Georg Krücken. Higher education systems in Europe are currently undergoing profound transformations. At the macro-level of society we can see an increasing inclusion of persons, subjects of study and university missions. The second level where we can find changes is at the level of university governance.
New Public Management reforms have put into question the traditional mode of governance that was based on the interplay of strong state regulation and academic self-governance. In this process, new actors like accreditation and evaluation bodies or boards of trustees are emerging. A third level where profound changes can be observed is at the university level itself. The university as an organisation is transforming into an organisational actor, that is, an integrated, goal-oriented and competitive entity in which management and leadership play an ever-more important role.
Should these trends be labelled as the ‘Americanisation’ of European universities? Universities cannot be seen as isolated entities confined within national boundaries. At least since the early 19th century intensive exchange processes can be observed and several factors have accelerated these processes over time – from the withering charisma of the nation-state as a source of meaning and identity to the facilitating role of information and communication technologies in the exchange of ideas.
These factors seem to play an ever-increasing role. The rapid circulation of transnational trends and models in contemporary societies can at least in part be traced back to them and one could further investigate the distinct cultural and organisational aspects of the formation of a common transnational frame of meaning in higher education.
Following the three aspects and levels of change outlined – inclusion at the macro-societal level, new forms of university governance, and universities as organisations – we cannot only identify common trends, but we can also establish that these trends occur in some countries earlier, and in some countries later. It is obvious that the United States is in many regards a forerunner in terms of what we currently observe in Europe. This holds true for all three dimensions.
‘Inclusion’ has certainly been a general feature of American higher education since the 19th century. American higher education has been much more open to different subjects, formats and missions as compared to the Europe of the past. The same holds true with regard to the level of governance. Boards of trustees, whose very existence still sparks a lot of controversy in Europe, first appeared at Harvard University in 1642 and can now be found at literally every American university, be they private or public.
Likewise, actors such as accreditation agencies and competition as a governance mechanism could be found much earlier historically in American higher education than in Europe. American universities were a forerunner also regarding the common trend of conceptualising universities as organisational actors – at least in theory if not always in practice.
Therefore, there is ample evidence to see current changes in Europe as being triggered by American models and some European observers criticise the mega-trend as representing the ‘Americanisation’ of higher education. However, I doubt whether this is really the case. On the one hand, the United States and its universities are not just an ‘independent variable’ with regard to the changes we are currently witnessing. They are, rather, also a ‘dependent variable’ when it comes to changes that are mostly global in character and that are not confined to one national system.
On the other hand, even if one assumes American universities are the forerunners in terms of trends that eventually took stock in Europe, it is striking to see that some very central aspects of American universities and the overall system do not resonate in Europe at all. College education is still a very particular feature of the American university system that does not have a lot in common with most European university concepts.
One might think of the newly created bachelor programmes in Europe as a good example of Americanisation and of a move by European higher education toward the American model of college education. But bachelor programmes in Europe typically focus on one subject of study and, at least in theory, often advocate the international exchange of students. This is very different from the American model of college education with its emphasis on a broad, liberal arts-based education and no student exchange at all at the undergraduate level.
Other aspects of American universities have also barely diffused. Team sports and the related competitive leagues that have such an enormous relevance in the American system and for the individual university budget do not have any counterpart in Europe – the Champions League is for professional soccer and the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is a local phenomenon with its own history.
There are also more profound and systematic differences between Europe and the United States that relate to the role of public and private institutions as well as to aspects of higher education funding and financing. A strong public university sector is by and large taken for granted in Europe, while private universities play a much more limited role. Private universities in Europe are mainly focusing on teaching, not on research. Typically only few subjects are taught and a lot of private universities are rather small entities located in particular niches (business and law schools, for example). As such, they do not compare to the highly prestigious, comprehensive and research-oriented non-for-profit private universities in the US among the category ‘doctoral-research universities-extensive’.
Furthermore, private for-profit higher education institutions that currently see a steep increase in enrolment in the US play only a modest role in Europe. In addition, the dramatically decreasing role of state funding of public higher education in the US does not compare to most EU member states. In Germany nearly 70% of the university budget comes from basic state funding, while at the University of California, Berkeley, it is only about 10%.
In addition, new funding opportunities arise at the national level for many European states that emphasise research excellence and the European Union through its 7th Framework Programme for research and technology has become an important funding source (CREST 2009).
Diffusion versus creative deviation
But I think it is not only empirically shortsighted to see the different trends as indicating the Americanisation of European universities. Conceptually, one should also go further than the diffusion model that is implied when speaking of ‘Americanisation’.
Diffusion, as we understand from chemistry, implies that cultural and structural patterns diffuse through space like a gas, beginning with regions of high concentration of its molecules; eventually the gas molecules are equally distributed in space, provided the process does not encounter obstacles. This ‘top down’ model implies a clear distinction between the ‘sender’ and the ‘receiver’; likewise, certain practices are supposed to be adopted or not.
We can certainly observe the increasing discursive diffusion of models, ideas and idealisations that refer to images of American higher education. One has, however, to distinguish between practices and images. While powerful images rapidly diffuse, practices do not, as they can only be understood within a particular context.
More specifically, the culture and historicity of different national settings – including very different academic labour markets – are not taken fully into account by straightforward diffusion models. Rather, the so-called ‘travel of ideas’ and their enactment create complex situations full of contradictions through which new patterns emerge that cut across the alternatives of adoption and non-adoption.
The universalisation of dominant principles remains incomplete because of creative deviation on the receiver side. Complete universalisation typically fails as elements of transnational and national models merge and give way to creative deviation from a given path. In this I see a major, yet rather unexplored, source of institutional innovation. Historically, the invention of the American research university is a good example as it is the result of such overlapping processes, in particular of English and German influences that were contextualised in the ‘new world’.
But not only national contexts shape global and local adaptation processes of transnational trends. Although in most comparative research national differences are stressed, one should not underestimate differences that occur at the organisational level.
History also matters for organisations. I assume that universities, which in their past showed a high degree of openness toward their social environments, will incorporate new institutional elements that circulate at a transnational level easier than those whose organisational history was mainly defined by concern with purity and a sense of elitism. Former technical institutes and universities founded in an era of mass education, for example, will differ strongly from the proverbial ‘ivory tower’. Hence, different organisational formats as well as their historical trajectories further complicate the picture.
Comparative research across national boundaries might show that distinct cross-national types of universities also have to be taken into consideration when exploring the enactment of larger, transnational trends. Although the construction of images of American higher education will certainly continue to accompany higher education reforms in Europe, when focusing on the concrete enactment of these images I do not see a convergence toward a new and unequivocally accepted model.
Instead, increasing heterogeneity and differentiation will result from the specific national and organisational enactment of the three large-scale transnational trends toward inclusion, new forms of governance, and organisational actorhood. Universities all over the world devise diverse solutions in the face of transnational trends that may appear standard, but that are never standardised in their effects as they are adapted, incorporated or resisted by universities that are ultimately rooted in particular times and places.
Here, a broad agenda unfolds for cross-national research on transnational trends and their national and organisational contextualisations, images and practices, discursive formations and institutional innovations.
* Professor Georg Krücken is based in the International Center for Higher Education Research (INCHER) at the University of Kassel in Germany. His full paper, “A European Perspective on New Modes of University Governance and Actorhood”, is published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.