Party Politics in Higher Education Policy – Partisan Preferences, Coalition Positions and Higher Education Policy in Western Europe (PhD project) (completed)

The project focuses on the role of political parties in higher education policy-making. For this purpose higher education policy is analyzed in four countries both concerning differences in partisan preferences, coalition positions and policy proposals.


Higher education underwent numerous changes in recent decades that have made it more prominent, on its own as well when it comes to its relevance and importance for other policy areas (e.g. economy, environment, energy). As a consequence, it is becoming a policy area that is of increasing political interest. This implies that political parties in parliamentary democracies are becoming more interested in higher education as a policy issue while they are also becoming more actively involved in higher education policy-making, in particular in comparison to the traditional policy-making approach in this area that relies more on bureaucracy, the involvement of experts or organized interests.

Political parties are the central partisan actors in parliamentary democracies, and their preferences potentially have a privileged role in policy-making in general and formulation of policy in particular. Given the aforementioned changes, with regard to salience and the politicization of higher education, including political parties in higher education policy analysis might be necessary if one wants to do justice to contemporary dynamics in this area. This is not to assume that other actors do not matter in this process, but rather that a party perspective on higher education policy-making can be a valuable addition, as it allows the partisan political dynamics behind policy changes to be captured. This is particularly relevant given that academic knowledge on the role of parties for higher education policy is limited, and a party-political perspective is largely missing from the toolkit of higher education policy analysis. Additionally, most higher education policy studies begin their analysis at a point at which a government is already in place and such studies ignore the preceding negotiations about the government’s agenda. Thus, to increase the knowledge base on higher education policy and to respond to the recent changes in this area, it is necessary to investigate whether a theoretical framework that links parties and their preferences to policy-making, adapted to the specificities of higher education policy, can provide valuable insights for higher education policy studies.

This study fills this gap by focusing on partisan preferences concerning higher education, formation of coalition positions and the influence of these positions on policy proposals. The central research question is how political parties and their preferences contribute to policy-making in higher education. The core idea behind the analysis is that parties are expected to differ in their preferences in higher education policy, both with regard to using higher education for societal redistribution, and with regard to the public governance of higher education. These different preferences are based on the ideological background of political parties, as indicated by their belonging to a specific party family, and is also influenced by the context in which parties formulate their preferences. Furthermore, the differing preferences can be expected to influence policy-making activities of parties once they are in government.

The underlying intention and key problem is to investigate how parties from different party families vary in their preferences on higher education policy, how these preferences can be structured, how the preferences are translated into coalition positions, and the situations in which partisan preferences or coalition positions become relevant for policy proposals in the area of higher education. Therefore, the study contributes to the empirical and theoretical understanding of policy-making processes with an emphasis on the role of political parties in the area of higher education policy.

The empirical focus is on all relevant parties in parliamentary democracies in Western Europe, specifically in four country contexts (England, the Netherlands, Norway and the German Bundesland North-Rhine Westphalia). The study uses a qualitative comparative research design, relying on in-depth analysis of a limited number of cases to provide a robust understanding of an area that so far has not been sufficiently conceptualized. It uses original coding and qualitative content analysis of several types of documents (party manifestos, coalition agreements, and policy proposals) as well as a set of interviews with party officials who are experts on higher education policy.

The time frame of the project is October 2011 until October 2015 and it is supervised by Prof. Peter Maassen and Prof. Åse Gornitzka.


Published Jan. 2, 2012 3:28 PM - Last modified May 20, 2016 11:51 AM