Legal and political regulation of higher education in Portugal: an evolutionary perspective on the current policy issues and the problem of order

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The higher education system in Europe is currently under stress and the debates over its reform and future are gaining momentum. Now that, for most countries, we are in a time for change, in the overall society and the whole education system, the legal and political dimensions have gained prominence, which has not been followed by a more integrative approach of the problem of order, its reform and the issue of regulation, beyond the typical static and classical cost-benefit analyses. The two classical approaches for studying (and for designing the policy measures of) the problem of the reform of the higher education system - the cost-benefit analysis and the legal scholarship description - have to be integrated. This is the argument of our paper that the very integration of economic and legal approaches, what Warren Samuels called the legal-economic nexus, is meaningful and necessary, especially if we want to address the problem of order (as formulated by Joseph Spengler) and the overall regulation of the system. On the one hand, and without neglecting the interest and insights gained from the cost-benefit analysis, or other approaches of value for money assessment, we will focus our study on the legal, social and political aspects of the regulation of the higher education system and its reform in Portugal. On the other hand, the economic and financial problems have to be taken into account, but in a more inclusive way with regard to the indirect and other socio-economic costs not contemplated in traditional or standard assessments of policies for the tertiary education sector. In the first section of the paper, we will discuss the theoretical and conceptual underpinning of our analysis, focusing on the evolutionary approach, the role of critical institutions, the legal-economic nexus and the problem of order. All these elements are related to the institutional tradition, from Veblen and Commons to Spengler and Samuels. The second section states the problem of regulation in the higher education system and the issue of policy formulation for tackling the problem. The current situation is clearly one of crisis with the expansion of the cohorts of young students coming to an end and the recurrent scandals in private institutions. In the last decade, after a protracted period of extension or expansion of the system, i. e., the continuous growth of students, universities and other institutions are competing harder to gain students and have seen their financial situation at risk. It seems that we are entering a period of radical uncertainty, higher competition and a new configuration that is slowly building up is the growth in intensity, which means upgrading the quality of the higher learning and getting more involvement in vocational training and life-long learning. With this change, and along with other deep ones in the Portuguese society and economy, the current regulation has shown signs of maladjustment. The third section consists of our conclusions on the current issue of regulation and policy challenge. First, we underline the importance of an evolutionary approach to a process of change that is essentially dynamic. A special attention will be given to the issues related to an evolutionary construe of policy analysis and formulation. Second, the integration of law and economics, through the notion of legal economic nexus, allows us to better define the issues of regulation and the concrete problems that the universities are facing. One aspect is the instability of the political measures regarding the public administration and on which the higher education system depends financially, legally and institutionally, to say the least. A corollary is the lack of clear strategy in the policy reforms. Third, our research criticizes several studies, such as the one made by the OECD in late 2006 for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, for being too static and neglecting fundamental aspects of regulation such as the logic of actors, groups and organizations who are major players in the system. Finally, simply changing the legal rules will not necessary per se change the behaviors that the authorities want to change. By this, we mean that it is not only remiss of the policy maker to ignore some of the critical issues of regulation, namely the continuous non-respect by academic management and administrative bodies of universities of the legal rules that were once promulgated. Changing the rules does not change the problem, especially without the necessary debates form the different relevant quarters that make up the higher education system. The issues of social interaction remain as intact. Our treatment of the matter will be organized in the following way. In the first section, the theoretical principles are developed in order to be able to study more adequately the higher education transformation with a modest evolutionary theory and a legal and economic nexus of the interactions of the system and the policy challenges. After describing, in the second section, the recent evolution and current working of the higher education in Portugal, we will analyze the legal framework and the current regulatory practices and problems in light of the theoretical framework adopted. We will end with some conclusions on the current problems of regulation and the policy measures that are discusses in recent years.