Researching the rise of ‘higher education regionalisms’ around the world: Suggestions for those in the field by Meng-Hsuan Chou and Pauline Ravinet

Meng-Hsuan Chou (NTU, Singapore) & Pauline Ravinet (University Lille)
Meng-Hsuan Chou (NTU, Singapore) & Pauline Ravinet (University Lille)

Regional policy cooperation in the higher education sector is on the rise, but it remains under-studied. Indeed, beyond Europe’s Bologna Process, an instance of what we refer to as ‘higher education regionalism’ (Chou and Ravinet 2015), developments elsewhere are less examined and rarely compared. In our article ‘The emergent terrains of “higher education regionalism”: How and why higher education is an interesting case for comparative regionalism’ in EJHE, we identified three concrete steps for those interested in pursuing a research agenda on comparative higher education regionalisms.

In the first step, we recommend mapping out the diverse regional higher education initiatives in place within a specific period of time. This identification process can be limited to initiatives that are regional agreements adopted (1) between states only (bilateral, multilateral), and (2) between states and explicitly involving higher education and research institutions. While this exercise can be done for every geographical region around the world, it is challenging to be comprehensive—in scope and across time. To address this, we suggest crowd sourcing as a potential solution: a digital Map of Higher Education Regionalism can be made available to the public, who are invited to identify initiatives satisfying the two above initial criteria that are currently missing from the Map. Developing the Map would enable us to address a series of questions ranging from the extent to which regional efforts represent attempts on the part of the state to assert primacy in higher education governance to the role of the University in these regional developments.

In the second step, we suggest identifying the varieties of higher education regionalisms, focusing on the institutional arrangements adopted or even abandoned for the regional undertaking and the ideas and principles embedded in and operationalised by these regional initiatives. Examining institutional arrangements allows us to identify how and why the regional cooperation emerged, as well as how it subsequently evolved. We expect institutional forms to vary across the world’s geographical regions, especially if they are embedded into the region’s multipurpose associations such as the EU, which already proposes particular institutional blueprints and acceptable ‘ways of doing things’. If they are not linked to existing regional associations, the extent to which they are ‘networked’ into the region is important to identify (e.g. the size of the network—inclusive vs. exclusive). Concentrating on ideas enables us to parse out whether particular ideas (such as competitiveness, excellence, talent) manifest through discourse (knowledge economy, knowledge society) are driving regional cooperation. The exercises in this step facilitate the distilling of regional models of higher education cooperation. We believe such an inductive approach is more likely to produce unexpected findings that may contribute to broader globalisation debates. It is also less normative than one proposing to analyse regionalism along a developmental continuum. We thus depart clearly from the (more or less explicit) assumption that there is a ‘better’ regional model as indicated by the ‘degree’ of integration or level of ‘region-ness’ perspective.

In the third and final step, we argue for conceptualising higher education regionalism. Concept development is at the heart of robust theory development and conceptualising higher education regionalism necessarily requires intensive fieldwork in addition to desk research. We recommend in-depth qualitative data collection through interviews with key actors (snowballing after repeated interview rounds), sequencing (building on process-tracing), archival work, and, ideally, participant observation of negotiations and implementations. Quantitative data collection using large-scale surveys of participating actors (designers, developers, implementers, and assessors) administered over time would also contribute to concept development. These surveys will require careful design to ensure transferability across research teams and sample populations. Together, we believe that these three steps constitute concrete ways forward for an agenda on researching higher education regionalisms around the world.


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