Higher education homogeneity on the rise worldwide

Tertiary systems around the world have becomes less diverse and differentiated in recent decades, studies have shown. And despite a desire among many states to increase diversity within higher education, a combination of “strict and uniform government policies” and the ability of powerful academic communities to defend their norms and values, are largely to blame for growing homogenisation. This is bad news for higher education, said comparative education professor Frans van Vught of the University of Twente in The Netherlands.

But pressures from government regulation do not necessarily have to be mechanisms for homogenisation, said van Vught in a presentation to the CHET seminar titled Diversity and differentiation in higher education systems*. Government policies can also help to maintain existing, formally regulated levels of diversity by containing academic conservatism and-or the tendency for lower status institutions to imitate the behaviour of prestigious universities.

Van Vught defines differentiation as “a process in which new entities emerge in a system”, in this case higher education. The concept should be distinguished from that of diversity, which indicates the variety of entities within a system. “Differentiation is the process in which the diversity of a system increases”. His focus is at the level of systems rather than universities or their programmes. Thus van Vught is concerned with ‘external diversity’ (differences between institutions) rather than ‘internal diversity’ (differences within institutions).

There are plenty of arguments in favour of diversity and differentiations, which have been strongly associated with the positive performance of higher education systems, said van Vught. And many of the arguments are “highly relevant” to higher education policy-making.

First, it is contended that a diversified system improves access for students with different educational backgrounds and achievements. Where the performance of institutions varies “each student is offered an opportunity to work and compete with students of similar background. Each student has the opportunity to find an educational environment in which chances for success are realistic,” he said.

Second, a diversified system enables social mobility by offering different modes of entry into higher education, multiple forms of transfer, and upward as well as ‘honourable downward’ mobility. Third, diversity is said to meet the needs of the labour market by creating the growing variety of specialisations that are needed for economic and social development.

Fourth, differentiation and diversity serve the needs of interest groups by allowing many their own identity and political legitimisation. Fifth, they permit “the crucial combination of elite and mass higher education”. Mass systems are more diversified than elite systems as they absorb a heterogeneous clientele and try to respond to a range of demands from the labour market.

Sixth, diversity is assumed to increase the effectiveness of institutions. In 1973, the Carnegie Commission suggested that specialisation allows institutions “to focus their attention and energy, which helps them in producing higher levels of effectiveness”. Finally, diversity is said to allow low-risk experimentation, as it enables institutions to assess the viability of innovations created by others without necessarily having to implement them.

Diversified higher education systems, said van Vught, are thus “supposed to produce higher levels of client-orientation (regarding the needs of students and of the labour market), social mobility, effectiveness, flexibility, innovativeness and stability”.

Many governments have designed and implemented policies to increase diversity in higher education, but they do not always work. It appears, he said, that “diversity and differentiation are still only partly understood.”

Van Vught analyses the behaviour of ‘actors’ (largely organisations) in higher education systems to explain social phenomena like differentiation. He also draws on classical studies, such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which argued that diversity results from an undirected, random process of adapting to environmental circumstances, and the social sciences theories of Emil Durkheim and the structural-functionalist, T Parsons.

Looking more recently, he probes organisational theories such as the Darwinian ‘population ecology’, which looks at processes of competition among diverse organisations for limited resources. The ‘resource dependency’ perspective argues that organisations are dependent on their environments but also able to influence them. ‘Institutional isomorphism’ stresses that to survive, organisations adapt to the existence of and pressures from other organisations in their environment, and react similarly so come to resemble each other.

Among influential studies on diversity and differentiation, van Vught said, some claim that higher education systems are driving towards differentiation and increasing diversity while others argue that they are characterised by ‘de-differentiation’ and decreasing diversity.

Some scholars have argued that there is a drive towards differentiation because of the emergence of new functions or the growing complexities of bodies of knowledge and an increasingly diverse student body and labour market, he explained. Others have contended that higher education systems are ‘de-differentiating’ because of imitating behaviour by low status institutions, centralised and uniform government policies, or academic conservatism.

Van Vught’s own theory, starting from the 'open systems approach' in the social sciences, sees higher education systems as comprising individual organisations embedded in an environment that includes the social, political and economic conditions within which they need to operate.

His first assumption is that institutions in an open system receive inputs (students, faculty, finances and other resources) from and produce outputs (graduates, research, results and advice) for their environments. To survive, institutions compete for a continuous and adequate supply of resources and a “resource niche”. Since there is usually a resource scarcity, only the fittest survive. “The environment acts as the critical selector.”

Some scholars have argued that the diversity of organisational forms is proportional to the diversity of resources and constraints in their environments. Competition for scarce resources causes competing organisations to become similar and eliminates (dissimilar) weaker organisations. “The result is an increase of homogeneity,” he said. ‘Institutional isomorphism’ theory argues that organisations respond to uncertainties by mimicking the behaviour of successful organisations.

Using these insights, van Vught proposes, first, that the level of uniformity or variety of the environment of an institution is related (by means of its adaptive behaviour) to the level of diversity in a higher education system. The greater the level of uniformity in environmental conditions, “the lower the level of diversity of the higher education system.”

A second proposition, focusing on the relationship between organisational behaviour and (de)differentiation, is that the larger the influence of academic norms and values in a higher education organisation, the lower the level of diversity of the higher education system.

Processes of differentiation and de-differentiation are thus explained by “the combination of (external) environmental conditions and (internal) organisational characteristics”.

Van Vught’s theory is borne out by the few empirical studies that have been conducted on diversity and differentiation in higher education.

One forthcoming analysis of 10 higher education systems (Huisman, Meek and Wood) found that the size of a system (the number of institutions) “does not necessarily imply a high level of diversity”. Also, it appeared that government regulation “may help to preserve a formally existing level of diversity in a higher education system, but that government initiated merger operations bring about more homogeneity rather than an increase of diversity,” he said.

“They suggest that legally mandated boundaries in higher education systems (as for instance in legally regulated binary systems) are preserving the existing level of diversity, but that governmental policies that offer more autonomy to higher education institutions encourage these institutions to emulate the most prestigious ones.”

Studies of US and European higher education systems have shown that although they have grown and changed, differentiation has not increased – higher education used its greater resources to replicate existing organisations. “In fact, processes of de-differentiation were predominant,” said van Vught. Also, the influence of especially academic professionals has been substantial, enabling preservation of the status quo.

However, he concludes, the theoretical framework also suggests other possible outcomes. “When the environmental conditions are varied and when the influence of academic norms and values in a higher education institution is limited, the level of systems diversity may be expected to increase,” van Vught concluded.

Huisman J, Meek L and Wood F (forthcoming) Institutional diversity in higher education: A cross-national and longitudinal analysis.

* Frans van Vught’s full paper on the University World News site