The Power of the Purse: Supranational Entrepreneurship, Financial Incentives, and European Higher Education Policy

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Journal Article
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This article shows how the European Commission cultivates policy shifts toward a particular idea of a common European Higher Education Area by using its considerable financial leverage. By making European Union (EU) funding dependent on grant recipients meeting certain strategically selected conditions, the Commission creates new incentive structures for domestic actors, in this case higher education institutions (HEIs), with two important consequences. First, the Commission turns universities into agents for its policies: Universities lobby governments to pass legislation, which would allow them to conform to Commission requirements. Second, HEIs try to comply with the Commission’s requirements even in the absence of compatible national frameworks, thereby leapfrogging policy decisions on the national level. Describing this as a “soft” mechanism for achieving convergence, as Open Method of Coordination accounts posit, overlooks the fundamentally non-negotiable nature of the process from the participants’ perspective and considerably underestimates the Commission’s real influence. We examine this argument through a case study of an EU-funded higher education program, Erasmus Mundus.