Governing higher education: Theory and theory building

Darryl Stuart JARVIS

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


The governance of higher education systems around the world display contradictory realities: heterogeneity and convergence. Comparative analyses of higher education systems demonstrate a broadly similar set of global-systemic forces impacting the sector; including, international league tables, and measurement of research impact, quality assurance, increasing competition, and heightened student mobility. At the same time, studies of national higher education systems display continuing variation in the institutional forms and governance modalities in operation, ranging from centralized hierarchical Weberian type governance systems, decentralized systems with devolved institutional autonomy, to deregulated systems governed by market based mechanisms—or multiple permutations of these governance types within jurisdictions. This paper explores these contradictory realities. Specifically, the paper seeks to explore how we conceptualize and theorize governance in the context of higher education systems. While various authors have attempted to map the governance architecture (formal legal-institutional, policy, regulatory mechanisms) of higher education systems in national contexts, much of this has resulted in discrete and contextually specific narratives. Policy reform or the introduction of governance innovations, for example, are often told through a narrow, country focused analytical lens, producing high levels of empirical granularity but without producing explanatory frameworks that relate governance changes to the interplay of policy actors, international systemic forces, or the institutional ambit of the higher education sector and the production of governance hybridity. To help address this problem, the paper aims to explore governance through processes of agential and institutional recombination; that is, how the constitutive dimensions or elements of multi-level governance, both informal and formal, operate on and through agency (political, ideological, civil society) and institutions (broadly understood to include recurrent patterns of behavior that condition social practices through the instantiation of norms, systems, procedures or through formal rules, enforcement, and organizational structures) to produce particular governance modalities in higher education systems.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


Jarvis, D. (2016, June). Governing higher education: Theory and theory building. Paper presented at the HKU-USC-IPPA Conference on Public Policy: Coping with Policy Complexity in the Globalized World, The University of Hong Kong, China.


  • Higher education policy
  • Governance
  • Governance theory
  • Market segmentation


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