Co-creation: the future of higher education policy-making?

Co-creation or co-design is one of the main megatrends across all industries. It makes sense that a product, a policy or a framework is developed in collaboration with stakeholders and implementers – after all, this way it can be better tailored to their context. This should be true for higher education policy-making too.

However, public policy and universities are notoriously rigid and resistant to innovation. And yet, we believe it is time to blur the boundaries between ‘the top’ – ministries, offices, governments at large, and ‘the bottom’. This way, policies will be designed and enacted better.

In the last days of January, we ran a strategy session where university representatives directly affected policy, taking part in designing an academic excellence initiative for Kazakhstan. The meeting was organised by the Project Office and the Center for the Bologna Process and Academic Mobility and included 46 participants from 23 universities.

We noted that it was difficult for the participants to believe anyone in the government would be interested in hearing them out. After all, they were representatives of state universities, institutions particularly prone to a hierarchical worldview due to financial dependence on the government. But given a chance, universities find their voice and speak up.

Why design an excellence initiative with universities?

The strategy session began with a quick refresher course on excellence initiatives. Academic excellence initiatives, or simply excellence initiatives, are a type of higher education reform which presupposes increased funding for a group of higher education institutions in exchange for increased responsibility.

They adhere to ‘the ‘3 Cs’: concentration of resources – both financial and reputational on a select few institutions; competition – modern excellence initiatives invite universities to compete for the chance to participate; and contract – universities sign a contract with the government, offering better performance in exchange for better support.

Excellence initiatives are not homogeneous and come in many shapes and forms. There are one-stage initiatives, such as Taiwan’s Teaching Excellence Development Program, and multi-stage initiatives, such as Brain Korea 21 in the Republic of Korea.

There are one-track initiatives, such as IDEX in France, and multi-track initiatives, such as the Double First-Class Initiative in China. There are also initiatives striving for international competitiveness, especially those linked to global rankings, initiatives looking to increase universities’ involvement in regional development, and so on. The variety itself invites reflection and inspires creative thinking.

Kazakhstan’s excellence initiative, tentatively called the Centres of Academic Excellence programme, has been in the works for a couple of years now. Initially targeted at institutional development, it later evolved into extra funding for infrastructure and laboratories and developed in 2022 into a comprehensive effort to increase the quality of higher education.

At the moment, discussions about the initiative focus on internationalisation, regional development, modernisation of the teaching and research infrastructure, upgrading the model of governance and partnerships with foreign universities.

The questions for participants in the session to consider were: “Is this enough?” and “How can we make it all happen? How can we come up with a design which would reflect the needs and the reality of the sector?”

These questions cannot be answered by the government alone. Universities know their needs better. They also have a better grasp of the limitations and risks associated with certain ideas. Moreover, it is difficult to implement an idea one neither fully comprehends nor shares.

Shared ideas

The participants in the strategy session are still in the process of defining what the Centres of Academic Excellence programme should mean for their future. According to the current consensus, we need a new model of what a responsible university might be.

Higher education institutions should contribute to developing entire sectors of the economy, become catalysts for regional development and hubs for attracting human capital, ideas and technologies. They can also act as forward-thinking centres where diverse skill-sets and talents can drive future development in regional and national industries.

Being social organisms, universities tend to adapt their behaviour to the criteria the funding and regulatory bodies use to assess their performance. This is why developing a proper evaluation system is so important.

The participants offered a combination of quantitative (in terms of indicators) assessment and qualitative (expert) assessment. The latter, in their opinion, should be based on combining international experts’ experience and breadth of knowledge with local experience and the knowledge of Kazakhstani experts.

Interestingly, in terms of quantitative assessment, universities almost unanimously speak of the need to use modern methods and technologies for collecting, storing, processing and releasing data to ensure stakeholder involvement. Such an approach may be made possible by the use of open data. Should this be implemented, it would represent a breakthrough not only for Kazakhstan, but for the whole region.

Launching complex new projects requires an equally complex set of competencies, in research, prototyping, piloting innovative projects and commercialisation. If universities lack some of these, they will have to cooperate closely with research institutes, businesses and other organisations. Because of this, the participants were firmly in favour of consortia and other university partnerships in the initiative’s design.

Of course, university transformation will demand a change in the model of how institutions relate to and rely upon the state. This will require an increase in the volume and variety of forms of state support. Financial support must be long-term enough to make strategic projects possible.

Support from state officials and experts in higher education capacity building, organisational transformation, and so on, matters as well. No less important is the creation of effective procurement systems for goods and services and digitalisation of the processes of interaction with external stakeholders.

These measures will significantly reduce the risk of over-bureaucratisation of higher education, the imperfection of the system of public procurement of goods and services, inflation risks and low international visibility, among other challenges. While some risk factors are beyond the purview of higher education institutions or the state, they can still be reduced given the right analysis and foresight.

This set of ideas is only the beginning of the conversation. The organisers and universities agreed that dialogue and collaboration between the ministry and universities should continue. New ideas will be added, and the current ones may be reviewed.

Universities should plan for their own futures

If we considered the strengths and weaknesses of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to policy-making, we would have to point out the obvious advantages of the former: greater coordination among participants, centralised allocation of resources and synchronisation with other government policies (such as economic, industrial and regional ones).

However, ‘top-down’ policy-making also has certain significant inherent disadvantages, among which, primarily, is a lack of competition when it comes to ideas and people and, as a result, a decline in innovation, a lack of choice, including in relation to management and development models, a high level of inefficiency and bureaucratic inertia.

Moreover, even the best policy can fail when it comes to implementation. The best intentions have been known to badly backfire if local contexts are not taken into account and universities do not buy into the government’s ideas.

Here, ‘bottom-up’ planning allows organisations to work within the boundaries of reason, and, secondly, to activate the energy of university communities to enact policy. Finally, it is surprising how many bold, ambitious plans stem from universities themselves instead of the government.

It seems wise to choose neither a ‘top-down’ nor ‘bottom-up’ approach. The ideal solution lies somewhere in the middle, or, more correctly, consists of a combination of the two. One of the sides should invite the other to help resolve the contradictions and look at issues from a different perspective. Then both – ‘the top’ and ‘the bottom’ – can arrive at a comprehensive solution together.

Dara Melnyk is a consultant and a co-founder of Inquiry-Based Consulting. Her preferred e-mail address is dara_melnyk@inquirybasedconsulting.com. Egor Yablokov is an international expert, CEO and owner of E-Quadrat Science and Education. His preferred e-mail address is yablokov@e-kvadrat.com.