Multi-level governance in higher education – When and how can reflective practice enhance policy learning?

Europe of Knowledge |

Adrienn Nyircsak

Higher education is increasingly transformed through internationalisation and Europeanisation. One of the drivers of this change is the emergence of transnational stakeholder communities who channel local experiences with policy implementation into policy-making through peer exchange.  My doctoral dissertation focused on the dynamic interaction between different levels of policy-making and the specific institutional and social mechanisms which make such “feedback loops” possible. I explored these through the concept of reflexivity, which I define as the transformation of policy instruments by those who apply them on a regular basis. In other words, by translating a set of abstract rules, such as quality assurance standards, into everyday institutional practice, higher education institutions and their representatives shape the rules themselves both in direct and indirect ways. Identifying the conditions under which such reflexivity triggers policy change contributes to the reconsideration of existing explanations about how ideas and policies travel in complex systems with multiple players.


Transnational stakeholder communities for quality assurance

One of the core functions of transnational communities is bringing together people with specific policy-related expertise from a variety of organisations and a wide geographical outreach. These communities develop collective functions and goals, including shared interest to influence policy-makers, to exchange experiences and to build a collective knowledge base. Since its first publication in 2006, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) has been at the centre of discussions of a growing European community of professionals, involving higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies, national authorities, students and independent experts. The E4 Group consist of four organisations representing major higher education stakeholders: higher education institutions, students and quality assurance agencies. They were tasked with developing common guidelines for quality assurance at the European level; and together with EQAR (the European Register for Quality Assurance) continue to support national authorities, institutions, academic staff and students in applying of the ESG in day-to-day practice through a variety of joint projects involving transnational peer-to-peer interaction and learning. Each year, they organise the European Quality Assurance Forum, which brings together around 500 professionals to discuss current trends in quality assurance. Other transnational communities of practice are formed for instance through participation in the European Education Area Strategic Framework Working Groups or the Bologna working groups and thematic peer groups.


What is reflexive learning?

Sociocultural theorists of learning argue that the process of learning is inherently reflexive, as it transforms the identity of those who partake in it. Can we say the same about learning processes which do not occur in a traditional classroom setting, but which take place through socialisation and professional activities; and which are not confined to an individual learner but cascades from the individual to a collective, such as an organisation? Literature on policy learning has identified various types and attributes of learning along a number of definitional properties, including the directions and the purposes of sharing knowledge. According to Dunlop and Radaelli (2013), reflexive learning in policy presupposes that the participants are on equal footing and none of them can present a readily available solution to the problem at hand, leaving it open to deliberation. However, these conditions are often difficult to be observed empirically, therefore I chose analyse whether specific events and institutional processes create conditions for reflexive learning. I argue that by doing so, some participants gain a privileged access to the decision-making process and create opportunities to increase stakeholder influence. Yet, it is not evident to determine whether one type of social interaction is more reflexive than another. That is why I turn to the study of practices.


When and how does practice matter?

It is important to differentiate between reflective (or reflexive) practice and reflexivity as a process or an outcome, the latter does not always follow the former. Paradoxically, reflexive practice can easily become routine and absent-minded, when performed repeatedly over time without generating critical insights. A popular example for this is course evaluations, which, unless followed-up by a range of other actions that lead to change or improvement of educational quality based on the feedback received, may be perceived as an administrative burden, or even as constraint on academic freedom. Therefore, practice, or the daily routine of individuals is an important part of developing an institutional quality culture. A practice-based approach helps to identify “blind spots” of reflexivity or deeply ingrained individual beliefs and institutional traditions that can bar institutions from developing a truly reflexive approach to quality. Thus, understanding how institutional traditions and identity is expressed through everyday practices is key to enhancing reflexivity.


Empowering universities through reflective practice

My award-winning paper examined the role of university representatives at European-level events on quality assurance that were organised to encourage learning from peers and learning from practice across countries. Instead of assuming that all participants carry the same weight and position in terms of expertise, power, access to information and experience, I carefully dissected each event (or series or events) to understand the context, goals and outcomes of learning. I found that the size and composition of the peer learning events and the techniques used to facilitate discussion impacted the potential of institutional representatives to engage in reflexive learning with policy-makers. Stakeholder organisations took a prominent role as mediators between participants. Moreover, the (pre-)selection of good practice examples also determines the directions of learning. For example, despite a very wide geographical reach of the ESG, only a limited variety of local examples are used as “study material” for other institutions to learn from, often perpetuating traditional North-South and West-East dynamics of policy travel and diffusion.


Directions of future research

Future research could consider mechanisms of empowering universities to act as catalysts for reflexivity as a delicate balance of institutional autonomy and responsibility. From this perspective, the European University alliances can be considered as mini-laboratories for cultivating reflexive cross-border learning, by introducing a more diverse composition of institutions. Ultimately, they are often seen as empowered actors with a potential to feed innovation into policy-making. As recent scholarship on the European University Initiative warns (cf. Maassen et al. 2023 and Hartzell et al. 2023), there are also risks that the organic evolution of alliances into reflexive organisations could be stifled by pre-existing cultural characteristics, pressures to conform to externally set expectations, or internal resistance to change.


Dr. Adrienn Nyircsák received her PhD in Political Science in 2022 from the Central European University, as a Doctoral Fellow at the Yehuda Elkana Center for Teaching, Learning and Higher Education. Her dissertation investigates the concept of instrument reflexivity, understood as the transformation of policy instruments in and through practice, in multi-level governance settings. Her research focuses on the case of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) and its “reflective appropriation” by stakeholder communities. Her broader research interests include the politics and sociology of expertise and knowledge, and the role of practice in EU policy-making. Adrienn currently works as an education policy analyst at the European Commission and previously held the position of team leader of the governance and strategy team of the European Education Area at the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture. She is committed to the idea of reflective dialogue between policy-makers, researchers and practitioners in education policy, including through the critical (re-)examination of our everyday routines and patterns of thinking.


This blog post is based on her paper that won the 2022 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar from the ECPR Standing Group ‘Knowledge Politics and Policies’. The award was celebrated during the 2023 ECPR General Conference. This was the sixth time this prize was awarded. Previous winners are Alexander MitterleJustyna Bandola-GillEmma SabzalievaOlivier Provini and Que Anh Dang.



Dunlop, C. A., & Radaelli, C. M. (2013). Systematising Policy Learning: From Monolith to Dimensions. Political Studies, 61(3), 599–619.

Hartzell, C., Schueller, J., Colus, F. et al. (2023). Stakeholder influence in university alliance identity – an analysis of European Universities initiative mission statements. Tert Educ Manag.

Maassen, P., Stensaker, B. & Rosso, A. (2023). The European university alliances—an examination of organizational potentials and perils. High Educ 86, 953–968.