By Alina Felder
Education and research are at the fore of strategies to enhance competitiveness in the European Union. Higher education institutions thus appear as the nexus of the different knowledge related EU policies that aim at excellence in research, mobility in education or at cohesion through cross-border cooperation. In my research, I focus on the higher education institutions at this very nexus – the higher education institutions located in border regions. My objective is to determine the extent to which the ‘interplay between education and training and other policies of the EU’ is not only more visible than ever, but also has a tangible impact on higher education institutions and policies.
Europeanisation research has always argued that the EU influences domestic policy, while domestic actors shape the very structures the policies emanate from. Whereas previous research has consciously focused on the top-down direction of Europeanisation, Europeanisation researchers nowadays dedicate themselves to circular Europeanisation approaches. Since circular Europeanisation research is conceptually and methodologically difficult to conduct, I used the three tools of sequencing, comparison, and in-depth knowledge for researching the Europeanisation of cross-border cooperating universities.
Sequencing allows to not only consider actors as mediators of Europeanisation, but also to acknowledge them as active users of Europe. In this vein, EU policy is not only a constraint but also an instrument of empowerment for (sub)national actors. Applying sequential approach in my analysis, I first account for the effect of EU funding on (sub)national structures and subsequently the feedback of their implementation experiences towards the EU-level.
The (sub)national level of interest for my analysis, i.e. border regions, display a ‘privileged space to analyse how fluxes and exchanges of goods, peoples and capital have evolved in time and to what extent the process of integration is responsible for the increment of those transactions.’ Within these spaces, some variables or mechanisms of Europeanisation may be important, while they are not important in others so that a comparison is necessary.
While comparisons are at the core of Europeanisation research, the cases for comparison require careful selection. Since the objective of my research is to single out the effect of Europeanisation on the cross-border cooperation among higher education institutions, my ‘laboratories of European integration’ are thus cases of cross-border cooperation that made use of EU funding: the University of the Greater Region (UniGR) and the International University Lake Constance (IBH).
Higher education institutions that cooperate across the border and make use of EU funding instruments, i.e. Interreg, are not only expected to adapt towards the EU opportunity structure, but also attempt to alter it. In a first analysis I confirm these expectations and identify the two major factors guiding Europeanisation processes – rational decisions and socialisation. Higher education institutions cooperate with each other across borders not only due to strategic and rational decisions, but also due to an emerging cross-border identity that results from the joint experience.
When accounting for the concrete paths that the rationalist, as well as the ideational variant of Europeanisation takes in cross-border cooperation contexts, exchanging with the actors who are designing and implementing the EU’s knowledge policies is essential. To gain in-depth knowledge of ‘my laboratories’, I gathered primary data through semi-structured interviews with higher education institution representatives from the selected cases both at rector and administrative level, (sub)national political actors located in the respective region and in Brussels, and representatives from university interest organisations.
Overall, Europeanisation research does not only provide theoretical, but also methodological guidance for studying cross-border cooperation practices in Europe. The presented tools of sequencing, comparison and in-depth knowledge demonstrate that Europeanisation research when guided at establishing causality, requires detailed data and analysis, and thus time. While focusing on a small number of cases, my study provides insights into concrete Europeanisation processes. When clarifying the phenomenon in focus, the models of change and the theoretical challenges, Europeanization research does not necessarily run the risk of concept stretching. Instead, Europeanisation theory and methodology has helped me to reflect critically about ‘knowledge policies as transversal problem solvers’ and thus to unravel the overstretched responsibilities attached to higher education institutions.
Alina Felder is a doctoral fellow at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences (BAGSS). The central question of her dissertation is how EU regional policy instruments influence the cross-border cooperation among higher education institutions and their attempts to shape EU policies they (could) benefit from. Her research interests thus include Europeanization processes that are induced through network modes of governance the EU is establishing and encouraging public and private actors to participate in.