The Politics of Higher Education Policies. Unravelling the Multi-level, Multi-actor, and Multi-issue dynamics

Europe of Knowledge |

Meng-Hsuan Chou, Jens Jungblut, Pauline Ravinet, and Martina Vukasovic

In this thematic issue of Policy and Society (all contributions are openly accessible), we highlight the multi-level, multi-actor, and multi-issue (the ‘multi-s’) nature of public policy using the case of higher education policies.

We begin with an overview of how the global shift towards knowledge-based economies and societies has placed ‘knowledge’ at the core of contemporary public policy and policymaking. The governance of knowledge, however, is not a neatly contained policy coordination exercise: it requires collaboration across multiple policy sectors that may have previously experienced very little or less interaction. For example, we can think of a (non-exhaustive) list of relevant policy areas to include, such as higher education, research, trade, foreign policy, development, or migration. In our view, higher education policy coordination is thus permeated with respective sectoral concerns, with discussions taking place across distinct policy arenas, sometimes in silos, both inside and outside of formal government channels.

While the above characterization brings forth the multi-issue aspect competing for attention in higher education policy coordination, we suggest that it also points to the presence of multiple actors: state actors from different ministries or agencies, representatives from universities and businesses, other non-state actors (interest groups, stakeholder organizations), as well as users of such coordinative outputs (concerned parents, students, as well as employers). As regular readers of this blog would recognize: the multi-issue and multi-actor features of higher education policy coordination often result in duplication, competition, inconsistencies, clashing priorities, and even potential bureaucratic and political conflict (Braun, 2008; Peters, 2015)—all symptoms of horizontal policy coordination challenges (Gornitzka, 2010).

We can add to this observation the fact that actors involved in the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of higher education policy (Gornitzka & Maassen, 2000; Olsen, 1988) often operate, and ‘shop’ for better policy solutions, across several governance levels. While the rise of the regions—both supranational and subnational—in the higher education policy domain has garnered some academic attention (Chou & Ravinet, 2015; Jayasuriya & Robertson, 2010), this multi-level dimension of policy coordination needs to be brought into sharper relief. Indeed, international knowledge policy coordination stretches across many levels, including the macro-regional (e.g. European Union—EU, Association of Southeast Asian Nations—ASEAN), the meso-regional (Nordics, Baltics—bilateral or multilateral cooperation among states sharing specific geographical features), sub-regional (also bilateral or multilateral cross-border cooperation between distinct territories of different states), as well as the state/national (in federal systems), sub-national, and organizational levels (see e.g. Piattoni, 2010 concerning multi-level governance in the European context).

In the introduction to this thematic issue, we present an analytical framework that would assist in identifying and studying the multi-issue, multi-actor, and multi-level features of contemporary policymaking and policy coordination. Specifically, we strongly argue that studying policy coordination in today’s higher education sector requires unpacking the three distinct characteristics of this very coordination and addressing them separately from one another as an independent perspective and recognizing their interaction as likely to be responsible for the outcomes observed. In so doing, we call for analysing how the ‘multi-s’ features affect the stability, changes, and evolution of individual and collective higher education policy coordination under observation. In academic practice (i.e. theory-building, research design, and empirical fieldwork), it means that it is essential to pay attention in the following ways when examining individual ‘multi-s’ characteristic:

  1. Multi-level characteristic – focus on the antecedents and consequences of distribution or concentration of authority across governance levels;
  2. Multi-actor characteristic – acknowledge both the heterogeneity of the ‘state’ and its many composite institutions as well as the involvement of non-state actors (e.g. stakeholder organizations, businesses, consumers) in this policy domain; and
  3. Multi-issue characteristic – identify how clashes as well as complementarities between policy sectors and spill-overs move into and away from the policy domain of interest.

In our view, the ‘multi-s’ framework offers a solid first conceptual step to encapsulate and unravel the complexity observed within contemporary higher education policymaking and coordination. The thematic issue contains eight contributions that bring our observations to life with a range of cases (from higher education appropriations to work-based higher education programmes, stakeholder organizations, standardization, and higher education regionalisms) and developments across multiple countries and geographical areas (from the U.S. to China, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Europe and Southeast Asia).

We invite everyone interested in the increased complexity of governing, producing, and using knowledge in today’s policymaking to consider our framework as a more comprehensive way to gain a greater understanding of both historical and contemporary developments.



Braun, D. (2008). Organising the political coordination of knowledge and innovation policies. Science and Public Policy, 35(4), 227-239. doi:10.3152/030234208×287056

Chou, M.-H., & Ravinet, P. (2015). Governing higher education beyond the state: The rise of ‘Higher education regionalism’. In H. De Boer, D. D. Dill, J. Huisman, & M. Souto-Otero (Eds.), Handbook of Higher Education Policy and Governance (pp. 361-378). London: Palgrave.

Gornitzka, Å. (2010). Bologna in context: A horizontal perspective on the dynamics of governance sites for a Europe of Knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45(4), 535-548.

Gornitzka, Å., & Maassen, P. (2000). Hybrid steering approaches with respect to European higher education. Higher Education Policy, 13(3), 267-285.

Jayasuriya, K., & Robertson, S. L. (2010). Regulatory regionalism and the governance of higher education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 8(1), 1-6. doi:10.1080/14767720903573993

Olsen, J. P. (1988). Administrative reform and theories of organization. In C. Campbell & B. G. Peters (Eds.), Organizing governance, governing organizations (pp. 233-254). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Peters, B. G. (2015). Pursuing horizontal managment: the politics of public sector coordination. Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Piattoni, S. (2010). The theory of multi-level governance: conceptual, empirical, and normative challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.