Out of the Shades: The Bologna and ASEM Education Secretariats as Transnational Policy Actors in their own Right

Europe of Knowledge |

Que Anh Dang

The Bologna Process (BP) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Education Process – each brings together some 50 member countries and a handful of international organisations – have become major regional and inter-regional higher education projects and generated many research papers. However, both the Bologna and ASEM Education Secretariat that have been contributing to the development of the two political processes in the past decade, have received little scholarly attention.

Having opportunities to know the secretariats over the last seven years, I became fascinated by the ways they operate and the influence, albeit in a subtle manner, they exert through their secretarial duties. On paper, or even if you ask them, the secretariats like to perceive themselves merely as neutral administrative assistants to the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) or to the ASEM Senior Officials Meetings (SOM). A former head of the Bologna Secretariat said to me in an interview in May 2015:

‘…when I took the post, I had two major goals, but I did not see the Secretariat as a political actor. I tried to avoid that’.

In practice, the secretariats performed important roles in all Ministerial Meetings and milestones of the two processes.  Thus, my paper presented at ECPR 2016 examines their workings and authority, and argues that they are policy actors in their own right. Despite their different approaches, they both have become indispensable in regional cooperation processes, particularly the creation and expansion of regional regulatory spaces for the development, implementation and monitoring/evaluation of higher education policies.


How do they operate in multi-level governance structures?

Since 2005 there have been six Bologna Secretariats rotating every 2 years, whereas there have been only two ASEM secretariats since 2009, each with 4-year services. While they are both hosted/financed by voluntary member countries, the Bologna Secretariat is often part of the package of hosting the Ministerial Meeting, the ASEM Secretariat does not rotate with the cycle of the ASEM Ministers’ Meeting but moves to a host country in Asia or Europe alternately.

In both contexts, it is necessary to explore the relationship between the secretariats and states in order to understand the roles of the secretariats. The classical principal-agent theory explains this relationship by asking why states (principals) creates agents (international secretariats) and delegate tasks to them, and how states keep the agents in check. Scholars working with the mainstream international relations theory tends to emphasise the principal side and view agents as instruments of states, designed to reflect state preference, further state interests and solve problems for states. International secretariats are often described as facilitators helping overcome obstacles to collaboration, lower transactions costs of cooperation, provide information and boost the members’ commitment.  Thus, agents are treated as ‘empty shells’ or ‘impersonal policy machinery’ to be manipulated by states.

However, viewing agents in such a functionalist and statist fashion may not accord with reality. For instance, the secretariats may seem to operate in the shades of the BFUG or SOM, but in practice, they both occupy an illuminating corner in all regional cooperation activities, and even ‘develop a life of their own’, as described by a former Bologna Secretariat’s staff. Stated differently, the secretariats possess a special authority that is socially constructed and legitimated. Such kind of authority enables them to effectively implement their will and shape the behaviours of other actors without the use of coercion.


Where do they derive their authority?

The sociological institutionalism approach suggests that they draw their substantive authority from three broad sources: delegation, morality and expertise. The secretariats possess delegated authority because states delegate the tasks that they cannot perform themselves. The moral authority of international secretariats often derives from their status as representative of the common interests or defender of the shared values (e.g. democracy, academic freedom, institutional autonomy). Expertise creates authority because knowledge and experience persuade people to confer on experts. Also, states want important tasks to be carried out by experts with specialised knowledge as they believe such knowledge could benefit society.

The secretariats also perceive themselves to be acting in the name of the public good and advancing the common goals. But in exercising their authority, the secretariats must present themselves as embodying the shared values and as serving the interests of member states in a neutral and technocratic way. A former Bologna Secretariat staff stated her view:

In the Bologna Process, if you have the information you have power.[…] I have two major goals. One is to give voice to the ones who were not active. That is meant having a neutral secretariat and trying to be as open and transparent as possible. Two, making the process known. That’s why I wanted to have the archive of documents and a permanent website’[i]

Going beyond a kind of public statement, a former ASEM secretariat’s staff pointed out the dilemma faced by his team:

‘We only facilitate the organisation of events and help the host countries, and we have to remain neutral. This is the rule of the secretariat. Paradoxically, if communication and activities are only available in a few active countries, the neutrality and impartiality of the secretariat may look different’[ii]

Furthermore, the level of expertise and the kind of knowledge also shape the ways the secretariats behave and induce policy changes, as another former staff shared her experience:

‘I personally tried to act [at meetings] in the capacity of the secretariat, but of course, as you know, your knowledge and experience influence the way you speak, and I am not free of that either. With time I also got to know the audience, know who will react in what ways. Working at the secretariat, it was not difficult to know that’[iii]

Evidently, the secretariats possess not only technical knowledge, but also normative and diplomatic, often tacit, knowledge to deal with the complex web of connections and actors in the international contexts.


New insights added to the theoretical debate?

The Bologna and ASEM secretariats operate with their own particularities that substantially affect their authority and the ways they exercise it.

–       First, they operate in the education sector that deems very important to the national sovereignty, therefore external authority is often unwelcome and resisted by states.

–       Second, the secretariat’s staff are not international civil servants, they are mainly national experts employed by the host countries or seconded by the sponsoring countries. Their authority may depend not only on the level of their expertise but also on the national interests and political context of the host countries.

–       Third, both secretariats are small operations financed primarily by one country and organised in rotation with relatively short cycle. Consequently, their knowledge and authority over the flow of information and institutional memory may be constrained by the rotation.

–       Finally, the different governance structures and political aims of ASEM and the Bologna Processes also have profound impacts on how the secretariats perform their tasks and exercise their authority.

In sum, the delegated authority may be constrained by states, but the moral and expert authority still enable the secretariats to act as transnational policy actors on the regional policy making arenas. The full paper analyses the micro processes that each secretariat utilises to create and legitimise their authority.


This blog post is based on the paper presented at the ECPR 2016 General Conference in Prague. The paper won the 2016 Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar competition of the ECPR Standing Group ‘The Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’. The 2017 Excellent Paper competition will be announced soon.


Dr. Que Anh Dang has recently completed her PhD project ‘Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): Processes of Higher Education Sectoral Regionalism’ at the University of Bristol, UK.  Her research interests include higher education in the knowledge economy, higher education and regionalism, mobility and mutation of education policies, the role of international organisations in policy making. She is a co-editor and an author of the book ‘Global Regionalisms and Higher Education’ (2016).

[i] Interview with a former Bologna Secretariat representative on 14.05.15

[ii] Interview with former ASEM Secretariat representative 8.11.14

[iii] Interview with former Bologna Secretariat staff on 15.5.15