Open seminar: Integration and diversification – Reflections on structural aspects in managing the multiplicity of expectations on higher education

Presenter: Professor Berit Askling, Department of Education and Special Education, University of Gothenburg



The expansion of higher education was an international process that began to affect educational systems from the 1950s. Structural measures, such as increase in student enrollment, broader access, establishment of new institutions and greater variation in programs, were taken. Later on decision-making power were devolved to new categories of staff members, to students and to external stakeholders.  New ideas of state governance were adopted. Recently, institutional autonomy is emphasized and the institutions are encouraged to specialize and diversify their activities in order to survive economically on international Knowledge markets. Although less is heard about democracy and culture, such objectives have not become obsolete. Thus, higher education is exposed to a powerful mix of ideological orientations.

In the paper, it is argued that structural measures undertaken in the 1970s might be more or less congruent with recent claims for specialization and competition. By using Sweden as a case, the relationship between objectives and structural models is brought to the fore. Sweden adopted an integrated model when expanding its higher education system and included all postsecondary institutions into one unitary “högskola”, covering almost all tertiary education. Offering equal study opportunities was an important democratization objective, as was also to reduce status differences between programmes and to be sensitive to labour market needs. Since then, Sweden has followed the international trends mentioned above. Today, autonomous institutions have to find a balance between being competitive on international markets and respect the “soft” national objectives of the 1970s.  Institutions are encouraged to cooperate or merger, but no formal measures are taken by the government in order to reshape the system in a more binary direction.

The paper also discusses the role of university in relation to society and markets. Does the current emphasis on market orientation represent a normal or abnormal condition?  It is argued that the higher education reform in 1977 implied an adjustment to social conditions and in that respect nor unlike recent changes, although the reform went all too far when adopting an integrated model and rigid national planning. Today, external pressure has to be met by flexibility and in this respect the integrated model and the notions of uniformity cause tensions when institutions have to manage a multiplicity of expectations: Specialize and compete in order to “survive” on national and international knowledge markets and at the same serve the wider community.

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Published Sep. 6, 2012 10:39 AM - Last modified Apr. 16, 2015 3:29 PM