Knowledge Politics and Policies @ ECPR 2021 General Conference

Europe of Knowledge |

Pradeep Singh and Bowen Xu

The European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) had its second virtual General Conference held between 30th August – 3rd September 2021. This year ECPR has attracted over 2,400 scholars worldwide participating in 66 sections covering a wide range of topics and presentations. For the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies this marks the 10th time in organizing a section for the ECPR annual event. The Standing Group’s section for ECPR 2021 included 8 panels on fascinating topics ranging from politics of research policy, higher education and China’s rise to the politics of privatisation of higher education, artificial intelligence and science-policy interfaces.


Politics of higher education and research policy

This year, the Standing Group’s section kicked off with the panel “Politics of higher education and research policy – actors, institutions and processes”. In recent years, the political nature of policy-making has become more salient. Papers in this panel focused on the political dynamics that shapes higher education and research policies. The panel overviewed a range of actors, different institutions and processes of policy-making in the higher education sector and research policies across different contexts. Mareike zum Felde focused on the impact of party positions on higher education in Poland since 1989. Didem Türkoğlu presented her paper on University Alumni in Contentious Higher Education Policy, and she contextualized her case in the Turkish Boğaziçi University, showing how alumni groups have reconfigured themselves as advocacy groups to influence public opinion amidst protest. Michael Dobbins explored higher education interest groups in Central and Eastern Europe, with a specific focus on the extent to which post-communist democracies have enabled institutions to facilitate the political participation of crucial stakeholder. Tim Seidenschnur presented his paper (co-authored with Georg Krücken) on the intensified higher education competition with both intended and unintended consequential effects in Germany, pointing out the increasing importance of politics in shaping education and research.


Politics and policies of Artificial Intelligence

The Standing Group’s second panel was on ‘Politics and policies of Artificial Intelligence’. The session commenced with a presentation of a paper co-authored by Meng-Hsuan Chou, Catherine Gomes, Yu-Shan Tseng on ‘Unpacking algorithmic power – Gig economy, food delivery and labour precarity’. Relying on case studies from Helsinki, Singapore and Melbourne, as well as drawing on insights from the COVID-19 pandemic, Meng-Hsuan and Yu-Shan discussed the power of algorithms in the food delivery sector in those cities with a particular focus on discerning the proliferation of online apps and the use of part-time workers from immigrant or minority backgrounds. The next presentation was on a paper entitled ‘AI in government – Analyzing opinions on evolving legislation on algorithmic and automated decision-making in Finland’, which was co-authored by Tero Erkkilä, Juha Kolionen, Pertti Ahonen and Mikko Mattila. Emphasizing the Nordic tradition of openness, Tero explained current legislative advancements by the Finnish government as displaying trends toward seeing algorithms in analogous terms as accountability as well as exhibiting ideational shifts to focus on comprehensive legal regulations and their prudent implementation.


The third paper on ‘Artificial intelligence and drones: EU governance, policies and practices’ was presented by Raluca Csernatoni and Chantal Lavallée. Premised on drones and AI (which each have their own, dedicated EU-level policy frameworks), the authors argue that despite maybe lagging behind in AI investment and concrete action (unlike US and China), the EU could perhaps take the lead in terms of developing a policy approach for these two technological areas that could have a global influence. Next, Jongheon Kim delivered his paper entitled ‘Imaginaries of IT and the national AI strategies – A comparison between France and South Korea’. In drawing distinctions between approaches in France (where the state gives meaning to the development of AI policies) and Korea (where AI developers and industry stakeholders are the main actors) based on historical context and present approaches, Jongheon suggested that in one sense, AI strategies might be more important than the technology itself. Inga Ulnicane delivered the final presentation on the paper entitled ‘Framing bias in AI: Politics, policies & power’, which was co-authored with Aini Aden and focused on bias as one of the key concerns on public controversies of AI.


Rising China, New World Politics & International Relations in Higher Education

The third panel “Rising China, New World Politics and International Relations in Higher Education” had gathered a group of scholars with a common interest in the nexus between world politics, higher education and China. Tingting Yuan began with her presentation on China as an emergent and non-traditional donor in international higher education against the backdrop of SDG 4. The paper drew on qualitative empirical data from 39 university students from 26 developing countries in 5 Chinese cities, showing how China has used higher education for contributing to global common good and international development. Eva Hartmann presented her co-authored paper (with Ka Ho Mok) on “knowledge, power and geopolitics of transnational higher education”. The study argued that transnational higher education in the Greater China region has experienced new dynamics during the covid-19 pandemic, with particular attention being paid to the role of transnational law in mediating third-space regulations that transcend national frontiers in light of new geopolitics.


Lili Yang shared her co-authored paper with colleagues in Tsinghua University, on the topic of world class universities. Adopting a glonacal agency heuristic framework, she analysed the new features of Chinese universities’ commonly shared strategies and approaches in reaching a balance between global and local influences in their development and quest for global institutions. Bowen Xu’s paper looked at the Belt and Road Initiative, explaining how education has become a part of the initiative, followed by an account of conceptualisation of education in relation to critical cultural political economy of education in the BRI context. Meng-Hsuan Chou and Tolga Demiryol continued with the topic of Belt and Road Initiative, with a focus on building on global higher education networks. This presentation compared two newly established higher education networks, the University Alliance of the Silk Road, and the Asian University Alliance, in terms of their objectives, structures and activities, ultimately highlighting the role of China in steering these establishments in the evolving international order, global knowledge production and higher education regionalism.


Cross-border relations of knowledge-based institutions

The fourth panel on ‘Cross-border relations of knowledge-based institutions’ commenced with a presentation by Alina Felder of her paper entitled ‘Innate or incentivized – How higher education regionalization relates to Europeanization’. With a focus on European Territorial Cooperation (better known as Interreg) and drawing on case studies from higher education institutions located in the border region around Lake Constance and in the Greater Region, the paper discusses the extent to which trans-sectoral knowledge policy linkages in border regions stem from Europeanisation processes. Next, Danguole Bardauskaite presented her paper on ‘Foreign Policy of Small States and the Instrumentalization of Think Tanks for the National Interest’. In this paper, an attempt was made to explain the relationship between think tanks and governments of small states and to provide insights into how the ‘instrumentalization’ of think tanks for the national interest functions in practice.


The third presentation for the session, entitled ‘Knowledge as Power – Global challenges and the development of European Foreign Policy’, was delivered by Mitchell Young. The paper investigated the impact of knowledge on global governance efforts, with the aim to explore the knowledge and power discourse in relation to climate change and explore efforts at the EU level to meet the 1.5°C target. Hans Lundin then presented his paper on ‘The role of bilateral STI (Science-Technology-Innovation) partnerships for international research collaboration: A case study of the Swedish-Brazilian STI strategic partnership’. The paper considered the role and motivation behind the participation of Swedish funding agencies and Swedish-based researchers in supporting or participating in the bilateral partnership between Sweden and Brazil. The final presentation for the session, entitled ‘The Importance of Universities and their Networks in Science Diplomacy at European and Global Levels’, was delivered by Tatyana Bajenova. The paper aimed to determine why and how universities in Switzerland engage in science diplomacy with a particular focus on their involvement in transitional university networks and to investigate how this has now been institutionalized as a valuable component of Swiss foreign policy.


Research Integrity

The firth panel was entitled “Research Integrity – practices and policies”. Tamarinde Haven started with her paper on “Towards a responsible research climate”. The paper showed how research climate for integrity in Amsterdam was perceived by academics with different ranks and disciplinary fields, suggesting that responsible research climate is often accompanied by fair evaluation, openness about methodology and data, as well as highlighting the importance of interventions for enabling such climate. Ivan Buljan in his co-authored paper with David Pina and Ana Marušić, explored the urgent need of addressing ethical issues in grant proposals for Horizon 2020. Their analysis called for the need to take protection of personal data and treatment of human subjects more cautiously, which can be enhanced by education and training.


Serge Horbach focused on the challenge of implementing research integrity policies at local context, arguing that local contexts are not to be taken as a given, fixed entity but rather are in flux. In response to the changing research context and conditions, the need to take account of relevant characteristics, such as methodological, disciplinary and epistemic cultures, is becoming pertinent. In her co-authored paper, Rea Roje looked at the factors influencing the implementation of research integrity practices in funding organizations. This study aimed to explore how different factors that may positively or negatively impact RI promotion and implementation of RI practices through scoping review methodology. Krishma Labib’s paper attempted to create guidelines for institutions regarding research integrity policy, providing concrete steps to inform relevant bodies to practise research integrity, premised on 12 co-creation workshops conducted online with research stakeholders.


Studying Science-Policy interfaces in Multilateral Negotiation Settings

The sixth panel on ‘Studying Science-Policy interfaces in Multilateral Negotiation Settings’ commenced with a presentation of the paper ‘Global health and health diplomacy – Analytical perspectives and examples’, co-authored by Anna Pichelstorfer and Katharina Paul. In her presentation, Anna discussed the role of metrics and data practices in global immunization programmes and explained how the World Health Organization plays a critical role in supporting global health diplomacy. Next, Veronique Fournier presented her paper entitled ‘From scientists to decision-makers and back: designing incubators of effective knowledge’. The paper studied the influence of scientific committees or specialized advisory bodies that generate or synthesize knowledge and provide expertise to environmental treaty makes. Hannah Hughes and Kari De Pryck then delivered a presentation on their paper on ‘Weighted concepts in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’. The paper inquired into what initiates struggle and weighting at various stages throughout the preparation of the assessment reports of the IPCC.


Thereafter, Pradeep Singh presented his work entitled ‘Technical bodies of international regimes and their provision of expertise: The curious case of the International Seabed Authority’. The paper presented a case study on the role and influence of the Legal and Technical Commission, a subsidiary and technical advisory organ of the Council of the ISA, in decision-making and law-making processes within the said international organization with a view to rationalize its peculiarities. Finally, Christine Gaebel and Changsung Lim delivered a video presentation on their co-authored paper entitled ‘Studying science-policy interfaces in international marine biodiversity governance processes – A mixed method analysis of the EBSA process’. The paper explained the process convened under the Convention of Biological Diversity 1992 to identify Ecologically and Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSA) and attempted to investigate EBSA regional workshop attendees’ perceptions of scientific evidence used in the process of describing and designating EBSAs. Each presentation was respectively followed by valuable comments and insights on the paper from the invited discussant, Göran Sundqvist.

Temporal, cross-sectoral and cross-national policy linkages

The seventh panel on ‘Temporal, cross-sectoral and cross-national policy linkages’ commenced with the presentation of the paper entitled ‘Translating European narratives on doctoral education on the national level – The Portuguese case’, co-authored by Teresa Carvalho, Thiago Freires and Sara Diogo. In delivering the paper, Sara explained how the paper sought to investigate European narratives on doctoral education and how these are discursively translated into national policies, focusing on the Portuguese case (where higher education institutions are traditionally highly autonomous). The next paper on ‘Eurasian higher education area: exploring the role of policy transfer in a regime complex’ was delivered by co-authors Natalia Leskina and Martina Vukasovic. Using a conceptual framework reliant on two pillars (namely, regime complex and policy transfer), the paper discussed four regional higher education coordination initiatives in the post-Soviet space since the 1990s by focusing on overlap in countries and issues and pinpointing the relevant state and non-state actors involved.


The session’s third paper, co-authored by Emanuela Reale, Andrea Orazio Spinello and Antonio Zinilli, was entitled ‘The diversity of policy instrument for public R&D funding: the role of Research Councils’ and presented by Emanuela. The paper aimed to study government-funding instruments managed by eight research councils (RCs) in seven European countries (Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and the Czech Republic) in order to understand the importance of RCs in the respective national research systems and the structure of the funding instruments they manage. The final paper of the session, ‘Sequential importance of talent management and academic logics in professorial recruitment’ was authored and presented by Ingvild Reymert. The study was premised on the institutional logic framework and tackled the following questions: how do universities handle multiple and sometimes conflicting institutional logics in recruitment and how tensions and comparability between these logics can be explained.


The Politics of Privatization in Higher Education

The final panel addressed the topic of privatization of higher education. The panel overviewed both institution-based form of privatization and the emergence of private digital education infrastructures in recent years, in an attempt to examine what private means in contemporary higher education systems and how it can be framed analytically. Katja Brøgger drew on the notion of ‘soft privatization’ to explore how private sector have been increasingly involved in the operation and governance of higher education in Denmark, and how Covid-19 has further amplified this development of soft privatization. Alexander Mitterle’s paper described the changing nature and function of German public tertiary education sector by focusing on the changing organizational structure and how private for-profit organization have been introduced and proliferated in the admission process, pinpointing privatization as a complicated process over years and its consequences.


Daniele Cantini’s study problematised privatization in Egypt, a country where predominance of the state and its executive arm over society has been observed. His paper discussed the changing nature of Egyptian higher education through examining the rise of private low-fee, for profit universities, how this trend has been corresponding to the global policy agenda, and argued that reforms the country has experienced over time has positioned itself as a potential option for students from Gulf countries. Susan Robertson and Michele Martini presented their co-author paper on crisis and production of multiple privatisations in UK higher education. Using corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis as methodologies, this paper analysed the multiple trajectories of privatisations in UK over the last two decades. Premised on six higher education reports since 1997 and the reframing of three sets of modalities, it argued that UK higher education privatization emerged out of crisis, yet producing ontological dilemmas of social relations between student, universities and higher education sector.


Standing Group Highlights

During the conference, the Standing Group also held a business meeting and a number of social events. One of the highlights was the celebration of the Standing Group’s 2020 Excellent Paper Award for Alexander Mitterle for his paper “Time, the University, and Stratification: The Historical Making of Institutional Time as a Strategic Resource”. Members were also reminded to renew their Standing Group membership so that they can stay in touch for future events such as the next ECPR General conference which is planned to take place 22-26 August 2022 in Innsbruck.


Pradeep Singh is a doctoral candidate at the University of Bremen. Pradeep’s research focuses on public international law, the law of the sea and international environmental law. He primarily works on legal and regulatory themes related to ocean governance, deep seabed mining, the conservation of natural resources, and the protection of the marine environment. His academic qualifications include the following: LL.M (Harvard Law School), LL.M. in Global Environment and Climate Change Law (University of Edinburgh) (British Chevening scholar), and LL.B. (University of Malaya) (First Class Honours and Gold Medallist).  


Bowen Xu is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Bowen’s research focuses on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, higher education and region-building. Bowen’s broader interests include higher education, comparative and international education, political economy and international relations.