Seeking new insights on the ‘Evolving Regulatory Context for Private Education in Emerging Economies’

Discourses on private higher education, and the role of private higher education in spurring on the globalization of higher education process, are emerging in a variety of contexts: informal discussions, classrooms, workshops and conferences, publications, protests, websites, and structured and unstructured policy dialogues.

is designed to help shed light on where thinking about the construction of new knowledge spaces takes place, and when possible what the content of such thinking is.

ifcbrochureOn the former role, it is worth noting that there are some ongoing on-line deliberations between now and 14 November about the “Evolving Regulatory Context for Private Education in Emerging Economies”. The deliberations are being sponsored by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and more specifically the IFC’s EdInvest. The IFC is an institution that is part of the World Bank Group. Our brief entry in October (‘”Frontier markets”, the International Finance Corporation, and development’) explains a little more about the IFC, and provides a variety of links to this increasingly important global higher ed institution.

An introduction to the forum can be found here. The general discussion thread can be accessed by following the link along the right margin to Private Education Forum, or by following this link.

Key questions in the discussion include, according to the IFC:

Week 1 – November 3 to 7: What are the major challenges in regulating private education and how might they be overcome?

Week 2 – November 10 to 14: Should government involve private providers in policy and decision making relating to the role of the private sector? If so, what are the most effective mechanisms for doing this? If not, why not?

The online discussion that is underway now is an outcome of an earlier (May 2008) international conference that was attended by a small group of government representatives, accreditation officials, private providers, and World Bank Group officials. According to Svava Bjarnason, Senior Education Specialist of the IFC, the purpose of the May event was to:

begin a dialogue between the various players concerning how the regulatory context is evolving in relation to private sector providers. At the close of that event we agreed to continue the dialogue and to host an online discussion to engage the wider community in the debate.

This two week long dialogue is underway until 14 November so check it out now if you want to contribute.

Apart from the content, it is worth noting that this IFC-sponsored event, like the broader (more ‘open’) national policy dialogues that have been occurring in Australia and the UK (see our entry ‘Higher education policy-making, stake-holder democracy and the economics of attention’), is an experiment in the use of digital technology to facilitate (it is hoped) debate, innovative thinking, and new insights.  Yet as we noted in our previous entry:

new technologies operate within an ‘economy of attention’ – a point well made by Richard Latham in his influential 2006 book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information.

Now the essential point Latham is making is that we live in an information economy, and information is not in short supply. In fact, argues Latham, we are “drowning in it”. What is in short supply is ‘attention’! To grab attention, we need stylistic devices and strategies so that what Latham calls ‘stuff’—like debating the future directions for higher education—moves from the periphery to the center of attention.

Thus the IFC’s on-line discussion is worth tuning into and contributing to for obvious content-specific reasons, while the nature of the forum (on-line, open, two weeks long) can also be assessed as a vehicle to enable geographically dispersed voices to engage. The IFC’s hope is, we are guessing, that the discussion enables the generation of some new insights on a topic (the “Evolving Regulatory Context for Private Education in Emerging Economies”) that clearly needs to be thought about, and with considerable care and attention.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities

This week, one of the two major credit rating agencies in the world, Standard & Poor’s (Moody’s is the other), issued their annual ‘Report Card’ on UK universities. This year’s version is titled UK Universities Enjoy Higher Revenues but Still Face Spending Pressures and it has received a fair bit of attention in media outlets (e.g., the Financial Times and The Guardian). Our thanks to Standard and Poor’s for sending us a copy of the report.

Five UK universities were in the spotlight after having their creditworthiness rated by Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s). In total, S&P’s assesses 20 universities in the UK (5 are made public, the rest are confidential), with 90% of this survey considered by the rating agency to be of high investment grade quality (of A- or above).

Universities in the UK, it would appear from S&P’s Report Card, have had a relatively good year from ‘a credit perspective’. This pronouncement is surely something to celebrate in a year when the word ‘credit crunch’ has become the new metaphor for economic meltdown, and when higher education institutions are likely to be worried about the affects of the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis on loans to students and institutions more generally.

But to the average lay person (or even the average university professor), with a generally low level of financial literacy, what does this all mean? Global ratings agencies passing judgments on UK universities, or policies to drive the sector more generally, or, finally, individual institutional governance decisions?

Three years ago, when one of us (Susan) was delivering an Inaugural Professorial Address at Bristol, S&P’s 2005 report on Bristol (AA/Stable/–) was flashed up, much to the amusement of the audience though to the bemusement of the Chair, a senior university leader. The mild embarrassment of the Chair was largely a consequence of the fact that he was unaware of this judgment on Bristol by a credit rating agency headquartered in New York.

Now the reason for showing S&P’s judgment on the University of Bristol was neither to amuse the audience nor to embarrass the Chair. The point at the time was to sketch out the changing landscape of globalizing education systems within the wider global political economy, to introduce some of the newer (and more private) players who increasingly wield policymaking/shaping power on the sector, to reflect on how these agencies work, and to delineate some of the emerging effects of such developments on the sector.

Our view is that current analyses of globalizing higher education have neglected the role of credit rating agencies in the governance of the higher education sector—as specialized forms of intelligence gathering, shaping and judgment determination on universities. Yet, credit rating agencies are, in many ways, at the heart of contemporary global governance. Witness, for example, the huge debates going on now about establishing a European register for ratings agencies.

The release, then, this week of the S&P’s UK Universities 2008 Report Card, is an opportunity for GlobalHigherEd to sketch out to interested readers a basic understanding of global rating agencies and their relationship to the global governance of higher education.

Rating agencies – origins

Timothy Sinclair, a University of Warwick academic, has been writing for more than a decade on rating agencies and their roles in what he calls the New Global Finance (NGF) (Sinclair, 2000). His various articles and books (see, for example, Sinclair 1994; 2000; 2003; 2005)—some of which are listed below—are worth reading for those of you who want to pursue the topic in greater depth.

Sinclair outlines the early development and subsequent growing importance of credit rating agencies—the masters of capital and second superpowers—arguing that there have been a number of distinct phases in their development.

The first phase dates back to the 1850s, when compendiums of information were produced for American financial markets about large industrial infrastructure developments, such as railroads and canals. However, it was not until the 1907 financial crisis that these early compendiums of information were then used to make judgements about the creditworthiness of debtors (Sinclair, 2003: 148).

‘Rating’ then entered a period of rapid growth from the mid-1930s onwards, as a result of state governments in the US incorporating rating standards into their prudential rules for investment by pension funds.

A third phase began in the 1980s, when new financial innovations (particularly low-rated or junk bonds) were developed, and cheaper offshore non-national money markets were created (that is, places where funds are raised by selling debt obligations and equity outside of the current constraints of government regulation).

However this process, of what Sinclair (1994: 136) calls the ‘disintermediation’ of financing (meaning state regulatory bodies are side-stepped), creates information problems for those wishing to lend money and those wishing to borrow it.

The current phase is now characterized by, on the one hand, greater internationalization of finance, and on the other hand hand, increased significance of capital markets that challenge the role of Banks, as intermediaries.

Credit rating agencies have, as a result, become more important as suppliers of the information with which to make credit-worthiness judgments.

New York-based rating agencies have grown rapidly since then, responding to innovations in financial instruments, on the one hand, and the need for information, on the other. Demand for information has also generated competition within the industry, with some firms operating niche specializations – for instance, as we see with Standards & Poor’s and the higher education sector, itself a subsidiary of publishers McGraw Hill,

Credit rating is big, big business. As Sinclair (2005) notes, the two major credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standards & Poor’s, pass judgments on around a $30 trillion worth of securities each year. Ratings also affect rates or costs of borrowing, so that the higher the rating, the less risk of default on repayment to the lender and therefore the lower the cost to the borrower.

Universities with different credit ratings will, therefore, be differently placed to borrow – so that the adage of ‘the more you have the more you get’ becomes a major theme.

The rating process

If we look at the detail of the ‘issuer credit rating’ and ‘comments’ in the Report Card of, for instance, the University of Bristol, or King’s College London, we can see that detail is gathered on the financial rating of the issuer; on the industry, competitors, and economy; on legal advice related to the specific issue; on management, policy, business outlook, accounting practices and so on; and on the competitive position, quality of management, long term industry prospects, and wider economic environment. As Sinclair (2003: 150) notes:

The rating agencies are most interested in data on cash flow relative to debt service obligations. They want to know how liquid the company is, and where there will be timely problems likely to hinder repayment. Other information may include five-year financial projections, including income statements and balance sheets, analysis of capital spending plans, financing alternatives, and contingency plans. This information which may not be publicly known is supplemented by agency research into the value of current outstanding obligations, stock valuations and other publicly available data that allows for an inference…

The rating that follows – an opinion on creditworthiness—is generated by an analytical team, a report is prepared with the rating and rationale, this is put to the rating committee made up of senior officials, and a final determination is made in private. The decision is subject to appeal by the issuer. Issuer credit ratings can be either long or short term. S&P use the following nomenclature for long term issue credit ratings (see Bankers Almanac, 2008: 1- 3):

  • AAA – (highest/ extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments
  • AA – very strong capacity to meet financial commitments
  • A – strong capacity to meet financial commitments, but susceptible to adverse affects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions
  • BBB – adequate capacity to meet financial commitments
  • BB – less vulnerable in the near term than other lower rated obligators, but faces major ongoing uncertainties
  • B – more vulnerable than BB – but adverse business, financial or economic conditions will likely impair obligator’s capacity to meet its financial commitments

Rating higher education institutions

In light of the above discussion, we can now look more closely at the kinds of judgments passed on those universities included in a typical Report Card on the sector by Standards & Poor’s (see 2008: 7).

The 2008 Report Card itself is short; a 9 page document which offers a ‘credit perspective’ on the sector more generally, and on 5 universities. We are told “the UK higher education sector has made positive strides over the past few years, but faces increasing risks in the medium-to-long term” (p. 2).

The Report goes on to note a trebling of tuition fees in the UK, the growth the overseas student market and associated income, an increase in research income for research intensive universities – so that of the 5 universities rated, 1 has been upgraded, another has had its outlook revised to ‘positive’, and no ratings were adjusted for the other three.

The Report also notes (p. 2) that the universities publicly rated by S&P’s are among the leading universities in the UK. To support this claim they refer to another ranking mechanism that is now providing information in the global marketplace – The Times Higher QS World Universities Rankings 2007, which is, as we have noted in a recent entry (‘Euro angsts‘), receiving considerable critical attention in Europe.

However, the Report Card also notes pressures within the system: higher wage demands linked to tuition increases, the search for new researchers to be counted as part of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), global competition for international students, and the heightened expectations of students for better infrastructure as a result of higher fees.

Longer term risks include the fact that by 2020, there will be 16% fewer 18 year olds coming through the system, according to forecasts by Universities UK – with the biggest impact being on the newer universities (in the UK these so-called ‘newer universities’ are previous polytechnics who were given university status in 1992).

Of the 20 UK universities rated in this S&P’s Report, 4 universities are rated AAA; 8 are rated AA; 6 are rated A, and 2 are rated BBB. The University of Bristol, as we can see from the analysts’ rating and comments which we have reproduced below, is given a relatively favorable rating. We have also quoted this rating at length to give you a sense of the kind of commentary made and how this relates to the judgment passed.

Credit rating agencies, as instruments of the global governance of higher education

Credit rating agencies are particularly powerful because both markets and governments see them as authoritative sources of judgment, with the result that they are major actors in controlling access to capital markets. And despite the evident importance of credit rating agencies on the governance of universities in the UK and elsewhere, there is a remarkable lack of attention to this phenomenon. We think there are important questions that need to be researched and the results discussed more widely. For example:

  • How widely spread is the practice?
  • Why are some universities rated whilst others are not?
  • Why are some universities’ ratings considered confidential whilst others are not (keeping in mind that they are all, in the above UK case, public taxpayer supported universities)?
  • Have any universities contested their credit rating, and if so, through what process, and with what outcome?
  • How do university’s management systems respond to these credit ratings, and in what ways might they influence ongoing policy decisions within the university and within the sector?
  • How robust are particular kinds of reputational or status ‘information’, such as World University Rankings, especially if we are looking at creditworthiness?

Our reports on these global rankings show that there are major problems with such measures. As we have profiled, and as has University Ranking Watch and the Beerkens’ Blog, there are clearly unresolved debates and major problems with global ranking schemes.

Clearly market liberalism, of the kind that has characterized this current period of globalization, requires new kinds of intermediaries to provide information for both buyer and seller. And it cannot hurt to have ‘outside’ assessments of the fiscal health of institutions (in this case universities) that are complex, often opaque, and taxpayer supported. However, to experts like Timothy Sinclair (2003), credit rating agencies privatize policymaking, and they can narrow the sphere of government intervention.

For EU Internal Market Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, the credit ratings agencies like Moody’s and S&P’s contributed to the current financial market turmoil because they underestimated the risks related to their structured credit products. As the Commissioner commented in EurActiv in June.: “No supervisor appears to have got as much as a sniff of the rot at the heart of the structured finance rating process before it all blew up.”

In other words, credit rating agencies lack political accountability and enjoy an ‘accountability gap’. And while efforts are now under way by regulators to close that gap by developing new regulatory frameworks and rules, analysts worry that these private actors will now find new ways around the rules, and in turn facilitate the creation of a riskier financial architecture (as happened with global mortgage markets).

As universities become more financialized, as well as ranked, indexed and barometered in the ways we have been mapping on GlobalHigherEd, such ‘information’ on the sector will also likely be deployed to pass judgment and generate ratings and rankings of ‘creditworthiness’ for universities. The net effect may well be to exaggerate the differences between institutions, to generate greater levels of uneven development within and across the sector, and to increase rather then decrease the opacity and therefore accountability of the sector.

In sum, there is little doubt credit rating agencies, in passing judgments, play a key and increasingly important role in the global governance of higher education. It is also clear from these developments that we need to pay much closer attention to what might be thought of as mundane entities – credit rating agencies – and their role in the global governance of higher education. And we are also hopeful that credit ratings agencies will outline their views on this important dimension of the small g governance of higher education institutions.

Selected References

Bankers Almanac (2008) Standards and Poor’s Definitions, last accessed 5 August 2008.

King, M. and Sinclair, T. (2003) Private actors and public policy: a requiem for the new Basel Capital Accord, International Political Science Review, 24 (3), pp. 345-62.

Sinclair, T. (1994) Passing judgement: credit rating processes as regulatory mechanisms of governance in the emerging world order, Review of International Political Economy, 1 (1), pp. 133-159.

Sinclair, T. (2000) Reinventing authority: embedded knowledge networks and the new global finance, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, August 18 (4), pp. 487-502.

Sinclair, T. (2003) Global monitor: bond rating agencies, New Political Economy, 8 (1), pp. 147-161.

Sinclair, T. (2005) The New Masters of Capital: American Bond Rating Agencies and the Politics of Creditworthiness, New York: Cornell University Press.

Standard & Poor’s (2008) Report Card: UK Universities Enjoy Higher Revenues But Still Face Spending Pressures, London: Standards & Poor’s.

Susan Robertson and Kris Olds

Incorporation of State-controlled universities in Malaysia, 1996-2008: flirting with the market

All State-controlled universities in Malaysia are by definition statutory bodies and their setting up is governed by laws. Statutory bodies are established with the objective of implementing certain duties and responsibilities in line with government objectives. When statutory entities such as universities are incorporated the objectives of this exercise is different from the incorporation of other State body such as the National Electricity Board. In the case of the latter, the objective is to transform this entity into an independent commercial company. In the context of higher education services, in particular universities, incorporated universities, according to Bostock (1999), are expected to raise a much greater proportion of their own revenue, enter into business enterprises, acquire and hold investment portfolios, encourages partnerships with private business firms, compete with other universities in the production and marketing of courses to students who are now seen as customers, and generally engage with the market for higher education. But in the case of State-controlled universities it does not necessarily mean that these universities will be privatised eventually. At least this is true in the case of Malaysia. It is interesting to examine why the flirtation with the market, but the unwillingness to leave everything to the market.

Incorporation of State-Controlled Universities in Malaysia

The World Bank (see Wall 1998) and OECD (see Marginson 1997) are the two most influential supra national bodies that have had an influence on the incorporation of State-controlled universities in Malaysia. In the early to mid nineties the changes in the global higher education landscape have exerted new demands and pressures on Malaysia’s higher education system. In order to be competitive and relevant to the global and regional changes Malaysia’s state-controlled universities in particular have to respond accordingly, specifically to the emerging challenges arising from globalisation era and the internationalisation of higher education. Mok (2007, 440) reported that technocrats in the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) itself felt that the old higher education governance model would never prepare public universities for facing new challenges. Thus, the incorporation of State-controlled universities is meant to make them more proactive to changes and to do these they need more resources and a governance system that is quick in its response to changing needs and demands.

In this context, State-controlled universities in Malaysia were hard pressed to accept the impending reform, which was aimed at diversifying funding sources through a range of means, including the policy of incorporation. Another important development in Malaysia at that time was the apparent success of several corporate-style universities, operated by major state-owned companies in the areas of telecommunications, petrochemicals and electricity (UNESCO 2003). The reform is seen as an attractive proposition for these State-controlled universities, as presented by the State to them, in that they are allowed (albeit under strict treasury guidelines) to generate additional revenue through university-owned companies, which generate income for these universities through the sale of services and use of university facilities.

The Government has introduced corporate governance for State-controlled universities in 1996 by amending the University and University Colleges Act, 1971. This amendment allows for the incorporation of these state-controlled universities, which sets the tone for a new way in running universities in Malaysia. It is argued that with incorporation public universities should be operating as an efficient, transparent, and most importantly, financially able (if not independent) entity. It is now up to individual universities to face up to these challenges and generate revenue equal to thirty percent of their annual running cost. Neville (1998) appropriately observed that the Malaysian government has adopted a policy of incorporation, making universities more accountable for some areas of their operations, and seeking to increase entrepreneurial activities. He argued further that in this, universities are expected to adopt management systems similar to those of the corporate sector, although the government will still retain explicit control.

Universiti Malaya was the first state-controlled university to be incorporated in 1997/8. To date, all state-controlled universities, in particular the 4 more established ones, have (in line with incorporation objectives) established their private holding companies to generate income for the universities concerned through the sales of consultancy services, medical and health (private) services and joint venture activities with the industry. While active in commercial activities, to date none of these commercial arms of the incorporated State-controlled universities have managed to generate sufficient income to be financially independent from the State. But the issue here, will the State ever allow these universities to be independent? Will the World Bank, UNESCO and other supra agencies pressure the State to let go or follow the example of Japan where national universities have been incorporated and become very competitive.

Incorporation of State-controlled Universities: Will the State Let Go?

Neville (1998) noted that incorporated universities are expected to adopt management systems similar to those of the corporate sector, although the government will still retain explicit control. Arguably, in this sense, state-centrism in higher education policy is still strong in Malaysia, but at the same time neo-liberal policies are being implemented. At the core of this irony is the statement made by the then Minister of Education (now the powerful and influential Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister-in-waiting) that the Cabinet of Ministers has decided that the Government will still maintain control and autonomy over the public universities once they were incorporated (Bernama News Service for Malaysian Students 1995). The then Minister of Education was quoted as saying to the effect that incorporation means that the universities will remain non-profitable but will be managed as commercial and competitive entities. More importantly, he said that the Government would have the last say in the operation and administration of universities and its administrators would have to refer to the ministry before implementing any changes. There have been no significant statements from the government so far giving the incorporated universities a sense of ‘independence’ from the State.


Barr (1993) distinguishes between two main types of marketisation in so far as higher education is concerned: the introduction of performance-related funding mechanisms (quasi-market element) and the introduction of tuition fees and loans (the privatization of higher education). The incorporation of state-controlled universities gave rise to an interesting phenomenon in Malaysia’s higher education landscape: a financing mechanism for incorporated universities which tie public funds to specific targets (in particular student numbers at the undergraduate level). The government set the tuition fees for students at this level for all incorporated universities. This in effect means “using the logic of the market without actually letting the market in”. At the same time, all private higher education institutions and incorporated State-controlled universities offering postgraduate qualifications are allowed to set their own tuition fees. In this sense, the price mechanism begins to operate and this is when a market in higher education is in place.
In Malaysia’s case there is clearly the unwillingness on the part of the State to let go of state-controlled universities. This situation arises, and following Levidow’s (2002) argument, because universities represent the needs of the State. Morshidi and Abdul Razak (2008) have alluded to the “national interest’ argument in the case of Malaysia. It is in this connection that the Malaysian Government continues to support and finance incorporated universities. Under incorporation set-up university staff are supposed to be delinked from the civil servants scheme of service, but to this day university staff are still paid through state-funded emoluments. However, because of incorporation, they are allowed and are increasingly driven into entrepreneurial competition for external funds for research and extra income. Slaughter and Leslie (1997) rightly observed that under central government and university pressure, staff devise ‘institutional and professional market or market-like efforts to secure external monies’.

It is also interesting to relate and connect Levidow’s (2002) observation to the case of Malaysia in that beyond simply generating more income, higher education in Malaysia has increasingly become a terrain for marketisation agendas. This is particularly pertinent in relation to Malaysia’s ambition of becoming a regional education hub with education export accounting for a substantial figure in its national account. Since the incorporation of state-controlled universities in 1997 and more so beginning 2000, affected universities have been urged to adopt commercial models of knowledge, skills, curriculum, finance, accounting, and management organization. Strategic planning becomes an important instrument for charting university’s direction. More importantly, and there is a great debate on this, university education has become more synonymous with training for ‘employability’ at the local and international level. Marketisation policy of higher education in Malaysia is already in place in the system, but it is hidden under the heavy presence of State-centrism and control.


Barr, N. (1993.) ‘Alternative Funding Resources for Higher Education’. Economic Journal. 103 (418): 718-28.

Bernama News Service for Malaysian Students, Thursday, July 13, 1995. ‘Najib: We’ll Maintain Control over Varsities’.

Bostock, W. W. (1999). ‘The Global Corporatisation of Universities: Causes and Consequences’. In: Antepodium, Victoria University of Wellington. (accessed 15 May 2008)

Levidow, L. (2002). ‘Marketizing Higher Education: Neoliberal Strategies and Counter-Strategies’. In: K. Robins and F. Webster, eds, The Virtual University? Knowledge, Markets and Management, Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.227-48.

Mok. K. H (2007). ‘Questing for internationalisation of universities in Asia: critical reflections’. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11; 433. URL: (Accessed 15 May 2008).

Morshidi, S. and Abdul Razak, A. (2008). ‘Policy for Higher Education in a Changing World: Is Malaysia’s Higher Education Policy Maturing or Just Fashionable?, Forum on Higher Education in a Globalising World: Developing and Sustaining an Excellent System, Merdeka Palace Hotel and Suites, Kuching, 11 January 2008.

Marginson, S. (1997). Markets in Education. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Neville, W. (1998). ‘Restructuring tertiary education in Malaysia: the nature and implications of policy changes’. Higher Education Policy 11: 257-279.

Slaughter, S. and Leslie, L.L (1997) Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2003). Higher education in Asia and the Pacific 1998-2003. Regional report on progress in implementing recommendations of the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education. Adopted at the Second Session of the Regional Follow-up Committee
(Bangkok, Thailand, 25-26 February 2003). (Accessed 15 May 2008).

Wall, E. (1998). ‘Global Funding Patterns in Higher Education; the role of the World Bank’. Paper presented at the International Conference of University Teacher Organisations, Melbourne, February.

Morshidi Sirat

Interregionalism and the globalization of higher education: new Euro-Asia initiatives

One of the interesting aspects of change in higher education systems is how they are being denationalized; reshaped, as it were, by forces and actors that are thinking at, and operating at, scales other than the national. In social science terms (e.g., see the work of Neil Brenner) this is often deemed the “relativization of scale”; the process whereby actors operating at the global scale, the inter-regional (e.g., Europe-Asia) scale, the supranational regional (e.g., European, Asian) scale, the national scale (e.g., Germany), the subnational regional (e.g., Silicon Valley) scale, and the urban scale, all come to play increasingly important roles in shaping a “multiscalar” development process. See, for example, these two recent reports by the European University Association (EUA) and the OECD on higher education for regional development in a globalizing era:



In this case we have a regional stakeholder organization (the EUA), and a multilateral organization (the OECD), both framing development processes simultaneously at the urban, regional, and global scales, with the national scale present, though clearly not dominant. Don’t forget, as well, that the OECD is a creation of member states, and its global thinking is therefore animated by, and mediated by, the nation-state. This is a point Saskia Sassen has insightfully driven home, most recently in Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006).

On the higher education and research policy front one emerging phenomenon worth taking note of is interregional dialogue. For example there is a now a decade long series of formal Transatlantic Dialogues, anchored by the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and the European University Association (EUA). These meetings are always framed by ‘global’ thinking, but focus on achieving interregional objectives and enhanced understandings of what is going on on both sides of the Atlantic.

In this context the EUA announced, on 21 February, that it is partnering with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (Nuffic), to “establish an EU-Asia Higher Education Platform for European and Asian academics and policy makers”. This initiative is being facilitated by the European Commission’s Asia Link programme. As the EUA puts it, the purpose of the two-year project is to:

  • Provide a means for enhancing information exchange, dialogue, and cooperation in higher education and research between the two regions;
  • Develop best practices for institutional development and cooperation, and foster mobility of students and academics between the two regions;
  • Draw attention to the role and situation of universities in developing countries.

Throughout the course of 2008-9, a series of workshops and round tables in Asia and Europe will be organised, targeting institutional development and cooperation issues. Amongst the themes that are expected to be covered will be higher education governance and management, decentralisation, cooperation in graduate education, and interregional and inter-institutional cooperation in quality assurance.

While this is a complement to other forms of engagement also underway, and it is only targeted at parts of Asia, it is a noteworthy one.

First, and most importantly, there is much to learn in Asia about European developments over the last ten years given that Europe is grappling with the ‘modernization’ of its higher education system at a regional scale, though in a manner that blurs scales of action and intent, and takes into account national sensitivities and differential capacities for statecraft.

Second, it differs from the nature of North America-Asia and Australasia-Asia engagement, both of which tend to be relatively more person to person (e.g., the Australian Scholarships, the Fulbright awards) or event-oriented (e.g., student recruitment fairs, the US University Presidents’ Delegation to Southeast Asia).

In contrast, the EU-Asia Higher Education Platform is a truly post-national/interregional initiative, of a programmatic nature, and with an associated development agenda that focuses on systemic change.

In addition, and tying back to the start of this entry, note the presence of the nation-state in enabling EU-Asia relations to be forged, both directly and indirectly. This initiative is one that will also inevitably be forced to grapple with huge national variations in Asian higher education systems, and the lack of institutional capacity to operate at a regional scale in Asia, with respect to higher education. Yet while nation-states in Asia have not (yet) prioritized the construction of a regional higher education imaginary, it is only a matter of time given the structural forces that are reshaping Asian societies and economies. The complexion of the changes that will eventually emerge, and the nature of the intra-Asia and Asia-Other dialogue(s) facilitating them, have really yet to be determined.

Kris Olds