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DIT Conference: Higher Education in the 21st Century – Diversity of Missions

Diversity and Differentiation in Higher Education Systems

Frans van Vught, President of the European Centre for Strategic Management of Universities (ESMU)

Abstract for Keynote address for the conference ‘Higher Education in the 21st Century – Diversity of Missions’, 25-27 June, 2007, Dublin.

Diversity is generally assumed to be a worthwhile objective for higher education systems. Many governmental policies have been developed and implemented to create the positive effects of an increasing level of diversity in higher education. However, it appears that such policies are not always based on a clear understanding of the dynamics of higher education systems.

In this presentation a number of issues will be discussed.

First of all the concepts diversity, differentiation and diversification will be distinguished and defined. In addition several ‘types’ of diversity in relation to higher education will be considered (systemic diversity, structural diversity, programmatic diversity).

Secondly, in order to understand diversity in social systems the theoretical foundations of the diversity concept will be explored. Both ‘classical’ economic and sociological conceptualisations and more recent theoretical frameworks will be briefly presented (the population ecology perspective, the resource dependency perspective and the institutional isomorphism perspective).

Thirdly, an inventory will be made of the various arguments in favour of an increase of diversity in higher education systems. These arguments address issues like: social mobility, massification, labour marked needs and the effectiveness and innovative capacity of higher education systems.

Fourthly, a theoretical explanatory model will be developed which intends to explain the dynamics of higher education systems, particularly the processes of differentiation and dedifferentiation in these systems. In this explanatory model the two crucial categories of variables are: the level of uniformity/variety in the environment of higher education institutions and the choices by and behaviour of these institutions (and their leaders). In this context concepts like (on the one hand) uniformity of governmental policies and variety in the student body, and (on the other hand) ‘academic drift’ and ‘reputation race’ will be discussed.

Finally, the recent ranking instruments and league tables in higher education will be related to this explanatory model; it will be argued that developing typologies of higher education institutions (reflecting diversity of missions and profiles) is a crucial pre-condition of ranking exercises.