The transnational Governance-Higher Education nexus: New realms for policy engagement, impact and influence

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date

Global policy making draws Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) into transnational venues of governance. There is a growing array of informal international organizations (like the G20) and transgovernmental policy networks (such as Tax Inspectors Without Borders) growing at a faster rate than traditional intergovernmental treaty-based organizations like the World Bank, OECD or EU. This first group of research and evidence consumers are primarily international public sector bodies. They exist alongside a more diverse and hybrid set of ‘transnational public-private partnerships’ (like GAVI and COVAX), multi stakeholder initiatives and private standard setting regimes that also deal with highly specialised and technical matters of cross border and cross jurisdictional policy problems. In this policy ecology, HEIs are one set of actors aspiring to inform transnational governance.

A person posing for the camera
Professor Diane Stone is Chair of Global Policy in the School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute.

One of the clearest examples of how HEIs have sought to demonstrate policy impact as transnational actors is via partnering in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A focus on the transnational identities and roles of HEIs allows us to view these institutions as carving out expanding domains at regional and global levels for research impact generally, and for science diplomacy specifically. This stance takes us away from the traditional analytical treatment of HEIs as state-based entities (methodological nationalism) to address how they engage and seek to demonstrate policy impact in transnational governance. For instance, leveraging a non-state actor, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, to support the SDGs.

First, many regional and global funding bodies have revised their funding policies over the past 30 years to place increasing primacy on research that promises new knowledge likely to be of discernible social or economic value. The obvious example is the Horizon Europe program of the European Commission which now implements ‘mission-driven research’ with a budget of 95.5 billion Euro for 2021-2027 and pre-defined policy topics mostly of a global character:

  1. Adaptation to climate change including societal transformation
  2. Cancer
  3. Climate-neutral and smart cities
  4. Healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters
  5. Soil health and food

Other new elements in the design of Horizon Europe include ‘open science principles’ as well as ‘objective-driven and more ambitious partnerships with industry in support of EU policy objectives’. Such priorities provide tangible incentives for HEIs to engage transnationally.  Successful outcomes in these competitive processes – either of individual scientists and research teams or an HEI as a partner in multi-institutional research consortia – is used recursively as a signifier to both national and international audiences of the societal and/or industrial relevance of HEIs.  

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

International Organisations in general are important sources of funding for (social) science that direct research funding towards international development, poverty alleviation, global health security, and other global public goods. Donors want to see utility from their investment in research. Development agencies, such as the International Development Research Centre in Canada and the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries amongst others, want to evaluate and document the effectiveness of that research. UNAI – also known as United Nations Academic Impact – aligns with those HEIs seeking to contribute to the realization of United Nations goals and mandates. UNAI requires only one activity per annum in support of UNAI principles: a low-cost but relatively easy entry for HEI partners to demonstrate and advertise their commitment to global goals such as the SDGs.

Second, with pressure for ‘impacts’ from multiple public sector agencies, combined with straitened financial times, HEIs have incentivised their researchers to seek both funding from, and interaction with, more diverse constituencies. This includes partnering or joint activities with multinational consultancy firms and international NGOs as well as private enterprise and professional associations. How this is ‘demonstrated’ ranges from pointing to, inter alia, the advisory board positions, secondments, commissioned research and co-design of projects.

Philanthropic foundations and large international NGOs contract research or otherwise fund knowledge advancement through various financial instruments (scholarships, grants, gifts and bequests or commissioned research). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is said to have dramatically altered the global health research agenda through its grant instruments and initiatives like the GAVI-Vaccine Alliance. The Open Society Foundations network has close engagement with universities around the world, extensive scholarship and research funding schemes, including the Open Society University Network (OSUN), geared to promote civic engagement, to advance open society and address fundamental global challenges such as inequality and climate change. University academics become involved with foundations from ad hoc participation in events, as grant recipients, by designing grant programs or implementing and evaluating them, as well through more long-term affiliations.

The world-wide character of the COVID pandemic drove home to many HEIs the ramifications of the spread of the disease on overseas student flows and mobility. But the pandemic also prompted extensive scientific collaboration. One reaction was a variety of ‘global commission’: Reform for Resilience with its mini galaxy of former prime-ministers, the Chair of GAVI, acclaimed scientists and deans of HEIs co-existing alongside the Lancet Commission and the WHO Covid Panel that also relied upon the expertise of notable academicians and university researchers.  

In some instances, HEIs have innovated to adopt quasi-diplomatic roles or interests that go beyond being tools of states in public diplomacy. Rather than a de jure formal understanding of diplomacy, based on institutions and laws, that happens between political leaders and Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the ‘practice turn’ stresses the informal network based or de facto character of transnational governance that opens space for non-state actors and evolving practices of policy. Accordingly, we witness individual scholars and teams of scientists who have become science or cultural diplomats; how HEIs often act as a venue for (science) diplomatic activity or diplomatic training; or when they partner with other HEIs or non-state actors in ‘knowledge diplomacy’. 

The key question is whether HEIs are merely relevant to global policy making or whether they can have substantive, sustained and tangible impact. However, demonstrating impact is methodologically difficult and proof often elusive in the multi-actor environments of global policy making. Political leaders, the other non-state partners of HEIs as well as various other policy players all seek to take credit for policy innovation and governance reforms.

Professor Diane Stone is Chair of Global Policy in the School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.