Global regionalism, interregionalism, and higher education

The development of linkages between higher education systems in a variety of ‘world regions’ continues apace. Developments in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Gulf, and Latin America, albeit uneven in nature, point to the desire to frame and construct regional agendas and architectures. Regionalism -– a state-led initiative to enhance integration to boost trade and security — is now being broadened out such that higher education, and research in some cases, is being uplifted into the regionalism impulse/dynamic.

The incorporation of higher education and research into the regionalism agenda is starting to generate various forms of interregionalisms as well.  What I mean by this is that once a regional higher education area or research area has been established, at least partially, relations between that region, and other regions (i.e. partners), then come to be sought after. These may take the form of relations between (a) regions (e.g., Europe and Asia), (b) a region and components of another region (e.g., Europe and Brazil; Latin America and the United States; Southeast Asia and Australia). The dynamics of how interregional relations are formed are best examined via case studies for, suffice it to say, not all regions are equals, and nor do regions (or indeed countries) speak with singular and stable voices. Moreover some interregional relations can be practice-oriented, and involve informal sharing of best practices that might not formally be ‘on the books.’

Let me outline two examples of the regionalism/interregionalism dynamic below.


The first example comes straight from an 8 July 2011 newsletter from the European University Association (EUA), one of the most active and effective higher education institutions forging interregional relations of various sorts.

In their newsletter article, the EUA states (and I quote at length):

The harmonisation agenda in Central America: ALFA PUENTES sub-regional project launch (July 07, 2011)

 EUA, OBREAL, HRK and university association partners from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Mexico gathered in Guatemala City on 27-28 June both to discuss and formally launch the sub-regional project ‘Towards a qualifications framework for MesoAmerica’, one of the three pillars of the European Commission supported structural project ‘ALFA PUENTES’ which EUA is coordinating.

Hosted by sub-regional project coordinator CSUCA (Consejo Universitario CentroAmericana), and further attended by the sub-regional coordinators of the Andean Community (ASCUN), Mercosur (Grupo Montevideo), partners discussed current higher education initiatives in Central America and how the ALFA PUENTES project can both support and build upon them.

CSUCA, created in 1948 with a mission to further integration in Central America and improve the quality of higher education in the region, has accelerated its agenda over the past 10 years and recently established a regional accreditation body. This endeavour has been facilitated by project partner and EUA member HRK (in conjunction with DAAD) as well as several other donors. The association, which represents around 20 public universities in Central America, has an ambitious agenda to create better transparency and harmonisation of degrees, and has already agreed to a common definition of credit points and a template for a diploma supplement.

Secretary General Dr Juan Alfonso Fuentes Soria stated in a public presentation of the project that ALFA PUENTES will be utilised to generate a discussion on qualifications frameworks and how this may accelerate the Central America objectives of degree convergence. European experience via the Bologna Process will be shared and European project partners as well as Latin American (LA) partners from other regions will contribute expertise and good practice.

ALFA PUENTES is a three-year project aimed at both supporting Latin American higher education convergence processes and creating deeper working relationships between European and Latin American university associations. Thematic sub-regional projects (MesoAmerica, Andean Community and Mercosur) will be connected with a series of transversal activities including a pan-Latin American survey on change forces in higher education, as well as two large Europe-LA University Association Conferences (2012 and 2014).

This lengthy quote captures a fascinating array of patterns and processes that are unfolding right now; some unique to Europe, some unique to Latin America, and some reflective of synergy and complementarities between these two world regions.

TUNING the Americas

The second example, one more visual in nature, consists of a recent map we created about the export of the TUNING phenomenon. As we have noted in two previous GlobalHigherEd entries:

TUNING is a process launched in Europe to help build the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). As noted on the key TUNING website, TUNING is designed to:

Contribute significantly to the elaboration of a framework of comparable and compatible qualifications in each of the (potential) signatory countries of the Bologna process, which should be described in terms of workload, level, learning outcomes, competences and profile.

The TUNING logic is captured nicely by this graphic from page 15 of the TUNING General Brochure.

Over time, lessons learned about integration and educational reform via these types of mechanisms/technologies of governance have come to be viewed with considerable interest in other parts of the world, including Africa, North America, and Latin America. In short, the TUNING approach, an element of the building of the EHEA, has come to receive considerable attention in non-European regions that are also seeking to guide their higher educational reform processes, and as well as (in many cases) region-building processes.

As is evident in one of several ‘TUNING Americas’ maps we (Susan Robertson, Thomas Muhr, and myself) are working on with the support of the UW-Madison Cartography Lab and the WUN, the TUNING approach is being taken up in other world regions, sometimes with the direct support of the European Commission (e.g., in Latin America or Africa). The map below is based on data regarding the institutional take-up of TUNING as of late 2010.

Please note that this particular map only focuses on Europe and the Americas, and it leaves out other countries and world regions. However, the image pasted in below, which was extracted from a publicly available presentation by Robert Wagenaar of the University of Groningen, captures aspects of TUNING’s evolving global geography.

Despite the importance of EU largesse and support, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the EU is foisting TUNING on world regions; this is the post-colonial era, after all, and regions are voluntarily working with this European-originated reform mechanism and Europe-based actors. TUNING also only works when faculty/staff members in higher education institutions outside of Europe drive and then implement the process (a point Robert Wagenaar emphasizes). Or look, for example, at the role of the US-based Lumina Foundation in its TUNING USA initiative. Instead, what we seem to have is capacity building, mutual interests in the ‘competencies’ and ‘learning outcomes’ agenda, and aspects of the best practices phenomenon (all of which help explain the ongoing building of synergy between the OECD’s AHELO initiative with the European/EU-enabled TUNING initiative). This said, there are some ongoing debates about the possible alignment implications associated with the TUNING initiative.

These are but two examples of many emerging regionalisms/interregionalisms in the global higher education landscape; a complicated multiscalar phenomenon of educational reform and ‘modernization,’ and region building, mixed in with some fascinating cases of relational identity formation at the regional scale.

Kris Olds (with thanks to Susan Robertson & Thomas Muhr)

TUNING USA: Echoes and translations of the Bologna Process in the US higher education landscape

As noted in two earlier GlobalHigherEd entries (‘Bologna: beyond 2010 and over the Ocean – but where to? On new Bologna reports and C. Adelman’s last essay‘ by Pavel Zgaga; ‘Tuning USA’: reforming higher education in the US, Europe style‘ by Susan Robertson) the US-based Lumina Foundation is sponsoring an action-oriented project (TUNING USA) on the relevancy of Europe’s Tuning process for the US higher education system. Lumina is working in association with the states of Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah.

As noted on the key Tuning website (run by Bologna Process follow-up group members at Universidad de Deusto and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen but sponsored by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture):

TUNING Educational Structures in Europe started in 2000 as a project to link the political objectives of the Bologna Process and at a later stage the Lisbon Strategy to the higher educational sector. Over time Tuning has developed into a Process, an approach to (re-)designing, develop, implement, evaluate and enhance quality first, second and third cycle degree programmes. The Tuning outcomes as well as its tools are presented in a range of Tuning publications, which institutions and their academics are invited to test and use in their own setting. The Tuning approach has been developed by and is meant for higher education institutions.

The protection of the rich diversity of European education has been paramount in Tuning and in no way seeks to restrict the independence of academic and subject specialists, or undermine local and national authority.

Tuning focuses not on educational systems, but on educational structures with emphasis on the subject area level, that is the content of studies. Whereas educational systems are primarily the responsibility of governments, educational structures and content are that of higher education institutions and their academic staff.

As a result of the Bologna Process the educational systems in all European countries are in the process of reforming. This is the direct effect of the political decision to converge the different national systems in Europe. For Higher Education institutions these reforms mean the actual starting point for another discussion: the comparability of curricula in terms of structures, programmes and actual teaching. This is what Tuning offers. In this reform process the required academic and professional profiles and needs of society (should) play an important role.

The Tuning process is a fascinating lens through which to examine multiple dimensions of global regionalisms (including interregionalism) and the transformation of higher education. It is through ‘echoes’ like TUNING USA that the process unfolds in all its complexity. One component of this is the translation process, with new translations of the Tuning process emerging (e.g., see Anne Corbett’s take on this in ‘A European view of the new Adelman report on the Bologna Process‘). As Corbett notes, and as is evident in European policy debates, these translations feed back across the Atlantic to key centres of calculation (especially Brussels), helping to legitimize the Bologna process, while also generating ideas for its refinement. The feedback process is occurring via workshops on both sides of the Atlantic, the circulation of reports, international collaborative research projects, and also the consumption of complementary forms of communication including this illuminating 10 minute video titled Tuning: A Tale of Adventures in Learning (link to it via the title in my sentence, not the screengrab below):

In this context it is worth thinking about how the Lumina Foundation has translated Europe’s Tuning process, and how this “Indianapolis-based, private, independent foundation” is pushing forward its US-focused reform agenda through the use of Tuning, though adapted (hence the state-based pilot projects) to take into account the unique nature of the US higher education landscape.

The “echoes” noted in the Zgaga report (Looking out: The Bologna Process in a Global Setting) continue apace, making any examination of Bologna’s field of influence and relations a rather complicated yet entirely worthwhile endeavor.

Kris Olds