Processes and Stages of Differentiation in European Higher Education

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
206 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Valentina Goglio, University of Turin, Turin, Italy
Marino Regini, University of Milano, Milano, Italy
In this paper we discuss the processes of internal differentiation that have characterized European Higher Education systems (HEs) in the last fifty years. We argue that these processes have gone through two main stages and in two different directions, each of which is showing its limits in the long run. Moreover, we suggest that a third stage, largely different from the two previous ones, may now be under way, and we briefly speculate about the likely configuration of European HEs in the near future.

In the first stage beginning in the 1960-70s the main objective of differentiating HEs was to create a vocational track, in which tertiary education institutions close to the productive system were especially in tune with labour demand, without having to profoundly modify the missions and features of traditional academic institutions, namely universities. We can term this process a “horizontal” differentiation between types of institutions operating within the wider national HEs. Over time, this type of differentiation became increasingly blurred.

Starting in the mid-1990s, a “vertical” type of differentiation within national HEs took shape and was increasingly institutionalized. In this second stage the main objective was to differentiate between the more and the less competitive universities as regards the amount of financial and symbolic resources provided to them. The instruments used were several, ranging from research and teaching assessments to national calls for “excellence”, not to speak of the indirect but powerful effects of international rankings.

However, two major shortcomings have become apparent. On the one hand, large comprehensive universities are containers of smaller units whose research and teaching performance may vary widely. On the other, the outcomes of vertical differentiation processes are overwhelmingly dependent on research performance, whereas research is just one of the several functions that modern universities are called upon to perform. We may therefore expect that, in response to this growing criticism, the third stage of differentiation will be both “internal” to individual HE institutions and “multi-dimensional”, namely a differentiation among a university’s organizational units, each of which will be ready to perform a given mix of functions while overlooking others.

The final section of the paper provides some empirical evidence from UK universities to support this hypothesis