Classifying European Institutions for Higher Education

I’m on my way back to The Hague, returning from the EAIR conference in Copenhagen. Although lots of interesting new studies and findings have been presented there (some of them I’ll discuss in later posts), I actually want to talk about a conference I visited last July in Berlin.

This conference (Transparency in Diversity – Towards a European Classification of Higher Education Institutions) presented the results from the second stage of the project Classifying European Institutions for Higher Education, a project that might turn out to have a major impact on European higher education policy. This project was initiated in 2005 (see this previous post) and is now supported by for instance the European Commission (DG Education) and the German Hochschule Rektorenkonferenz. It’s run by an international team led by Frans van Vught.

The project can be seen as a response to two trends (at least, that’s my interpretation). First of all, there is the emergence of the European higher education area, the objective of the Bologna process. If there’s one space, we need to know what types of institutions are occupying that space and hence, we need a classification or typology.

Secondly, there is the proliferation of ranking and league tables. As I’ve discussed many times before, these rankings present a very uni-dimensional view of the contemporary higher education institution. Basically they only look at the – science heavy – traditional research university. Through this they neglect the quality of a very wide range of other institutions which might be very good at the things they are supposed to do. Here one can think of mono-disciplinary institutions (e.g. colleges of fine arts; schools of economics and business), teaching oriented institutions (like the American liberal arts colleges) ore more professionally and vocationally oriented institutions (like the German and Austrian Fachhochschulen, the Dutch Hogescholen, etc.).

A multidimensional classification of European higher education institutions can on the one hand create more transparency in European higher education, while at the same time clarify which institutions can be compared with each other (so we can compare apples with apples and pears with pears). If you are interested in how they intend to do this, I suggest you have a look at the presentations of the conference. See Frans van Vughts presentation (PDF) to get a better idea about the background of the project and have a look at Frans Kaiser’s presentation (PDF) for the technical aspects of such a multidimensional classification.

What the classification will look like exactly is not yet clear. If it will remain limited to the web tool and the resulting radar graphs, I expect the effects to be rather limited. The question is whether the various stakeholders related to the project will ultimately define real categories of institutions (like the old Carnegie classification did). This however might give the project a more political character. Even though the project-team stresses that they will not create a hierarchical classification, it is interesting to see whether some categories will be perceived as more prestigious than others.

Nevertheless, the classification project seems to be widely supported by institutions throughout Europe and their representative organisations. The feeling that Europe needs to create more transparency is widely shared and at the same time, many institutions are looking for benchmarking opportunities with like-minded institutions. After all, comparisons with Harvard, Oxford and Yale are not very useful for most higher education institutions in Europe…

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