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


Training students for new jobs: Intermediary function of technical and vocational higher education

Sandra Hasanefendic and Hugo Horta

A couple of years ago, I read a sentence that stuck with me ever since: “Our world has changed but our schools have not.” It was one of the sentences from Tony Wagner’s book “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--and What We Can Do About It” where he reflects on the inability of American educational systems to provide students with the skills that would make them relevant professionals of the future. Thinking globally, this is not just an American problem, educational systems around the world, even Europe, face similar hurdles. The assumption is that educational systems are not keeping up with the pace of the developments in technology, computerization of jobs, labor markets shifts, and cannot accommodate for growing socio-economic expectations of populations. So the question arises: what can educational systems do to reverse this situation, and how can they better train people thrive and add-value in turbulent and complex labor markets?

The role of technical and vocational  higher education

 In a recent article, coauthored with Manuel Heitor, we contribute with one of many possible answers to this burning question through a comparative cross case study analysis of learning practices in technical and vocational higher education institutions in Southern (Portugal) and Western Europe (Netherlands and Germany). Technical and vocational higher education institutions are characterized by its closeness to professional fields, local society and aim to provide labor markets with a highly specialized and professional workforce. They are otherwise known as universities of applied sciences, polytechnics, hogescholen, or fachohschulen, but we settled on the name that would highlight their unique nature and specificity in the aim of the diversification discourse in higher education policy.

The findings of our article highlight an intermediary function of these institutions as providers of innovative training approaches based on collaborative problem based learning and short termed project oriented research (Hasanefendic et al., 2016). It is found that most of these institutions are promoting innovative learning approaches based on learning communities where students learn through discovery in different contexts and combinations, in learning processes jointly participated by industry experts, faculty and students. This approach highlights learning as increasingly research-based and, above all, inclusive of social and economic partners via formal and, most frequently, informal collaborative mechanisms (also see Frederik, Hasanefendic and Sijde, 2017).

Conditioning innovative learning approaches

Our analysis has identified three potential necessary conditions for the development of such intermediary function in technical and vocational higher education: i) the human dimension (it has always been relevant in any educational setting) (see Hasanefendic et al., 2017), particularly the specific role of human intermediaries supporting learning/research methodologies, and particularly problem based learning and experiential approaches; ii) the institutional research context necessary to facilitate highly specialized knowledge, namely, in the form of applied research units that provide a professional context adequate to foster the routines to collaborate with industry at higher levels of specialization; and iii) the external environment and funding conditions, which depend on specific local and national ecosystems and are particularly influenced by the country’s overall funding level for research and development.

Intermediary function as impetus for organizational growth and system diversification

Developing intermediary functions through innovative learning approaches which emphasize collaborative problem based learning activities and short-term project-oriented research can also be used as an impetus for the sustainable growth and modernization of technical and vocational higher education. For instance, emphasizing short-term project-oriented research in short-cycle education can be seen as a way to strengthen the institutional credibility of Portuguese technical and vocational higher education by engaging local external actors in training the labour force. In addition, it may stimulate institutional and programmatic diversification of higher education systems.

Our world may be changing at accelerated rates, but it seems that some educational institutions are trying to keep pace. We highlight that technical and vocational institutions are adapting to labor market turbulences and uncertainty by providing innovative and collaborative training with the objective of educating professionals of the future. Rather than downplaying their change potential with overly bureaucratic governance procedures and absence of funding and structural policies, national governments ought to encourage innovative capabilities of their educational institutions to adapt, adjust and reshuffle their training approaches to better suit the ever-changing needs of modern times.

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 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 higher education in Portugal and the Netherlands.

Hugo Horta is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. He authored and co-authored publications on higher education diversity, science policy, research productivity and networking, doctoral career trajectories, internationalization of higher education, and academic mobility in international peer-reviewed journals, such as Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, Management Science, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Science and Public Policy, Scientometrics, and Higher Education Policy among others. He is currently Coordinating-editor of Higher Education, a leading journal of higher education studies, and sits in the editorial boards of several journals.


Frederik, H., Hasanefendic, S., & van der Sijde, P. (2017). Professional field in the accreditation process: examining information technology programmes at Dutch Universities of Applied Sciences. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42 (2), 208-225.

Hasanefendic, S., Birkholz, J. M., Horta, H., & van der Sijde, P. (2017). Individuals in action: bringing about innovation in higher education. European Journal of Higher Education. Online first, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21568235.2017.1296367

Hasanefendic, S., Heitor, M., & Horta, H. (2016). Training students for new jobs: The role of technical and vocational higher education and implications for science policy in Portugal. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 113 (Part B), 328-340.

Example of collaborative seminar at the Münster University of Applied Sciences. Photo by Sue Rossano

Example of collaborative seminar at the Münster University of Applied Sciences. Photo by Sue Rossano

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.



Out of the Shades: The Bologna and ASEM Education Secretariats as Transnational Policy Actors in their own Right

Que Anh Dang

The Bologna Process (BP) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Education Process - each brings together some 50 member countries and a handful of international organisations - have become major regional and inter-regional higher education projects and generated many research papers. However, both the Bologna and ASEM Education Secretariat that have been contributing to the development of the two political processes in the past decade, have received little scholarly attention.

Having opportunities to know the secretariats over the last seven years, I became fascinated by the ways they operate and the influence, albeit in a subtle manner, they exert through their secretarial duties. On paper, or even if you ask them, the secretariats like to perceive themselves merely as neutral administrative assistants to the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) or to the ASEM Senior Officials Meetings (SOM). A former head of the Bologna Secretariat said to me in an interview in May 2015:

 ‘…when I took the post, I had two major goals, but I did not see the Secretariat as a political actor. I tried to avoid that’.

In practice, the secretariats performed important roles in all Ministerial Meetings and milestones of the two processes.  Thus, my paper presented at ECPR 2016 examines their workings and authority, and argues that they are policy actors in their own right. Despite their different approaches, they both have become indispensable in regional cooperation processes, particularly the creation and expansion of regional regulatory spaces for the development, implementation and monitoring/evaluation of higher education policies.

How do they operate in multi-level governance structures?

Since 2005 there have been six Bologna Secretariats rotating every 2 years, whereas there have been only two ASEM secretariats since 2009, each with 4-year services. While they are both hosted/financed by voluntary member countries, the Bologna Secretariat is often part of the package of hosting the Ministerial Meeting, the ASEM Secretariat does not rotate with the cycle of the ASEM Ministers’ Meeting but moves to a host country in Asia or Europe alternately.

In both contexts, it is necessary to explore the relationship between the secretariats and states in order to understand the roles of the secretariats. The classical principal-agent theory explains this relationship by asking why states (principals) creates agents (international secretariats) and delegate tasks to them, and how states keep the agents in check. Scholars working with the mainstream international relations theory tends to emphasise the principal side and view agents as instruments of states, designed to reflect state preference, further state interests and solve problems for states. International secretariats are often described as facilitators helping overcome obstacles to collaboration, lower transactions costs of cooperation, provide information and boost the members’ commitment.  Thus, agents are treated as ‘empty shells’ or ‘impersonal policy machinery’ to be manipulated by states.

However, viewing agents in such a functionalist and statist fashion may not accord with reality. For instance, the secretariats may seem to operate in the shades of the BFUG or SOM, but in practice, they both occupy an illuminating corner in all regional cooperation activities, and even ‘develop a life of their own’, as described by a former Bologna Secretariat’s staff. Stated differently, the secretariats possess a special authority that is socially constructed and legitimated. Such kind of authority enables them to effectively implement their will and shape the behaviours of other actors without the use of coercion.

Where do they derive their authority?

The sociological institutionalism approach suggests that they draw their substantive authority from three broad sources: delegation, morality and expertise. The secretariats possess delegated authority because states delegate the tasks that they cannot perform themselves. The moral authority of international secretariats often derives from their status as representative of the common interests or defender of the shared values (e.g. democracy, academic freedom, institutional autonomy). Expertise creates authority because knowledge and experience persuade people to confer on experts. Also, states want important tasks to be carried out by experts with specialised knowledge as they believe such knowledge could benefit society.

The secretariats also perceive themselves to be acting in the name of the public good and advancing the common goals. But in exercising their authority, the secretariats must present themselves as embodying the shared values and as serving the interests of member states in a neutral and technocratic way. A former Bologna Secretariat staff stated her view:

In the Bologna Process, if you have the information you have power.[…] I have two major goals. One is to give voice to the ones who were not active. That is meant having a neutral secretariat and trying to be as open and transparent as possible. Two, making the process known. That’s why I wanted to have the archive of documents and a permanent website’[i]

Going beyond a kind of public statement, a former ASEM secretariat’s staff pointed out the dilemma faced by his team:

‘We only facilitate the organisation of events and help the host countries, and we have to remain neutral. This is the rule of the secretariat. Paradoxically, if communication and activities are only available in a few active countries, the neutrality and impartiality of the secretariat may look different’[ii]

Furthermore, the level of expertise and the kind of knowledge also shape the ways the secretariats behave and induce policy changes, as another former staff shared her experience:

‘I personally tried to act [at meetings] in the capacity of the secretariat, but of course, as you know, your knowledge and experience influence the way you speak, and I am not free of that either. With time I also got to know the audience, know who will react in what ways. Working at the secretariat, it was not difficult to know that’[iii]

Evidently, the secretariats possess not only technical knowledge, but also normative and diplomatic, often tacit, knowledge to deal with the complex web of connections and actors in the international contexts.

New insights added to the theoretical debate?

The Bologna and ASEM secretariats operate with their own particularities that substantially affect their authority and the ways they exercise it.

-       First, they operate in the education sector that deems very important to the national sovereignty, therefore external authority is often unwelcome and resisted by states.

-       Second, the secretariat’s staff are not international civil servants, they are mainly national experts employed by the host countries or seconded by the sponsoring countries. Their authority may depend not only on the level of their expertise but also on the national interests and political context of the host countries.

-       Third, both secretariats are small operations financed primarily by one country and organised in rotation with relatively short cycle. Consequently, their knowledge and authority over the flow of information and institutional memory may be constrained by the rotation.

-       Finally, the different governance structures and political aims of ASEM and the Bologna Processes also have profound impacts on how the secretariats perform their tasks and exercise their authority. 

In sum, the delegated authority may be constrained by states, but the moral and expert authority still enable the secretariats to act as transnational policy actors on the regional policy making arenas. The full paper analyses the micro processes that each secretariat utilises to create and legitimise their authority.

This blog post is based on the paper presented at the ECPR 2016 General Conference in Prague. The paper won the 2016 Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar competition of the ECPR Standing Group ‘The Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’. The 2017 Excellent Paper competition will be announced soon.


Dr. Que Anh Dang has recently completed her PhD project ‘Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): Processes of Higher Education Sectoral Regionalism’ at the University of Bristol, UK.  Her research interests include higher education in the knowledge economy, higher education and regionalism, mobility and mutation of education policies, the role of international organisations in policy making. 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.


[i] Interview with a former Bologna Secretariat representative on 14.05.15

[ii] Interview with former ASEM Secretariat representative 8.11.14

[iii] Interview with former Bologna Secretariat staff on 15.5.15


The Politics of Higher Education Policies. Unravelling the Multi-level, Multi-actor, and Multi-issue dynamics

Meng-Hsuan Chou, Jens Jungblut, Pauline Ravinet, and Martina Vukasovic

In this thematic issue of Policy and Society (all contributions are openly accessible), we highlight the multi-level, multi-actor, and multi-issue (the ‘multi-s’) nature of public policy using the case of higher education policies.

We begin with an overview of how the global shift towards knowledge-based economies and societies has placed ‘knowledge’ at the core of contemporary public policy and policymaking. The governance of knowledge, however, is not a neatly contained policy coordination exercise: it requires collaboration across multiple policy sectors that may have previously experienced very little or less interaction. For example, we can think of a (non-exhaustive) list of relevant policy areas to include, such as higher education, research, trade, foreign policy, development, or migration. In our view, higher education policy coordination is thus permeated with respective sectoral concerns, with discussions taking place across distinct policy arenas, sometimes in silos, both inside and outside of formal government channels.

While the above characterization brings forth the multi-issue aspect competing for attention in higher education policy coordination, we suggest that it also points to the presence of multiple actors: state actors from different ministries or agencies, representatives from universities and businesses, other non-state actors (interest groups, stakeholder organizations), as well as users of such coordinative outputs (concerned parents, students, as well as employers). As regular readers of this blog would recognize: the multi-issue and multi-actor features of higher education policy coordination often result in duplication, competition, inconsistencies, clashing priorities, and even potential bureaucratic and political conflict (Braun, 2008; Peters, 2015)—all symptoms of horizontal policy coordination challenges (Gornitzka, 2010).

We can add to this observation the fact that actors involved in the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of higher education policy (Gornitzka & Maassen, 2000; Olsen, 1988) often operate, and ‘shop’ for better policy solutions, across several governance levels. While the rise of the regions—both supranational and subnational—in the higher education policy domain has garnered some academic attention (Chou & Ravinet, 2015; Jayasuriya & Robertson, 2010), this multi-level dimension of policy coordination needs to be brought into sharper relief. Indeed, international knowledge policy coordination stretches across many levels, including the macro-regional (e.g. European Union—EU, Association of Southeast Asian Nations—ASEAN), the meso-regional (Nordics, Baltics—bilateral or multilateral cooperation among states sharing specific geographical features), sub-regional (also bilateral or multilateral cross-border cooperation between distinct territories of different states), as well as the state/national (in federal systems), sub-national, and organizational levels (see e.g. Piattoni, 2010 concerning multi-level governance in the European context).

In the introduction to this thematic issue, we present an analytical framework that would assist in identifying and studying the multi-issue, multi-actor, and multi-level features of contemporary policymaking and policy coordination. Specifically, we strongly argue that studying policy coordination in today’s higher education sector requires unpacking the three distinct characteristics of this very coordination and addressing them separately from one another as an independent perspective and recognizing their interaction as likely to be responsible for the outcomes observed. In so doing, we call for analysing how the ‘multi-s’ features affect the stability, changes, and evolution of individual and collective higher education policy coordination under observation. In academic practice (i.e. theory-building, research design, and empirical fieldwork), it means that it is essential to pay attention in the following ways when examining individual ‘multi-s’ characteristic:  

1.     Multi-level characteristic – focus on the antecedents and consequences of distribution or concentration of authority across governance levels;

2.     Multi-actor characteristic – acknowledge both the heterogeneity of the ‘state’ and its many composite institutions as well as the involvement of non-state actors (e.g. stakeholder organizations, businesses, consumers) in this policy domain; and

3.     Multi-issue characteristic – identify how clashes as well as complementarities between policy sectors and spill-overs move into and away from the policy domain of interest.

In our view, the ‘multi-s’ framework offers a solid first conceptual step to encapsulate and unravel the complexity observed within contemporary higher education policymaking and coordination. The thematic issue contains eight contributions that bring our observations to life with a range of cases (from higher education appropriations to work-based higher education programmes, stakeholder organizations, standardization, and higher education regionalisms) and developments across multiple countries and geographical areas (from the U.S. to China, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Europe and Southeast Asia).

We invite everyone interested in the increased complexity of governing, producing, and using knowledge in today’s policymaking to consider our framework as a more comprehensive way to gain a greater understanding of both historical and contemporary developments.



 Braun, D. (2008). Organising the political coordination of knowledge and innovation policies. Science and Public Policy, 35(4), 227-239. doi:10.3152/030234208x287056

Chou, M.-H., & Ravinet, P. (2015). Governing higher education beyond the state: The rise of ‘Higher education regionalism'. In H. De Boer, D. D. Dill, J. Huisman, & M. Souto-Otero (Eds.), Handbook of Higher Education Policy and Governance (pp. 361-378). London: Palgrave.

Gornitzka, Å. (2010). Bologna in context: A horizontal perspective on the dynamics of governance sites for a Europe of Knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45(4), 535-548.

Gornitzka, Å., & Maassen, P. (2000). Hybrid steering approaches with respect to European higher education. Higher Education Policy, 13(3), 267-285.

Jayasuriya, K., & Robertson, S. L. (2010). Regulatory regionalism and the governance of higher education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 8(1), 1-6. doi:10.1080/14767720903573993

Olsen, J. P. (1988). Administrative reform and theories of organization. In C. Campbell & B. G. Peters (Eds.), Organizing governance, governing organizations (pp. 233-254). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Peters, B. G. (2015). Pursuing horizontal managment: the politics of public sector coordination. Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Piattoni, S. (2010). The theory of multi-level governance: conceptual, empirical, and normative challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.

Ten years of the European Research Council: Taking stock and looking forward


Ten years after its establishment, the European Research Council is largely seen as a success story. In his new book The European Research Council political scientist and former scientific advisor to the president of the European Research Council Thomas König provides a detailed account of often very complex history on how this success story of the ERC came into being (for excerpts, see here and here).

Q1: Why a book on the European Research Council?

I have been working at the premises of the ERC for almost four years, and when I first came there, I observed a great amount of tension. Thus far, I had only seen the outside, where the ERC constantly heralded itself as a success story. Eventually, I found out that the ERC Scientific Council – a group of scientists appointed to devise the strategy, basically – and the ERC Executive Agency management had just been going through a difficult phase. And all through my time there (2010-2013), I was exposed to different stories referring to the early days. But the stories often did not match up. So I became curious if I could manage to create the “real” story – you know, a more coherent, convincing story of what happened, of why the ERC was founded and why it has had these difficulties and still managed to thrive. This was one motivation. Then, another was that, after three years, I realized that I was speaking ERC-speech. You know, “excellence only”, and “gold standard”, and so on. I felt indoctrinated. Since my time with the ERC was running out, I thought I could as well embark on a project writing a book on the ERC. I hoped that this would also be intellectually, for me, a good exercise – distancing myself, not in a negative way, but making sense of what I was a part of for a couple of years. And it did! Finally, I must admit, there was also a pragmatic reason: I thought that a book on the ERC, written with insider knowledge but based on a repertoire of social scientific concepts would make an interesting book – and a book that may sell.

 Q2: You are a political scientist but you have also been a practitioner advising the President of the European Research Council. How easy or difficult is it to combine the roles of social scientist and practitioner?

In a way, I have done the same before, even though on much smaller scale. So I am used to it. And I like it. It is very rewarding, for it offers me the opportunity to do things, and to learn things, and then also to thoroughly reflect upon what I have been doing and what I have witnessed. If there is a difficulty, it is that it takes so much time to intellectually process the practical side. With this book, it probably took me two years to get the ERC speech out of my head and to really understand the context within which the ERC was operating. So there is always a phase when I am more practical, and then a time when I am processing. At least, that’s how it was so far, because, obviously, being in two worlds means that there is no real “career” pattern to follow.

Q3: The ERC and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) were established at the same time. 10 years later the ERC is seen as a big success of EU research policy, while the EIT is facing many challenges. How would you explain very different success of these two institutions?

That’s a great question. Actually, there is a deep relationship between the two institutions, and one that I have left largely unexplored in the book. But let’s start with the difference: The ERC was initiated on a broad campaign. It was supported by many scientists. And because of this visibility, it was always perceived as something belonging innately to the scientific community, whatever that may be. While the EIT, I think it is safe to say, it was born out of the idea of one man, Commission President Barroso. So the collective leap of faith was a huge benefit for the ERC, while the EIT was observed very warily by most scientists. When we look at the actual establishment of the two institutions – you know, it took place around the same time, in 2005 to 2007 – there is already a first and unexpected connection between the two. The EIT was established as an independent structure, based on article 171 in the Amsterdam Treaty. The ERC, on the other hand, was firmly kept under the wings of the European Commission. It is worth noting the irony of this. Because the ERC advocates had always preferred for the ERC to be institutionally independent, and they thought – well, the majority of them thought, that this could only be achieved through article 171. So they opposed very much the plan by the Commission to establish the ERC as an Executive Agency. In a way, they were right, because the ERC was – and still is – bound by sometimes awkward regulations prescribed by the Framework Programme legislation. So an independent institution would have offered more freedom in setting up the ERC’s programme.

Yet, as it turned out institutional independence was not a good solution, because the EIT was exposed to all kinds of political meddling from member states, and I believe it received only lukewarm backing from the Commission. I personally remember that there was often talk about the EIT leadership being exchanged regularly, and that there were all sorts of “scandals” because the management of the EIT was not aware of the strict EU financial regulations. The ERC leadership, and by this I mean, the Scientific Council, was often frustrated by the Commission observing those regulations, but in a way, this saved them from similar experiences as the EIT leadership went through. Without having explored this further, I would expect that the fact that the EIT leadership did not have the same kind of guidance as the ERC had from Commission personnel was a reason why it had such a rocky start. For the ERC Scientific Council and all ERC advocates, the bitter lesson of the EIT example was that, despite the downsides of the Executive Agency model, it was still better than what the EIT had to go through.

 Q4: You write in the book that the ERC has been modelled after the US National Science Foundation. Why the NSF – rather than German Research Foundation DFG or UK research councils - was chosen as a suitable model for the ERC?

Actually, the ERC advocates wished very much for an implementation of the ERC similar to the NSF. As I indicated before, it turned out to be quite different – not institutionally independent, but under the protective albeit firm wings of the European Commission. But if your question is, why did the advocates not prefer a different template, I think the answer is twofold. One is based on a very pragmatic calculation by the advocates: they did not want to create discord among themselves. If you have high-minded people from Germany, UK, France coming together, they obviously did not want to start a discussion which of their respective way of funding academic research is better or worse. So they took a template from outside.

Also, I suspect that many early advocates were actually critical of their national systems as well. One thing that was certainly lacking in the German DFG, for example, was commitment to international expertise. So for some advocates, at least, an ERC was also an attractive option to foster reform on various existing national funding systems. The NSF in many respects could be called the first public funding agency in the world – even though, historically, there would be contesters. So it was easy to settle on this template and not bring disturbance within their own campaign.

The other reason is a political calculation: a core message of the ERC campaign message was that Europe is doing worse in innovation than the US because it lacks the same strong, potent, independent funding agency. It is only logical then to call for a similar organization on European soil. But, as I said, the ERC is quite the opposite to an institutionally independent, stand-alone funding agency. For me, the interesting question, then, was: how did the ERC still manage to be considered a sound success?

Q5: In your book you mention that during negotiations preceding the establishment of the ERC ‘policy-makers and representatives of the scientific community hoped to use the ERC for reform of their domestic research policies’ (p. 52). How far this expectation has been fulfilled? Can you mention any examples of the ERC facilitating domestic reforms?

This is very difficult to answer, since the entire field is under enormous pressure by many stakeholders to reform – almost constantly, I would say. What we see is that, rhetorically at least, national champions refer to the ERC as a template. And that there are several national funding agencies supposedly designed after the ERC – which is certainly not true for their institutional setup, but probably for their funding schemes and their decision-making procedure. I think at the end of the day, the ERC is less of a template that nationals would want to copy, but rather a European-wide platform to reward the most promising researchers in their fields with substantial funding and accolades that, very often, can also be transferred into boosting careers. Many of the countries with a research-intensive science base actually use simple statistics – that is, the amount of ERC grants awarded to their research institutions – to measure how well they fare. I think providing this simple yet effective measure is what makes the ERC relevant for research policy in most countries.

Q6: After the Brexit some national officials have suggested that the ERC should become an intergovernmental organization like the CERN or the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (for a news item, see here). In the book you briefly mention that already during the pre-history of the ERC such a scenario to establish an ERC as a multi-national effort was doomed (p. 134). Might it be seriously reconsidered after the Brexit? 

There is a lot of wild-guessing about the ERC’s organisational structure, and whether it is positive, or dragging the ERC down, or the only realistic approach. Also, I do not want to repeat here what others have been thinking on this. Let’s do a thought experiment instead. The core question is, what would it need really to change the organisational structure of the ERC. This is primarily a political question. And I think three ingredients would be required.

First, it would require a trigger. I do not think that something like the United Kingdom leaving the EU would be enough for the ERC to make it into another organizational mode. Quite the contrary. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that, even after the United Kingdom has left the European Union, the country will have some kind of special contract that allows for participating in the overall research funding programme, the Framework Programme  – like Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Norway, Iceland, and 11 other countries already do. What could be a trigger event? Something where the reputation of the ERC would be substantially shattered. There was a time in the history of the ERC – in late 2008 – when this was almost the case. And the reason was that the compromise on which the ERC compound is based upon today was not yet found. So let’s assume that the credibility of the ERC would be seriously hampered because of something going wrong inside the compound. I do not think that those involved will ever let things grow so badly again. But it could happen.

But even then, the European Commission would be very reluctant to let the ERC go. It fits perfectly into the overall structure of the Framework Programme. It gains so much from it. Why should they let it go? They would certainly try amend the structure within their own reach. So you would need a second ingredient: a very determined European Council. The European Parliament simply does not have the power to get this done. Only the Council could really force the Commission to let go of the ERC. But is it likely, in the face of a European integration project that is scrambling with all sorts of economic and political fall-outs, that time and energy will be spent on such an issue? In other words: is it likely that twenty-plus heads of government come together in order to discuss and find a common ground and, against the opposition of the Commission, eventually decide to establish this funding body in a different way? Think of all the negotiations that have to be done. Probably, one country has to take the lead. It has to dedicate serious resources for lobbying other countries, for carving out the legal provisions, and, most difficult, to ensure that the ERC will maintain its funding level, to say the least. That is not to speak of the intricacies of transferring the current ERC into a new institutional template. And now think of all the obstacles on the way. Why should the Bulgarian head of government agree to do it? Why the Italian? Why the Greek? All they gain from the ERC now is a constant reminder that their respective academic culture is “underperforming” – that’s the nice word for, that academic institutions in these countries do not reap in enough ERC grants. For now, this is merely a symbolic issue, not a monetary one, because, in the overall picture, these countries receive additional funding through other EU sources; most significantly, the structural funds. But once to disentangle the ERC from this complex web of funding, you make the symbolic problem a real one. For the head of state of, say, Bulgaria, the performance of his country is an embarrassment. Either you buy his consent with other promises, or you offer him a certain share of ERC grants. I do not have to tell you what the latter would mean.

If you have these two ingredients, it is still unresolved how to set up the new ERC. As I said before, the institutional setup of the ERC has been an issue almost from the very beginning. Theoretically, there would be several other options. One alternative would be to re-found it as an intergovernmental organization. Or it could be set up along the same institutional framework that has been used for the EIT. As I said before, the latter has been explored and I think it is clear that it is not a good option. All this indicates, to me at least, if you really want to make the ERC a solid, independent institution, if you want to disentangle it from the Commission, you will at least have to make sure that the ERC is not going to have the same problems that the EIT has witnessed. I am not a jurist, but I think that this will probably require to amend the Treaty.

So I think the odds for the ERC becoming an independent institution are not very high. Much more likely, in my opinion, is to push for the ERC to be made further autonomous under the Framework Programme, that is, to keep it under the Commission wings but to free it from most of the regulatory procedures that the Commission has set in place. Still, the very history of the ERC tells us that one should expect the unexpected. For no one really expected the ERC to become a reality, and yet, here it is. But I think two things are safe to say: Brexit will not be the trigger, and the initiative to make the ERC an independent institution will not be taken before the current Framework Programme, Horizon 2020, will end.

Q7: What are the main lessons from your book for policy-makers?

Thinking of my answer to the previous question: That crazy ideas may not be so crazy after all. (Laughs)

Q8: In your book you explain in a great detail the history of the ERC. How do you see the future of the ERC?

I think the ERC is in a comfortable, yet difficult position. It is well-respected and has found its niche. It is really a great instrument. But it has this heritage of being the alternative to the often-criticized Framework Programme; instead, it has become the Framework Programme’s posterchild. This was not necessarily what its early advocates had hoped for. But more importantly, because it is a niche programme and because it is a posterchild, it has little room to invent new funding streams. Today it seems determined to fund only individual researchers. I am glad that the ERC Scientific Council recently decided to re-establish the Synergy Grant. This is a step aside from the general expectations. It could also be a step to make the ERC’s funding portfolio more diverse and exciting.

Dr. Thomas König is senior researcher and strategic adviser at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna (IHS), and is a member of the ECPR Standing Group Politics of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation.

 This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge blog.