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Changing Structures of the Higher Education Systems: The Increasing Complexity of Underlying Forces

Ulrich Teichler

Centre for Research on Higher Education and Work
University of Kassel, Germany
teichler@hochschulforschung.uni-kassel.de

1Introduction

Structures of higher education systems or more precisely, the shape and the size of the national higher education systems, have been among the issues of higher education policy in the economically advanced countries of the world which absorbed enormous attention since more than four decades. They obviously are at the crossroad of external expectations and internal dynamics of higher education, and they are shaped by legitimate influences and interests of the society at large, the governments in their steering and supervisory roles, the institutions of higher education and their staff as well as the learners. And they are of interest for all actors and observers, because they note a long-term trend of expansion of higher education accompanied by a continuous debate about its desirability and a perennial instability or dynamic of the structures whereby extent of homogeneity or diversity is constantly on the move through changes of the overall structure as well as through re-positioning of the individual institutions on the overall ‘map’ of higher education. Over the years, however, first, the emphasis placed on issues of the shape and size of the higher education system varied substantially. Moreover, we observe considerable changes of views and controversies about the most desirable quantitative and structural developments. Finally, perceptions underwent continuous revisions as regards the driving forces affecting the patterns of the higher education systems. The aim of this contribution is, first, after a brief overview of the key elements of shape and size, to sketch the major developmental trends. Second, an overview is provided of key concepts explaining the structural dynamics. Third, special attention will be paid to the main external and internal factors which are viewed as crucial for the structural dynamics. This final theme is addressed because most recent debates suggest that the key factors affecting the structural developments tend to become increasingly complex.

2Borderlines, Quantities, Structural Dimensions

2.1The Higher Education System

“Higher education” and “higher education system” became popular terms in the second half of the twentieth century. The spread of this term had three by no means trivial implications. First, the use of these terms suggest that there is a macro-structure of higher education. Higher education activities and institutions in a country have something in common and are interrelated. We do not consider individual institutions or sub-units as self-sustaining entities but rather as embedded in common frameworks of societal expectations, regulatory frameworks, and cooperative or competitive linkages. In some countries, this move towards a perception of a system became clearly visible when laws and governmental orders addressing individual institutions of higher education were substituted by a system-wide regulatory framework. Second, the terms suggest that the characteristic features of universities are not necessarily indicative anymore for the higher education system as a whole. Those institutions are termed universities, as a rule, which serve a twofold function: teaching and research, the latter i.e. the creation and preservation of systematic knowledge. It is widely assumed that universities in today’s meaning of institutions fostering “analytic”, “rational”, “systematic”, “critical”, “sceptical” and “innovative” thinking through teaching and research emerged form the European universities of the Middle Age. In the second half of the twentieth century the view spread that higher learning is not anymore solely the domain of this institutional type – at most supplemented a few institutions specialized...
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