Changing higher education and the claimed educational paradigm shift – sobering up educational optimism with some sociological scepticism

If there is a consensus on the recognition that higher education governance and organization are being transformed, the same does not occur with regard to the impact of that transformation on the ‘educational’ dimension of higher education.

Under the traveling influence of the diverse versions of New Public Management (NPM), European public sectors are being molded by market-like and client-driven perspectives. Continental higher education is no exception. Austria and Portugal, to mention only these two countries, have recently re-organized their higher education system explicitly under this perspective. The basic assumptions are that the more autonomous institutions are, the more responsive they are to changes in their organizational environment, and that academic collegial governance must be replaced by managerial expertise.

Simultaneously, the EU is enforcing discourses and developing policies based on the competitive advantages of a ‘Europe of knowledge’. ‘Knowledge societies’ appear as depending on the production of new knowledge, its transmission through education and training, its dissemination through ICT, and on its use through new industrial processes and services.

By means of ‘soft instruments’ [such as the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and the Tuning I and II projects (see here and here), the EU is inducing an educational turn or, as some argue, an emergent educational paradigm. The educational concepts of ‘learning’, ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’, ‘competences’, ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘qualifications’, re-emerge in the framework of the EHEA this time as core educational perspectives.

From the analysis of the documents of the European Commission and its diverse agencies and bodies, one can see that a central educational role is now attributed to the concept of ‘learning outcomes’ and to the ‘competences’ students are supposed to possess in the end of the learning process.

In this respect, the EQF is central to advancing the envisaged educational change. It claims to provide common reference levels on how to describe learning, from basic skills up to the PhD level. The 2007 European Parliament recommendation defines “competence” as the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development”.

The shift from ‘knowledge content’ as the organizer of learning to ‘competences’, with a focus on the capacity to use knowledge(s) to know and to act technically, socially and morally, moves the role of knowledge from one where it is a formative process based on ‘traditional’ approaches to subjects and mastery of content, to one where the primary interest is in the learner achieving as an outcome of the learning process. In this new model, knowledge content is mediated by competences and translated into learning outcomes, linking together ‘understanding’, ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’.

However, the issue of knowledge content is passed over and left aside, as if the educational goal of competence building can be assigned without discussion about the need to develop procedural competencies based more on content rather than on ‘learning styles’. Indeed it can be argued that the knowledge content carried out in the process of competence building is somehow neutralized in its educational role.

In higher education, “where learning outcomes are considered as essential elements of ongoing reforms” (CEC: 8), there are not many data sources available on the educational impact of the implementation of competence-based perspectives in higher education. And while it is too early to draw conclusions about the real impact on higher education students’ experiences of the so called ‘paradigm shift’ in higher education brought by the implementation of the competence-based educational approach, the analysis of the educational concepts is, nonetheless, an interesting starting point.

The founding educational idea of Western higher education was based on the transforming potential of knowledge both at the individual and social level. Educational categories (teaching, learning, students, professors, classes, etc.) were grounded in the formative role attributed to knowledge, and so were the curriculum and the teaching and learning processes. Reconfiguring the educational role of knowledge from its once formative role in mobilizing the potential to act socially (in particular in the world of work), induces important changes in educational categories.

As higher education institutions are held to be sensitive and responsive to social and economic change, the need to design ‘learning outcomes’ on the ‘basis of internal and external stakeholders’ perceptions (as we see with Tuning: 1) grows in proportion. The ‘student’ appears simultaneously as an internal stakeholder, a client of educational services, a person moving from education to labor market and a ‘learner’ of competences. The professor, rather than vanishing, is being reinvented as a provider of learning opportunities. Illuminated by the new educational paradigm and pushed by the diktat of efficiency in a context of mass higher education, he/she is no more the ‘center’ of knowledge flux and delivery but the provider of learning opportunities for ‘learners’. Moreover, as an academic, he/she is giving up his/her ultimate responsibility to exercise quality judgments on teaching-learning processes in favor of managerial expertise on that.

As ‘learning outcomes’ are what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate on completion of learning, and given these can be represented by indicators, assessment of the educational process can move from inside to outside higher education institutions to assessment by evaluation technicians. With regard to the lecture theater as the educational locus par excellence, ICT instruments and ideographs de-localize classes to the ether of ‘www’, ‘face-to-face’ teaching-learning being a minor proportion of the ‘learner’ activities. E-learning is not the ‘death’ of the professor but his/her metamorphosis into a ‘learning monitor’. Additionally, the rise of virtual campuses introduce a new kind of academic life whose educational consequences are still to be identified.

The learner-centered model that is emerging has the educational potential foreseen by many educationalists (e.g. John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, among others) to deal with the needs of post-industrial societies and with new forms of citizenship. The emerging educational paradigm promises a lot: the empowerment of the student, the enhancement of his/her capacity and responsibility to express his/her difference, the enhancement of team work, the mutual help, learning by doing, etc.

One might underline the emancipatory potential that this perspective assumes – and some educationalists are quite optimist about it. However, education does not occur in a social vacuum, as some sociologists rightly point out. In a context where HEIs are increasingly assuming the features of ‘complete organizations’ and where knowledge is indicated as the major competitive factor in the world-wide economy, educational optimism should/must be sobered up with some sociological scepticism.

In fact the risk is that knowledge, by evolving away from a central ‘formative’ input to a series of competencies, may simply pass – like money – through the individuals without transforming them (see the work of Basil Bernstein for an elaboration of this idea). By easing the frontiers between the academic and work competencies, and between education and training, higher education runs the risk of sacrificing too much to the gods of relevance, to (short term) labor market needs. Contemporary labor markets require competencies that are supposed to be easily recognized by the employers and with the potential of being continuously reformed. The educational risk is that of reducing the formation of the ‘critical self’ of the student to the ‘corporate self’ of the learner.

António M. Magalhães

Implementing the Bologna process in Portugal: ‘how can we know the dance from the dancer?’

Editor’s note: This entry on Bologna and Portugal is one of a series of entries examining the role of the Bologna Process in the construction of the European Higher Education Area (see recent entries by Patricia Leon, Per Nyborg and Kris Olds) and exploring the consequences for member states and beyond. antonio-m.jpgToday’s entry has kindly been prepared by Dr. António M. Magalhães, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, Universidade do Porto, Portugal, and Senior Researcher with the Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies (CIPES). Antonio has been carrying out major research and written extensively on higher education governance and its transformation in both Portugal and Europe.

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The development of the Bologna process in Portugal must be understood in the context of a tension between the consolidation of mass higher education and quality improvement of the system. Some analysts recognize a clear economic determination at the origin of this process. And, as the European Commission has assumed a leading role in the process, higher education policies closely articulate with the EU strategies – to become in the near future the most competitive and socially consolidated region of the world. Other analysts and institutional leaders stress other dimensions of the process.

In Portugal, by 1974, only about 7% of the relevant age group participated in higher education. After the 1974 Revolution the political stance was one of expanding higher education from an elite status, for both social and economic reasons. These efforts were confronted with a number of paradoxes resulting from the contradiction between equity goals and other factors, such as the economic context, lack of resources, pressures from the World Bank and the IMF, etc.

The public polytechnics and the private sector made a major contribution to the massification of the system. After an almost eightfold increase in enrolments, there has now been a recent decline in this trend, creating a situation of competition for students and new ‘managing’ paradoxes between the need to attract students, quality standards, and institutional identities.

The expansion period has now come to an end. By the mid-1990s, when gross participation rate of the relevant age cohort was over 40%, the government changed its priority from expansion to consolidation, meaning by that it was mainly concerned with the quality of higher education and not greater access.

The system had developed into a network of institutions and study programs that did not seem to answer the governments priorities over more than two decades:

  • increasing the percentage of graduates in areas relevant for the country’s social and economic development;
  • increasing the diversity of higher education provision;
  • ensuring a balanced geographical provision and opening the system to students from all socio-economic backgrounds.

The government elected in 2005 commissioned the ENQA to undertake a review of the Portuguese quality assurance system, asking for advice to set up an accreditation agency following the European standards. It has also commissioned the OECD to do a review of the Portuguese higher education system. The 2006 OECD report that ensued argued that the composition of the tertiary sector is not satisfactory, and considered that, in spite of the present decline in enrolments, the tertiary system still needed to expand by raising the proportion of young cohorts of tertiary entrance age who graduate from secondary school and qualify for admission to higher education, and the proportion of adults seeking tertiary education and accelerating technical change in the production sector that can generate a wage premium for skills that are provided by the graduates of the tertiary sector.

In March 2006 the Portuguese Government also passed a law establishing the legal framework thus making possible the implementation of the Bologna process. Veiga and Amaral (CIPES), in their survey on the implementation of the Bologna process in Portugal, identified an apparently pervasive optimist view.

The leaders of the schools positively evaluated the process of definition of competencies associated with the study programmes and course units, in line with the Ministry’s progress report on the Bologna reforms and with the judgment of the Bologna Follow-up Group which has scored Portugal ‘very good’ performance on the implementation of the EQF. The same went for the evaluation that the leaders of the institutions made about the curricular reform and its impact on students success.

In spite of the fact that there are signs of difficulty for universities in developing vocationally-driven study programs, and difficulties in using the ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, and despite the oblivious attitude of Portuguese HEIs towards the development of the NQF, the general idea was that national and European institutions tended to depict a favourable picture of the policy implementation of the Bologna Process in Portugal.

This positive attitude towards the Bologna Process derives, firstly, from the general features of Portuguese state, institutions, law, social structures and processes derived from the semi-peripheral position of Portugal in the world-system. The symbolic dimension of the state arising from the Portuguese European integration in 1986 was referred to by B. Sousa Santos as ‘the State-as-imagination-of-the-centre’. When translated into the political discourse, it de-legitimises any national policy that goes against European development patterns. Hence, as the European Commission has assumed the leading role in the construction of the EHEA there was no political point to not happily join the Bologna Process.

Secondly, the Bologna process was an opportunity for the government to reorganize its political steering strategies of the sector and for institutions to reshape their ‘survival’ strategies in an increasingly market-driven environment. HEIs have extensively used their autonomy in the last 20 years, though for their own good rather than for the ‘public good’ (which resulted, for instance, in an unbalanced offer of programs, by concentrating on [or disregarding] certain knowledge and training areas, etc.), governments felt the need to steer the systems and its institutions more effectively.

The Bologna reorganization of European higher education provided the occasion for that. In 2007 a new law on higher education governing and governance was passed. The perspective was to reform HEIs governance by challenging collegialism and enhancing forms of ‘boardism’ and the role attributed to external stakeholders. Additionally, the government saw in the Bologna Process an opportunity to, on the one hand, clarify the binary divide of the system by deepening the polytechnic vocational identity and, on the other, an opportunity to re-design the teaching-learning processes in a context of mass higher education.

In the case of public universities, the reason for the positive attitude toward Bologna is that it provides an opportunity to manage some of the paradoxes of mass higher education. By tactically managing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd cycles structures, institutions have been developing their strategies to escape from the lower ‘layers’ resulting from an eventual system segmentation. While accommodating the higher number possible of students they intend not to endanger their position in the divide research-driven institutions versus teaching-driven institutions. Curiously, this very attitude can be found also in the polytechnic sector that apparently finds in the vocational-drift an opportunity to counteract the traditional supremacy of Portuguese universities. According to the survey referred to above, the main goal for institutional leaders is to fulfil the paradigm shift from teaching to learning while mobility and employability are Bologna’s goals assumed by the government.

When trying to characterize the reaction of Portuguese governments and HEIs to the Bologna Process, the verse of a poem by William B. Yeats comes to mind, ‘How can we know the dance from the dancer?’ as its rationale is, one would say, functional to the management of the contradictions and paradoxes of Portuguese mass higher education. However, apparently Portuguese HEIs are singing Bologna’s song but one is not yet sure if they mean what the words mean…

António Magalhães