Regions are becoming ever-more important in the ongoing internationalisation and globalisation of higher education and research. In this process one region, the United States, has for a long time set the terms of the debate, especially regarding its top research universities.
This includes the ongoing construction of the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area.
References to the celebrated elite universities of the US are frequently encountered in speeches from central actors in the higher education and research policy sector.
The American system - the high quality of US research universities, the diversity of institutions and their ability to set the research agenda globally - has been held up as an exemplary model for Europe to learn from, perhaps even to copy.
Europe's potential for taking a more prominent role in competition for global leadership lies in the creation of a more diversified system akin to the American system. By copying and thus competing with US universities, the hope is that Europe will succeed in comparison with both the upcoming East and the model ideal of the West.
What has been the result of a long historical process in the US is to be used as a guide for making sweeping changes in Europe within a much shorter time frame. Analyses of how the systems in the two regions have followed different historical paths, and how they as a consequence may call for different kinds of reforms and react differently to shifting relations between knowledge and politics, is missing from the political rhetoric.
Accordingly, the presence of the US model, at least in the political debate about university reforms, is mainly centred on competition and concentration of resources. The reforms are promoted at the regional level of the European Union, but also at the level of nation states as national strategies.
Increased competition between institutions and more selective channelling of resources to a top-tier of institutions is supposed to remedy some of the effects the organisation of the university sector has created, where Europe as a region and its nation states are lagging behind in global rankings.
Whether it is at the European level or at nation state level, the notion of a knowledge economy is central to this restructuring or transformation of the sector. In the knowledge economy exposure to markets is central and this in turn demands a new kind of governance or coordination of the sector.
Universities are to become strategic actors where success is measured by new governance tools such as ratings, rankings, benchmarking and citation-indexes. These tools are premised on the notion of a competitive field where networks and money-chasing across national borders becomes imperative for success.
The belief in the need for change and in the appropriate way forward is strongly expressed by international and supra-national organisations including the European Union, and especially the European Commission, where this is seen as a way to secure Europe's economic position in the world.
The other side of the coin
The other side of the coin is that this competition threatens to undermine the central values of a majority of the nation states of Europe.
Europe's own history of social recruitment and emphasis on popular enlightenment, as well as the regional commitments of higher education institutions and the varieties of national priorities in terms of internationalisation, would be among those.
Most of the higher education systems in Europe have been rather egalitarian when it comes to spreading resources among institutions, thus creating a broad knowledge base due to less concentration in terms of resources, either among institutions or among disciplines.
Integrating large parts of the population in the development and dissemination of knowledge is also a trait shared among several countries.
It could therefore be argued that a European tradition with an emphasis on 'knowledge distribution' is undermined in the new competitive environment envisaged in the current university reforms. In terms of capacities for innovation and economic progress this egalitarian tradition might also be regarded as an advantage and not only a liability.
The notion of solidarity, which has had a strong base in European democracies, is also threatened by the new competition.
If European regionalism is premised on the notion of a globalisation driven primarily by for-profit motives, the traditional academic understanding of internationalisation as a way to foster cooperation and trust - an idea that was central to the creation of the Bologna process - is undermined as an alternative to global development.
The tradition of knowledge distribution is, of course, also highly relevant in terms of global challenges.
When it comes to mobility and exchange of students, the funding mechanisms within different regions are also relevant. The pressure for resource concentration is at present followed by large budget cuts, which require alternative routes to incomes for research universities.
As in the UK the increase in tuition fees among universities is mirrored in the recent action of public universities in the US. Paying the market price for education has been the privilege of private universities. In Europe most of the funding sources of its mainly public universities has come from government.
Lastly, the new inequality that follows from increased competition and the creation of hierarchies brings into question the status of different disciplines.
At present the social sciences and humanities are facing severe cuts and their role as carriers of democratic dialogue and social stability is threatened. But such a threat would also be a threat to the cultural heritage of Europe and its role in furthering the case for democracy.
* Atle Nyhagen is a researcher and PhD candidate in the department of administration and organisation theory at the University of Bergen in Norway. Together with Tor Halvorsen he is the editor of Academic Identities - Academic Challenges? American and European experience of the transformation of higher education and research, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2011.
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