her research assessing the manner in which the EU’s foreign policy interests are embedded in various EU funded higher education programs. Teresa Patricio’s paper explored the research and higher education policy implications involved in complex international collaborations through the example of Portuguese university partnerships. Davide Donina then presented his paper on the examination of New Public Management features in Portuguese and Italian higher education systems, through a comparative and multi-level analysis. Hannah Moscovitz’s paper addressed the role of territorial identity-related interests in the design of knowledge policy from a subnational perspective. Finally, Sandra Hasanefendic’s paper examined the different responses to a new research policy implemented in two Portuguese poly-technics, revealing that the heterogeneous responses can be attributed to unique organisational structures.

The third panel highlighted empirical and theoretical contributions to research on the Policy, Governance and Organisational Change in Higher Education. Martina Vukasovic opened the panel with a discussion of the term ‘loose coupling’ in higher education research – outlining how it has been used, discussing some lacunas in its empirical application and opening avenues for future use. Sara Diogo then presented her paper on the influence of the OECD on European higher education, highlighting the diffusion of educational trends in Portugal and Finland. Roland Bloch followed with a presentation on the role played by the German Excellence Initiative in the proliferation of doctoral programs and its impact on the overall structure of German higher education. Agnete Vabo’s paper assessed how university mergers affect institutional autonomy and strategic steering, shedding light on the diversification involved. The panel concluded with a presentation by Ivar Bleiklie on the potential for discussing a Scandanavian model for higher education through a consideration of the commonalities and differences between Scandinavian countries’ higher education models.

The panel on Research Executive Agencies – Independent Organizations or the Extension of Research Policymakers?, aimed to prompt a discussion on research executive agencies (REAs) and their implications for knowledge policy research. Sarah Glück introduced the panel by highlighting the importance of scrutinising REAs in order to understand the competing logics inherent in science policy systems. Rupert Pichler and Sascha Ruhland’s paper analysed the normative framework governing research funding agencies, focusing on a number of dynamics impacting Austrian government policies in this domain. Que Anh Dang’s presentation explored Nordic higher education regionalism revealing how regional research agencies have contributed to new forms of region-building and market making in the area. Thomas König and Tim Flink’s paper assessed the challenges of the ERC for European research policy which they attribute to both its organisational framework and discursive compromises it undertakes. Finally, Inga Ulnicane presented her work on the concept of ‘grand challenges’, assessing whether it represents a new paradigm in science, technology and innovation policy.

The panel Unbundling knowledge production and knowledge dissemination aimed to conceptualise the ‘unbundling’ of knowledge policy; examining the different actors involved, understanding the consequences of such processes and implications for the university’s perceived role in society. Farah Purwaningrum’s paper discussed the understanding of the university’s third mission in Malaysia, specifically asking how the idea of the third mission as perceived by the Malaysian Ministry of Education affects knowledge production in Malaysian universities? Joonha Jeon’s paper assessed how New Public Management has influenced the realization of universities’ ‘third mission’, highlighting university-industry links in South Korea. Finally, Janja Komljenovic presented her paper assessing the unbundling processes evident in university social media marketing strategies. Through the example of LinkedIn, the study shows an important connection between higher education, markets and digital platforms.

The topic of the last panel in the section was Quality and Effectiveness of Governance in Higher Education: Unpacking the Quality of Governance and Effects of Governance Changes in Higher Education Policies. The panel comprised five papers. First, Michael Dobbins presented a comparative study on German and Swiss higher education reforms which, in response to similar challenges such as globalization and competition pressures, took two distinct (and somewhat unexpected routes) – decentralization and centralization, respectively. Giliberto Capano presented the study he co-authored with Andrea Pritoni on whether increasing autonomy can account for changes in education performance in Western European higher education systems. Meng-Hsuan Chou presented the paper co-authored with Pauline Ravinet concerning effectiveness of inter-regional policy dialogues, in particular focusing on cooperation between EU and ASEAN in the form of EU-SHARE project. Beverly Barrett presented a paper on higher education in Latin America, Portugal and Spain. The panel concluded with a paper by Jens Jungblut and Peter Maassen focusing on quality of governance in sub-Saharan Africa, which, amongst other, provided also a conceptual contribution concerning two dimensions of quality of governance – autonomy and capacity.

Apart from the panels in this section, the members of the Standing Group also took part in other sessions, including:

-       Roundtable on the consequences of internationalization of political science education

-       Featured Panel: The European Research Council @ 10: What has it done to us?

-       Transformation of the Political Studies Profession: What does it mean to be an Active Academic in the Current Era?


Standing Group dinner at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education NIFU

Standing Group dinner at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education NIFU

As has become tradition, the Standing Group also had its annual meeting focused on planning future activities, including ECPR 2018 which will take place in Hamburg. The meeting was also marked by the Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar to Que Anh Dang for her paper “The Bologna and ASEM Education Secretariats: Authority of Transnational Actor in Regional Higher Education Policy”. Standing Group members attended the keynote lecture by Johan P. Olsen “Democratic Accountability and the Changing European Political Order” and enjoyed the very generous hospitality of the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education NIFU, which hosted the traditional Standing Group dinner.

ECPR 2017 was another successful year for our Standing Group, gathering researchers from 20 different countries, currently based on three continents (Asia, Europe and North America). See you in the next ECPR General Conference in Hamburg in August 2018!

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.



Unbundling and reassembling knowledge production

Janja Komljenovic and Que Anh Dang at the conference

Janja Komljenovic and Que Anh Dang at the conference

Janja Komljenovic

‘Unbundling and reassembling knowledge production’ was the title of the panel that I have convened with Susan Robertson at the recent General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) that this year took place in Oslo, 6-9 September; this panel was part of the section organized by the ECPR Standing Group ‘Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’. I have organised this panel to tackle the increasing set of processes that are targeting the traditional university, unpacking its activities and reassembling them in such a way to transform the higher education sector. The university was traditionally the key or ‘only’ social institution engaged in advanced, credentialed knowledge production and dissemination in the higher education sector. Now we witness the increasing number of actors who are attempting to unbundle the university and its functions. The panellists were curious about who these actors are, what are their strategies and tactics and what the consequences are for the sector and society at large. Most importantly, we were attempting to look closer at the ‘unbundling’ as a process, which is defined as: “the differentiation of tasks and services that were once offered by a single provider or individual (i.e. bundled) and the subsequent distribution of these tasks and services among different providers and individuals” (Gerhke and Kezar, 2015, p. 96).

The first presenter, Joonha Jeon from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, tackled the so-called third mission of the university and how the policy intervention of the state is un-bundling and re-bundling the relationship between universities and the industry. He focused on the key South Korean funding programme starting in 2012, Leaders in Industry-university Cooperation (LINC). Based on the study encompassing document analysis and in-depth interviews, he found that the programme was not fully successful in bringing universities and companies closer together for the purpose of companies contributing to study courses and research and on the other hand universities opening up to the needs of the industry. Instead, the programme had a different effect. It stirred universities towards becoming the ‘industry serving agencies’ in that they are increasingly taking over the role of the public agencies to deliver the labour, but without adequate payment. This is in opposition to the general perception of a university as a public service institution. Moreover, LINC resulted in institutional isomorphism at universities. The type of unbundling that we see here is that the the cooperation between universities and the industry is re-bundled in such a way that universities are becoming a funnel for government funds and labour into the private companies.

The second presenter, Farah Purwaningrum from the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, analysed the third mission of universities as well, but on the case of Malaysia. She focused on a different angle, i.e. she was interested in how the third mission as envisaged by the state ministry affect the knowledge production at the university. She analysed the government policy documents and then narrowed her research for in-depth study of the case of the University Science Malaysia in Penang in Malaysia. She concludes that there is a paradigm shift in the overall conditions for higher education and science in the country, which poses new expectations towards the universities.

Finally, I presented a study on social media and how they might unbundle the university’s operations more generally. Using the case of LinkedIn I focused not only on unbundling of the study courses and research process, but the managing of the university including its wider functions, such as caring for employability of graduates. Building on the study of LinkedIn’s documents including its platform and the case study of the two UK universities, I found that LinkedIn could be conceptualised as serving four main functions that are interwoven in practice. First, it provides use value to students, alumni and universities as institutions. Second, it is a device for ordering and expanding higher education markets (see also our post on making global education markets). Third, it is a marketplace for labour and skills. And finally, it is a source of big data in the digital economy. After analysing these functions, I have asked the following questions about unbundling. First, whether we can talk about re-bundling of knowledge as a consequence of a renowned focus on skills and unbundling the provision of knowledge, endorsed by LinkedIn. Second, whether we can talk about re-bundling competition and markets in higher education as a consequence of new forms, scale, scope and temporality of competition between universities and their valuation that LinkedIn’s platform is providing. Third, if we can talk about re-bundling employability as a consequence of the focus on personal branding and using institutional alumni networks. Finally, if we can talk about re-bundling ‘the expert’ as a consequence of the platform promoting particular forms of content and expert knowledge as well as specific people as opinion leaders.

Panel at the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation section

Panel at the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation section

The three papers and the panel as a whole found that on the one hand we can witness clear examples of the unbundling process, while on the other there is still a ‘gold standard’ of the integrated research university. “The process of unbundling is, therefore, an incipient one, and concentrated in a few countries. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that it will spread and accelerate, in particular in light of its close link with the for-profit sector, in which much current HE expansion is located, and the transnational nature of many for-profit companies” (McCowan, 2017, p. 2). The panel thus contributed to the emerging literature on unbundling in the higher education sector and it called for future empirical and theoretical work on this process.


My attendance at the ECPR conference was supported by the Micro Travel Grants of the Marie Curie Alumni Association.

Janja Komljenovic is Lecturer in Higher Education at Lancaster University. Her research interests concern higher education policy and governance, political economy of higher education and the digital economy.


Gehrke, S. & Kezar, A. (2015). Unbundling the faculty role in higher education: Utilizing historical, theoretical, and empirical frameworks to inform future research. In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (pp. 93–150). Berlin: Springer International Publishing

McCowan, T. (2017). Higher education, unbundling, and the end of the university as we know it. Oxford Review of Education.


This entry was originally poste on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Innovating regional ecosystems and modernizing professional higher education

Sandra Hasanefendic

Giving a tutorial on practice based and problem solving research

Giving a tutorial on practice based and problem solving research

Fostering regional and innovation ecosystems through strengthening professional higher education and related research activities has been an imperative in recent years in Europe and globally. I have been personally involved both as a researcher, and expert adviser in understanding how and through which mechanisms can this be achieved. In recent years, I have been following and supporting the development of a program for the Modernization and Valorization of Polytechnic Institutes in Portugal. The comprehensive policy program was launched in 2016 at the initiative of the Portuguese Government and acts in more than fifty cities all over Portugal and aims to: a) promote local innovation partnerships through collaborative initiatives and co-creation mechanisms between polytechnics, local communities and a wide variety of small and medium size companies; b) foster problem based and practice oriented learning and research approaches to help innovate in professional higher education; and c) to secure knowledge sharing on educational practices and professional development across Europe through international collaboration among regional-based partnerships.

The policy program is built on inclusive, open and fully participatory community principles. It is a symbol of participatory policymaking in Europe centered around dialogue, negotiation and decision making among and between academic leaders and teachers/researchers, students, experts from local communities and companies in a wide variety of sectors, as well as across different countries. Its consequences are already greatly felt in Portugal, but it is predicated that the program will have far reaching consequences for the state of polytechnic education and research in Europe. Namely, it will promote internationalization of professional higher education which has mostly been local, while at the same time stimulate innovative research activities based on regional partnerships. This is expected to additionally strengthen the role of professional higher education institutions as intermediaries in regional and innovation ecosystems which has been recently discussed by me and my colleague Hugo Horta in “Training students for new jobs: Intermediary role of technical and vocational higher education”.

In the first phase of the program, targeted visits of polytechnic representatives to Finland, Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland were stimulated. It was expected that this experience would lead to learning and gaining experience about the emerging professional higher education and related practice-based research activities in Europe. The second phase involved knowledge dissemination workshops, organized throughout the country and at different institutions, through which acquired knowledge and developments in other visited countries were shared. These workshops stimulated dialogues about lessons learned, but they also aimed to explore the current state of professional higher education and related research activities in Europe through tutorials and potential opportunities for improvement and innovation based on experience, yet within the limits of the national socioeconomic context.

The third phase of the program consisted of introducing targeted initiatives exploring aforementioned opportunities and promoting change at Portuguese polytechnics. The initiatives concentrated around the promotion of funded collaborative research projects between polytechnics and local industry and community, setting up creative research labs to promote polytechnics’ integration with their region through problem based and practice oriented research activities, and the promotion of short cycle technological courses resting on innovative learning methodologies promoting problem based and practice oriented research. It has involved the use of European structural funds and national funds in a total of 46 million Euros for a period of 18 months.

The current phase concentrates on the promotion of internationalization activities and partnerships between European professional higher education institutions and associated research groups. Within this framework, the Portuguese Minister of Science, Technology, and Higher Education recently visited Dutch polytechnics in Rotterdam and Leeuwarden and agreed on strategic international partnerships promoting long term collaborative activities between polytechnic institutions in Europe.

These international partnerships are critical in sharing learning perspectives and developments in professions to train resilient and engaged students and professionals of the future. It is expected that the partnerships will benefit students by fostering dual and joint programs, exchange in research projects among others, and contribute in gaining a more rounded understanding of their profession. Professions are not local but globally developed and by exposing students and staff to the same profession, yet in different environments and contexts, and through problem based and practice oriented research activities, the idea is that they will be able to advance the state of the profession in their local and regional contexts within Portugal.

Sandra Hasanefendic is a double doctoral degree student from the Vrije University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL) in Portugal. She researches organizational behavior in higher education. Her focus lies on non-university higher education (or professional higher education) and responses to policy pressures regarding research and innovation in education and training. Sandra also teaches, consults and advises policymakers on issues relevant to advancement of professional higher education and research activities in Portugal and the Netherlands.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

How do higher education institutions use internal quality assurance for quality improvement?

Michaela Martin and Christine Emeran

A result of the rapid expansion and diversification of the higher education sector is that academic quality has come under greater scrutiny. The development of internal quality assurance (IQA) systems by higher education institutions (HEIs), as a means of monitoring and managing quality, constitutes one of the most important reform initiatives to address this concern.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) confront a number of challenges in IQA design, such as choosing an appropriate focus, integrating IQA tools into a cost-effective and coherent system, considering graduate employability, and finding an appropriate balance between centralized and decentralized structures. For these reasons, a demand exists for reliable empirical knowledge about how to make IQA effective while sustainable for the enhancement of quality and relevant for higher education in different national and institutional contexts.

UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) research on internal quality assurance

To provide more knowledge on factors that condition IQA, IIEP, in coordination with the International Association of Universities (IAU), conducted an international survey to understand the purpose, orientation, structures, tools and processes, drivers, and obstacles of IQA practices in HEIs worldwide. In addition, IIEP conducted case studies on eight universities to document good principles and innovative IQA practices, analyze their effects, and identify factors (both internal and external) that contribute to an effective IQA system. The universities studied under the project are: American International University (Bangladesh), University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany), University of Talca (Chile), Daystar University (Kenya), University of the Free State (South Africa), Xiamen University (China), University of Bahrain (Bahrain), and Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria).

This research followed a multi-stakeholder approach in the primary data collection to compare different actor groups’ perspectives on IQA, such as academic and administrative staff, students, and academic and administrative leaders. In each of the case universities interviews were held with university leadership at different levels, focus groups discussions with programme directors and students and survey conducted with academic and administrative staff. The overall purpose of the research was to highlight approaches to IQA and study their effectiveness with a view to providing good principles to inspire other HEIs to better design and implement an IQA system.

Benefits of Internal Quality Assurance

The research project revealed that, in the institutions examined, IQA has initiated a large set of reforms, particularly, in the domain of teaching and learning that has generally improved the coherence of study programmes and its alignment with labour market needs. In addition, as an IQA effect, management processes were streamlined and better integrated with data analysis and evaluation.

The research data also found a number of common factors for success, although they largely depend on the context of each individual institution and modes of implementation. Overall, the participating universities agreed that leadership support, stakeholder involvement, IQA integrated with strategic planning and an effective management information system were of tremendous importance. Leadership support was identified by both academic and administrative staff as a necessary and commonly present factor in the case universities in facilitating the integration of centralized and decentralized management of IQA. Linking IQA with decision-making can close the loop at three levels: individual level; academic programmes, and strategic planning of the whole university. Indeed, strategic planning provides a framework of orientations and goals, including on quality, at all levels towards which IQA works most effectively if all levels are engaged.

Lastly, the effectiveness of the IQA system also relied heavily on the level to which students and staff were aware of and involved in its processes and tools. For instance, programme reviews and job market analysis were found effective if they incorporated employer recommendations to revise academic programmes in line with employment needs. In terms of limits, students and staff felt that they did not receive enough feedback from certain IQA tools, such as course evaluations or student satisfaction surveys, the study found. In addition, the data from certain tools was not always used for maximum benefit by all stakeholders. For instance, the results of graduate tracer studies were predominantly used by management rather than academics who are in charge of the revision of study programmes.

Overall, the study concluded that IQA is most effective if it leads to a regular internal dialogue on quality. A dialogue that fosters a quality culture that is also the ultimate purpose of IQA and will contribute to improved academic quality and graduate employability.

Visit here for more information on this study.

Michaela Martin and Christine Emeran work on higher education issues at the UNESCO International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP-UNESCO).

This post was initially published on Europe of Knowledge blog.


Making global education markets and trade

Janja Komljenovic and Susan L. Robertson

How are education markets constructed? What is the global education industry? How is education becoming part of global trade in services?  Who are the actors involved? What are the consequences and outcomes for the sector and for society at large? These are some of the key questions addressed in a recent special issue ‘Making global education markets and trade’ published in the Globalisation, Societies and Education journal.  

This special issue had its genesis in two panels that we have organised at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference in Vancouver in 2016. It aimed to generate theoretical, methodological and empirical insights into the very complex and new ecology of education systems that are being rapidly unbundled as largely state regulated sectors to functioning as a market. The authors identify a number of market devices and analyse how they work to set up and lubricate the ongoing workings of particular markets. They also analyse space and time as marketizing strategies to reveal complex modalities of power at play. And finally, they reveal networks of market-making actors who together work and invest to expand education markets as well as (re)structure national, regional and global political institutions.

Education market devices

A number of papers in the special issue focus on market devices and particularly elaborate (i) standards and standardisation, (ii) technology and infrastructure and (iii) data and metrics.

It is not surprising that standards are ‘normal’ elements of markets as they lubricate their smooth operation by increasing efficiency, reducing cost and enhancing trust. The papers analyse how education market-making actors intensively work to create industry standards, often without charging for this service. This is, however, also unsurprising as standardisation not only lubricates market operations, but also provides market opportunities for innovation and new products. In other words, standardisation in itself enables the creation of new commodities and markets.

Digital technologies and infrastructures are a second key group of market devices that are used both for and in countless particular devices and the same act as devices in their own right. Finally, data and metrics act as devices in that they convince buyers of education products of the trustworthiness of markets and their different products, acting, as one of the contributors to the issue describes it, as ‘epistemic objects’. Moreover, numbers give illusion of objectivity and are tools of the ‘governing by numbers’.

Spatial and temporal strategies for education market-making

Authors reveal the use of space and time as strategies for market-making; a set of processes that are often overlooked in the scholarly work on markets in education. Regarding spatial dynamics, particularly the use of space, scale, place, the nature of their social relations, and strength or weakness of their boundaries, are discussed. Regarding temporal dynamics, particularly the shift in temporal order towards the future is analysed to show how efforts to lock in a particular kind of future that privileges the interests of the investors, in turn helping to reproduce markets in education.

Networks and investors involved in education market-making

A number of papers also analyse those actors who are active in marketizing the education sector and the networks they form. They scrutinise the investment capital that seeks returns-on-profit, but also philanthropic donations that have particular connections to specific companies and the actors behind them.

Future research

Contributions to this special issue all in their own way engage with different sites and social processes as the basis for studying market-making and trade. An important endeavour of the authors was to theoretically and conceptually move beyond current approaches to studying market-making and trading in education services. As editors we endorse this endeavour and see that the complex processes are revealed in a novel way. As the editors, we wish to thank all of the authors for their outstanding contributions and look forward to wider ongoing conversations and future engagements with work on markets in education.

Janja Komljenovic and Susan L. Robertson are guest editors of the special issue ‘Making global education markets and trade’. Dr Janja Komljenovic is Senior Research Associate at the Lancaster University, UK. Professor Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Educaton at the University of Cambridge, UK.


This entry was initially poste on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Knowledge policy coordination (International Conference on Public Policy 2017)

Martina Vukasovic

ICCP Conference 2017, Singapore (photo credit: Meng-Hsuan Chou)

ICCP Conference 2017, Singapore (photo credit: Meng-Hsuan Chou)

The third edition of the International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP) took place 28-30 June 2017, in Singapore, on the premises of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (following the 1st ICPP in Grenoble in 2013 and the 2nd ICPP in Milan in 2015). The conferenceincluded almost 150 thematic panels organized into 18 larger thematic groups, covering conceptual themes related to e.g. policy process theories, governance, comparative policy analysis, implementation, policy design etc.,  as well as sessions dedicated to specific policy domains (e.g. health and environment).

Apart from this, two roundtables and one keynote speech was organised. The opening roundtable focused on policy-making and state capacity in a globalised world, while the topic of the closing one was policy advisory systems. On the second day of the conference, Christopher Hood gave a keynote speech on austerity and the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration in understanding contemporary policy-making dynamics. The conference was preceded by a set of courses focusing on theoretical approaches and workshops in which PhD students and young scholars could get feedback on their research projects.

When it comes to higher education, research and innovation, two panels were organized. First, “Analysing knowledge policy coordination for the 21st century” panel included papers on multi-level/multi-actor/multi-issue governance arrangements, transnational higher education in Germany, performance funding in Australia, role of vice-presidents for research in Canada, global excellence/local relevance of higher education, regional policy coordination and convergence and good governance. Second, the “Transnational circulation and multilevel governance reforms” panel focused on comparisons between European (Bologna Process) and Asian (ASEAN) regional integration in higher education, policy transfer and policy dialogues.

The conference also included panels on educational policies, comparative policy analysis, interest groups, complexity in public policy, policy transfer, policy design, policy advise, expertise and evidence, accountability and legitimation, science diplomacy, S&T policy and evaluation, etc. as well as a roundtable on public policy education.

The next ICPP conference will take place in 2019 in Montreal.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Grand societal global challenges: fashion or paradigm shift in knowledge policies?

Inga Ulnicane

View from Exhibition ‘The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined’. Photo from Belvedere http://www.winterpalais.at/

View from Exhibition ‘The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined’. Photo from Belvedere http://www.winterpalais.at/

Tackling Grand societal global challenges has become a popular goal of knowledge policies and governance including many science, technology, innovation and higher education strategies and initiatives. Over the past 15 years, the European Union, many international organizations, national governments, private foundations, scientific societies and universities have declared their priority to address societal challenges in the areas such as environment, energy and health. Why and how does the Grand societal global challenges concept have become such a popular idea? Where does it come from and what kind of change does it involve? In my recent article ‘Grand Challenges’ concept: a return of the ‘big ideas’ in science, technology and innovation policy? (Ulnicane 2016), I trace the origins of this concept and its global diffusion and analyse it in the context of a long-term evolution of science, technology and innovation policy.


Origins and global diffusion of the Grand challenges idea

The Grand Challenges concept became popular in 2003 when Bill Gates announced his Grand Challenges in Global Health programme to fund research on diseases affecting people in the developing world. He presented the Grand Challenges idea as based on a century-old model referring to the famous 1900 speech by German mathematician David Hilbert, in which he formulated 23 unresolved mathematical problems that influenced mathematical research in the 20th century. Soon after the Gates announcement, the idea of Grand Challenges started to spread globally being taken up by governments, universities and scientific societies in particular in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom (see Box 1). Popularity of the Grand societal challenges idea increased during the times of economic crisis when the need to increase legitimacy and impact of science, technology and innovation and present them as sources of future sustainable growth and wellbeing increased.


1900 Hilbert’s speech Mathematical Problems

1988 Wilson’s speech ‘Grand challenges to computational science’

2003 The Gates Foundation: Launch of Grand Challenges in Global Health

2007 Grand Challenges initiatives of University College London and Princeton University

2007 European Research Area Green Paper: focus on identifying societal challenges requiring research efforts beyond national capacity

2008 (February) National Academy of Engineering: 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering

2008 Expert report on Grand Challenges in European Research Area

2009 (July) Lund Declaration ‘Europe must focus on the Grand Challenges of Our Time’

2009 (September) A strategy for American innovation: focusing on Grand Challenges

2010 European Institute of Innovation and Technology launches Knowledge and Innovation Communities to address Grand Challenges

2010 (May) Grand Challenges Canada launched

2010 (October) ICSU Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges

2010 (October) Europe 2020 flagship initiative Innovation Union

2011 The Royal Society ‘Knowledge, networks and nations’ report

2012 The OECD ‘Meeting Global Challenges through Better Governance’ publication

2014 EU Horizon 2020 launched with societal challenges as one of three priorities

2015 The Lund revisited declaration on tackling Grand Challenges

Box 1 Chronological list of examples indicating global diffusion of Grand Challenges concept (Ulnicane 2016)

In the European Union research and innovation policy the idea of Grand societal challenges started to appear at the same time as in other regions, namely some ten years ago in 2007 and 2008. The major step in establishing the Grand Challenges idea as a key priority for EU research and innovation policy was the Lund Declaration ‘Europe must focus on the Grand Challenges of Our Time’ adopted during the Swedish Presidency in 2009. This declaration played a key role in preparation of the current EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020 in which societal challenges along with excellent science and industrial leadership are the key priorities. The societal challenges priority in the Horizon 2020 has been allocated the highest amount of funding of approximately 30 billion Euros of initially planned almost 80 billion Euros for the whole program. This funding is dedicated to seven broad societal challenges:

·  health, demographic change and well-being;

· food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine,   maritime and inland water   research, and the bioeconomy;

· secure, clean and efficient energy;

· smart, green and integrated transport;

· climate action, environment, resources efficiency and raw  materials;

· Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies; and

· secure societies - protecting freedom and security of Europe and its citizens.

Grand societal challenges: change or continuity in science, technology and innovation policy?

Although the Grand societal challenges concept has become popular and widely used around the world, the way that it is taken up in different contexts can vary considerably. Nevertheless, some typical features of this idea can be identified: tackling Grand Challenges usually involves addressing real-life problems that request boundary spanning collaborations across different scientific disciplines, sectors and countries involving heterogeneous partners from research, engineering, business, policy-making and civil society.

Are these characteristics new? Taking a long-term view on the evolution of science, technology and innovation policy since its emergence after World War II, a number of similar earlier ideas can be recognized. Already in his 1939 book on the social function of science Bernal argued that science has to assist human needs. More recently similar ideas can be found in Mode 2 approach focusing on knowledge production in the context of application, transdisciplinarity, heterogeneity, reflexivity, social accountability and quality control as well as in the ideas about the third mission of university arguing that in addition to the two traditional missions of teaching and research universities also have to contribute to social and economic development. Similarly, the need for collaborations and interactions among heterogeneous partners is well known for example from triple helix approach emphasising university-industry-government interaction. Furthermore, international collaboration has been well established research practice (Ulnicane 2015) already for a long time.

Thus, in the case of the Grand societal challenges concept it is possible to see important continuities of earlier ideas and established practices. At the same time, the concept also presents a novel combination of earlier ideas and established practices by focusing on tackling global real-life problems through boundary spanning collaborations among heterogeneous partners. For a better understanding of this new combination of different features it would be necessary to study how and by whom ‘real-life’ problems to be tackled are defined (as ‘real-lives’ can differ considerably), what motivates different partners to contribute to boundary spanning collaborations, how local, national and global concerns are addressed in such collaborations, etc. 

Grand societal challenges concept: Just a fashion or a paradigm shift as well?

Popularity of the Grand societal challenges concept suggests that it has become a new fashion in knowledge policies similar to earlier fashions such as Mode 2 knowledge production in the 1990s and the term Big Science in the 1960s (Rip 2000). As earlier fashions in science policy, the Grand societal challenges concept captures a feature of science that has become more relevant and creates an occasion for policy-making (Rip 2000: 29). Additionally, two types of response identified in the cases of earlier fashions can be seen: some policy makers, analysts and enterprising scientists embrace the new fashion, while others especially from the old elite and spokespersons for established science reluctantly accommodate ongoing changes (Rip 2000: 31). At the moment, the Grand societal challenges concept is only one of fashions in knowledge production; other - similar and contrasting – contemporary fashions include scientific excellence, impact, open science and responsible research and innovation. 

Being a fashionable policy concept does not require that it is a completely new idea. The same way as the latest fashion collections can draw their inspiration on art and traditions from earlier decades and centuries, also fashions in science policy build on earlier (and sometimes forgotten) ideas and practices. (Exhibition ‘The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined’ demonstrates how renown contemporary fashion designers use elements from the Greek mythology, the portraits of the Dutch Golden Age, post-revolutionary France etc.)  

But how deep and far-reaching are the policy changes brought by the fashionable Grand Challenges concept? Is this just a new label for incrementally changing policy ideas and practices or does it present a paradigm shift in science, technology and innovation policy? Does the Grand Challenges concept present a new policy paradigm, i.e. ‘a framework of ideas and standards that specifies not only the goals of policy and the kind of instruments that can be used to attain them, but also the very nature of the problems they are meant to be addressing’ (Hall 1993: 279)? To assess the magnitude of the changes, a systematic study and comparison of earlier and recent science, technology and innovation policies would be necessary addressing questions such as, e.g. If and how the hierarchy of policy goals and the nature policy problems have changed? How are these changes translated into new policy instruments? Are some old policies discontinued? Does the focus on societal challenges lead to the radically new ways of defining, implementing and evaluating policies? Or is the current fashion of Grand Challenges rather a ‘normal policy-making’ (Hall 1993: 279) with some broad continuities and some changes in policy instruments and their settings?

Dr. Inga Ulnicane (University of Vienna, Austria) undertakes research and teaching on global and European science, technology and innovation policy. Her research has appeared in Science and Public Policy, Journal of European Integration, Journal of Contemporary European Research and International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy. She has completed a commissioned study on the European Research Area and knowledge circulation for the European Parliament. She is one of conveners of the ECPR Standing Group ‘Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’ bringing together more than 170 researchers from around the world.


Hall, P. (1993) Policy paradigms, social learning, and the state: the case of economic policymaking in Britain. Comparative Politics 25(3): 275-296.

Rip, A. (2000) Fashions, Lock-ins and the Heterogeneity of Knowledge Production. In: M.Jacob and T.Helstrom (eds) The Future of Knowledge Production in the Academy. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press, pp.28-39.

Ulnicane, I. (2015). Why do international research collaborations last? Virtuous circle of feedback loops, continuity and renewal. Science and Public Policy, 42(4), 433-447. doi:10.1093/scipol/scu060

Ulnicane, I. (2016). 'Grand Challenges' concept: a return of the 'big ideas' in science, technology and innovation policy? International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy, 11(1-3), 5-21. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1504/IJFIP.2016.078378

 This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog