Transnational actors: Gateway to exploring the multi-level and multi-actor aspects of higher education and research governance

Europe of Knowledge |

EHEA Ministerial conference in Yerevan in 2015. Photo credits: Fernando Miguel Galan Palomares

Martina Vukasovic


Embodying multi-level and multi-actor characteristics of governance

That governance of higher education and research takes place across several governance levels – institutional, national, European – is, arguably, common knowledge. The beginning of the Bologna Process and the launching of the Lisbon Strategy almost 20 years ago greatly intensified European integration and Europeanization in these two domains, as evident in European funded cooperation programmes, national reforms and institutional adaptations. While these developments are marked with various tensions between governance levels, as well as different policy domains, they are also characterized by strong involvement of stakeholder organizations, adding the ‘multi-actor’ aspect to the ‘multi-level’ description of governance arrangements.


What is interesting is that many of these ‘new’ actors are multi-level organizations themselves. For example, the European University Association (EUA), a consultative member of the Bologna Follow Up Group and contributor to public consultations organized by the European Commission, has national rectors’ conferences and individual universities as members, both of which are active in policy development in their own domestic policy arenas. The same goes for other university associations and alliances (e.g. EURASHE, LERU), European Students Union (ESU), professional and disciplinary organizations. Moreover, institutions, decision-making and advisory structures at the European level – such as the European Research Council or the Advisory Group on the European Qualifications Frameworks – are connected to national or institutional policy-making through their individual members and their own connections that span governance levels.


It is such collective non-state actors that operate across governance levels – i.e. transnational actors – that are the focus of the recently published special issue of the European Educational Research Journal, co-edited by Tatiana Fumasoli (Institute of Education, University College London), Bjørn Stensaker (Department of Education, University of Oslo) and Martina Vukasovic (Centre for Higher Education Governance, Ghent University).


Transnational actors as expert platforms, (latent) interest groups, meta-organizations, and linkages between governance levels

In the introduction to the special issue, the co-editors present various theoretical perspectives that have been employed thus far in analysis of transnational actors, including European integration, multi-level governance, comparative politics, policy analysis, organizational sociology and higher education research. These perspectives highlight different attributes of these transnational actors, e.g. their role in interest intermediation is particularly interesting for comparative politics, while the fact that many of them are meta-organizations – organizations of other organizations – is specifically visible through the lens of organizational sociology. The five contributions to the special issue each employ one or more of these perspectives, focusing on the shifting relationship between governance and knowledge, and on how new actors influence the processes and outcomes of decision-making within the field of higher education.


The European Qualifications Framework Advisory Group (EQFAG) is analysed by Mari Elken, who sheds light on the conditions conducive to organizational stability and legitimacy of a key organization in European knowledge governance. Elken’s study of how EQFAG was institutionalized shows that, while the EU constructs policy arenas to be filled up, actors profit from room to manoeuver and flexibility with regards to their new roles, suggesting that European level policy arenas can (also) act as opportunity structures for policy entrepreneurs.


Martina Vukasovic and Bjørn Stensaker compare two university alliances – EUA and LERU – focusing on how diverse membership bases (i.e. comprehensive vs selective) and diverse resources lead to somewhat differentiated roles and representation of interests in European policy-making. While both alliances have rather easy access to EU decision-makers, the bases for their legitimacy are different, affecting their positioning as well as the breadth and ambiguity of interests they advocate for.


Looking at three European student organizations (ESU, ESN, and AEGEE) Manja Klemenčič and Fernando Miguel Galan Palomares investigate the conditions determining insiders and outsiders in European knowledge policy processes. Their article shows how legitimacy plays a major role in accessing EU institutions and policy processes, even when organizational structures and resources are similar.


Tatiana Fumasoli and Marco Seeber provide a mapping of European academic associations, focusing on their missions, structures, and positioning. Their findings articulate a nuanced landscape where traditional scholarly associations coexist with socially orientated academic associations. Equally, their article offers an insight into the different patterns of centre–periphery structures from a geographical, political, and resource perspective and highlights the coexistence of traditional and innovative academic organizations with varied levels of access to European institutions.


Finally, Bo Persson investigates the role played by key Swedish science policy actors in the process of building the European Research Council (ERC) in the 2000s. The article shows how national policy actors have leveraged on their organizational capacity and legitimacy to contribute to European agenda-setting and policy formation. Importantly, the article shows how national policy actors are able to do this partly through bypassing their own state authorities, thus becoming embedded in the European policy arena.


Key ingredients for understanding governance of the Europe of knowledge

The in-depth analyses provided in this special issue show how European transnational actors can be conceptualized and compared according to their mandates and missions, organizational structures and decision-making processes, through their linkages to the EU institutions, the levels and types of influence in policy-making, and their position in the broader arena of European knowledge policies. These characteristics can be seen as the outcome of policy design, and of strategic intent, but also as the result of incremental and organic changes. Overall, while expertise and legitimacy could be considered requirements to access and influence policy processes, we suggest that organizational structures, resources, identities, and decision-making processes of these transnational actors need to be scrutinized further. The latter point implies that insights from comparative politics and organizational studies might be combined into a valuable framework for studying European governance in general, and that we need more studies in this area if we are to understand the governance of the Europe of Knowledge.


Martina Vukasovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG) at Ghent University. In her research she combines insights from comparative politics, policy analysis and organizational sociology in order to analyse multi-level multi-actor governance in knowledge intensive policy domains (e.g. higher education, research). More specifically, she focuses on the role of stakeholder organizations in policy processes, the interaction between European, national and organizational level changes, and the relationship between policy coordination and policy convergence. She holds a PhD from the University of Oslo and a joint MPhil (Erasmus Mundus) degree by the universities of Oslo, Tampere and Aveiro.