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Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students

by Rachel Brooks

In 2010, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) came into being. It represents an attempt to standardise many aspects of higher education across the continent to facilitate the movement of staff and students across national borders, and ensure that the region of Europe is a competitive player in the global market for higher education. Scholars have suggested that it has tended to foreground values more commonly associated with an Anglo-American model of higher education (such as marketisation and competition) rather than those that have traditionally underpinned higher education in continental Europe (including collegial structures of governance and the autonomy of academic staff). It is thus often argued that higher education systems across Europe are becoming more similar, with greater homogeneity observed in their approaches to teaching, methods of governance, and underpinning values.

This blog draws on interviews with policy influencers in six countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) to consider the extent to which convergence is evident among the policy community within Europe, particularly in relation to how they understand higher education students. Do they, for example, see all higher education students, wherever they study in the EHEA, as broadly similar, or do they differentiate between those in their own nation-state and other parts of the continent? Analysing such discourses employed by policy actors is important, not only in teasing out the extent to which European higher education is indeed homogenising and whether distinctions are made between students of different national origins, but also because the language used by policymakers can have a significant impact on the ways in which social groups are understood and society more generally is shaped.

It was striking in many of the interviews that distinct ‘national narratives’ were drawn upon quite frequently by policy influencers to explain what were believed to be key characteristics of higher education students from their particular country – even if the available empirical evidence suggests that the characteristics were, in practice, shared by students in many other parts of Europe. An example of this is the construction of students as employment-focussed.

A common theme across the dataset was that, over recent decades, students had become increasingly employment-focussed. This was evident, for example, in national policy documents where the construction of the higher education student as a ‘future worker’ was a common trope across all six countries. Policy influencers also talked at length about how the role of the student had increasingly come to be understood in relation to the labour market, and how steps had been taken to provide better information to prospective students about employment destinations and earnings of graduates from their chosen discipline, with the intention of guiding them towards degrees perceived as having better economic returns. However, while such themes were common across the six countries, they were typically discussed and explained in national terms, often with reference to very specific national histories.

In Ireland, for example, the close relationship between higher education and employment was discussed by several interviewees. In the first extract below, a civil servant responsible for higher education policy explains this in terms of Ireland’s experience of unemployment:

Ireland’s very big on employment [within higher education policy] you see because we’ve had such a long history of unemployment and under-employment, it’s deep in the policy DNA here, in a way it mightn’t be in other countries.  Like we are all about how do we get jobs, how do we keep jobs, how do we fill jobs! How do we … that’s our central core mission.

Notable here is the comment she makes about the likely difference from other nations. She goes on to say that this relationship between education and work is not contested in Ireland because of the manner in which it has been viewed historically, and the national consensus about the labour market gains that follow from higher education. These sentiments were echoed by others. Two other Irish interviewees emphasised the way in which education was a key part of the nation’s history and culture, not least because it was seen as the most effective route out of poverty and into well-paid employment. The perceived distinctiveness of the Irish experience was thus often explicit in many of these narratives.

The Polish respondents also commented on the close relationship between higher education and employment but, in this case, it was not always evaluated entirely positively. A government interviewee believed that Polish students focussed primarily on the labour market outcomes of their study, and that this differentiated them from their Western European counterparts:

I think that the Polish student population, perhaps along with the student populations of other post-Communist countries, are markedly different than their counterparts in, in Western Europe where the markets, you know, this whole capitalism thing has been for hundred … for decades! And [in Western countries] … this attitude towards finding your … your success on the labour market perhaps is not as pronounced. 

He believed that Poland’s relatively late embrace of capitalism explained the keenness of Polish students to secure well-paid jobs on graduation and think of their higher education almost exclusively as a period of labour market preparation. Another government interviewee drew on a somewhat similar comparison to explain Polish students’ attitudes. As far as he was concerned, students’ expectations about the jobs they should be taking up on graduation were far too high, and they were often reluctant to work their way up within organisations. These were again attributed to Poland’s recent economic and political history:

In my opinion, the[ir] demands are too high. It might be because of the opening of the Polish borders after the fall of the Communist regime. When I was a student in the 1990s, it was not so easy to cross the border as a student and to spend one year or six months abroad. Now it is, and the living standard is of course much higher in Western countries, and being able to look at a better life – it might be the reason why students have become more demanding.

Thus, while Irish and Polish interviewees remarked upon very similar trends among their student populations – trends that were evident in the other four nations, too – these were explained through national narratives, emphasising the distinctiveness of their particular historical trajectory. Discussion of wider transnational influence was notably absent.

The recourse to ‘national narratives’ such as these (of which we have several other examples in our dataset), is significant because of the light it sheds on understandings of the EHEA. Despite assertions about the increasing convergence of higher education systems across Europe, the policy actors’ narratives suggest that, in some cases, national frames of reference have not yet been usurped by European ones. They are also significant because of the ways in which they conceptualise students. Words do more than name things, they impose limits on what can be said, and construct certain possibilities for thought. Thus, the emphasis on students as distinct from those in other parts of Europe may have a bearing on how they are understood by other social actors, and by students themselves.

Rachel Brooks is Professor of Higher Education in the Institute of Education at University College London. She is an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, a member of the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and a member of the assessment panel for REF 2021 (sub-panel 23: Education).

This blogpost is based on an article recently published in Sociological Research Online. It draws on data from the Eurostudents project, funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant to Rachel Brooks (grant number: 681018_EUROSTUDENTS).

Vicky Gunn


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Interdependence and HE systems

by Vicky Gunn

My life has entered a period of dramatic change. I am not referring here to my imminent move from an institution in which I have worked for nearly 18 years (Glasgow University) to a new adventure at Glasgow School of Art. No, the dramatic change I refer to here was my intellectual discomfort around the Scottish independence referendum. For me, the last few months have involved a growing realization that the fragile imaginary social fabric (to adopt a phrase of Maurice Bloch’s) which is stitched together to tailor the United Kingdom was being unpicked by two seamstresses of quite different hues: one focused on the holistic ‘sew the patchwork quilt together but slightly differently’ argument, the other on the ‘unpick the lot and start again’ one. Both have seemed wanting in my mind, because both appeared to come from an ultimately misleading question: should Scotland become an independent country? Continue reading