Who determines what should be taught? Changing contexts

What should be taught and researched in the higher education system? In many European countries, the continuing growth of higher education and its integration of new professional programmes have given rise to a new need for coordination with labour markets and industries.

The case of Switzerland exemplifies how the aims of higher education have increasingly become a matter of public interest and educational governance. It can also shed some light on the emerging diversity of ways that universities in Europe are balancing basic research and academic progress with complementary functions, such as applied research and professional training.

The legacy of the Humboldt model

Up to the mid-1990s, higher education in Switzerland was provided exclusively by research universities, in which students studied academic disciplines in one (five or more year) cycle plus a doctorate.

In keeping with the German Humboldt model and upholding the tradition of academic freedom, there was little formalised coordination between universities and the professions. Only in special fields such as medicine and law were there licensing regimes that involved the relevant professional bodies in setting educational and professional requirements for future practitioners.

This model remained the same until the mid-1990s, when new types of institutions were established to accommodate more practically oriented study programmes and applied research in a defined set of fields.

These institutions, labelled fachhochschulen and pädagogische hochschulen, grew out of specialised schools and training facilities in the vocational education system. They had often achieved a high standing and had been closely linked to occupational fields such as technical work, business, health professions, teaching and social work.

A tradition of co-defining standards in vocational education

When these programmes were upgraded, there was a great deal of scepticism.

Would the programmes actually teach the skills and competencies needed to be a good practitioner? Who would have the final say in what makes a good practitioner, that is, the skill set and mindset a professional needs to be proficient? Would these questions now be answered by ‘academics’ in institutions that would emulate ivory tower research universities?

The scepticism was not unfounded. It reflected a sense that the occupations had lost control of their training function. The specific reason lies in the way the highly regarded vocational systems works in Switzerland, as in Germany and Austria.

In a legal framework that dates back to the 1930s and has been revised many times since, employers, professional organisations and educators jointly define the curriculum and training requirements for their profession along with examination procedures for diplomas, which are then nationally recognised. Thus, the state ensures the value and equivalence of degrees for the benefit of students and employers.

Within this framework to jointly define standards, credentials for 230 occupations and 410 special training certificates are specified today. These can be gained within a wide array of institutions that often combine apprenticeships with general education and training in highly specialised facilities.

Today, around 65% of all adolescents attain a qualification in vocational education after compulsory schooling, which is probably why higher education was able to grow exclusively at research universities for a long time: its intake was stabilised by a diversified system of vocational education that provided attractive alternatives to students.

Mission differentiation and limited privileges

Hence, following a typical European pattern, the strong coordinating hand of the state was used to ensure that teaching and research would be oriented toward the professional fields and local industries.

The distinct mission of the new institutions was defined by legislation and translated into specific regulations for admissions requirements, financing, the proportion of research to teaching, and their distinct degrees.

Furthermore, study programmes have been subject to the approval of the state administration, which adopted procedures inspired by programme accreditation. To preserve institutional autonomy, however, they would mainly assess organisational criteria.

Concerted efforts among professional groups, employers and educators to co-define certification requirements specific to each field would usually not be undertaken; at least not with the state playing the leading role, which has been the tradition in vocational education.

With new institutions, in keeping with academic traditions, licensing regimes and specific standards that were enforced by the authority of the state would remain the exception.

Among those exceptions are some health professions, since states, in addition to ensuring safety, are heavily involved in governing and financing the health sector. Another field in which control over practitioners and their training is performed by a state authority, based on the state’s duty to provide public education, is teacher education.

In both fields, learning outcomes and competencies together with specific course requirements such as the duration of any period of practical experience, or residency, are defined by legislation. To ensure the quality and equivalence of degrees, these programmes are accredited by the state.

Standards for competition, and the watchword ‘employability’

However, new techniques and reasons for regulation and governance are evolving as policy shifts and public understanding of higher education changes. In many European countries these changes are reflected by the Bologna reforms.

Swiss research universities, in implementing the provisions of the Bologna declaration, have recently introduced such novelties as undergraduate degrees. From the perspective of the reform, the three-tiered degree structure and modular format would facilitate a greater diversification of study programmes and give departments more discretion to organisationally differentiate between research and teaching at different degree levels. Hence, universities would have more flexibility to concurrently address a greater variety of demands.

This striving for flexibility is reflected in the premises of reforms in many European countries. They emphasise the significance of institutional autonomy to spur competition between institutions and strengthen universities’ capacity to respond to the demands of students, labour markets and different professional sectors.

Partly superseding and thus often blurring the old pattern of mission differentiation, new instruments such as institutional accreditation are emerging to enforce system-wide standards and requirements for all institutions, or competitors.

Given policies that demand accountability in terms of performance, and given the increasing need for students to obtain a higher education degree to enter specialised labour markets, study programmes at all types of universities are increasingly viewed in terms of outcomes and competencies.

In this regard, a new watchword – ‘employability’ – has emerged in European higher education policy and has found its way into policy papers and descriptions of study programmes.

In Switzerland, there was a debate on whether ‘employability’ should be a criterion for public financing and institutional accreditation – a proposition that was finally dismissed.

Having a practical orientation to study programmes is still seen as the main mission of the new types of institution, which still have distinctive financing. Likewise, they do not have, for the time being, the right to grant doctorates.

Under the names of quality and comparability, ‘qualification frameworks’ have been adopted in some European countries, including Switzerland.

However, being incorporated into the accreditation requirements only partially, they serve just as a rudimentary descriptive reference to deal with the novelty of the three-tiered degree structure.

TUNING, on the other hand, an initiative introduced at a European level, builds more on networks of scholars who have devised discipline-specific templates to describe learning objectives and outcomes. As part of the academic discourse, or the policy discourse, the templates can serve as tools to be used on a voluntary basis.

Given the rising pressure for comparability and accountability, and thus for visibility and clarity of goals, TUNING has gained some traction on the global scale in serving as a flexible tool for universities and policy-makers when there is the need for enhancing accountability or coordination.

Institutional strategies and the emergence of advisory boards

How do these changes at the system level shape relationships between higher education institutions and external demands?

In Switzerland, externally imposed standards for specific fields remain the exception. Except for those programmes where the state does act as a safeguard, programme accreditation will, for the time being, not be of high significance in Switzerland.

However, given their desire for academic recognition, the new institutions will likely benefit from opportunities to accredit programmes through field-specific agencies that act on an international scale. As they attempt to attract more students, this will most likely be the case in business studies and possibly also in some technical fields.

Likewise, the building of international networks and associations of universities of similar academic standing is another strategy being used to improve visibility or emphasise difference.

Given the increasing awareness of higher education’s complementary functions in public debates on research and academic advancement, a new way of coordinating objectives in teaching and research is appearing at the institutional level.

In keeping with shifts in public policy across Europe that emphasise the decentralisation of decision making and the importance of institutions responding to the demands of external bodies, some universities are creating advisory boards.

However, these are often considered to be strategic advisory bodies and not necessarily platforms to deliberate the pertinence of specific courses or study programmes.

Nevertheless, depending on the size and mission of the institution, they can potentially provide opportunities for stakeholders to bring in assessments of the relevance of study programmes, skill sets and even research questions, be they about professional practice or questions of technical development relevant to publicly funded research.

Thus, this kind of board can be seen as an important starting point in how we think about the ways higher education institutions can maintain relationships beyond their institutional boundaries and with groups that depend on academic institutions.

This need not imply a utilitarian reshaping of higher education. Rather, higher education institutions can seek opportunities to receive feedback and maintain interchange – not due to state or market forces but due to their own initiative and commitment to professional development – shape educational opportunities for their students and further research on current issues.

* Christian Leder is a PhD student at the University of Zurich and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.