Methodological considerations

Five issues need to be clearly defined before a classification can be designed. These are:

What kind of classification?

It is important to make a distinction between a priori typologies and a posteriori typologies. There is a conceptual difference between the arrangements of governments to demarcate types of higher education institutions (polytechnics, hogescholen, Fachhochschulen, Ammattikorkeakoulo) and efforts of analysts to categorise different types of institutions on the basis of similarities and differences. In the framework of this project, higher education institutions will be classified on the basis of objective data about the ‘behaviour’ of institutions. This implies that our classification is of the a posteriori type.

What types of characteristics are used to categorise?

It must be clear which characteristics are taken into account to categorise institutions. As we employ a multi-actor perspective, different characteristics are relevant for classifying higher education institutions in Europe. Hence, we pursue a ‘multiple’ classification approach, which allows institutions to be categorised on various dimensions.

Hierarchical or not?

Typologies can be constructed hierarchically or not. The concept “hierarchy” has two meanings here. It either can be interpreted in terms of the structure of the classification (tree-like, with general types at the top and branches indicating subtypes; cf. the five kingdoms in nature) or in terms of the outcomes (does the emergent classification imply a rank order of institutions). In the classification that we are developing, there is no hierarchy between dimensions, nor between the categories within a dimension. It must however be noted that any attempt to classify elements cannot prevent hierarchy-related interpretations.

Reliability of the data

It is important to decide which types of data are relevant for a classification. Classifications can be based on subjective judgements (of peers, students, etc.) or on more or less objective data. It is important to define the criteria upon which institutions are classified clearly and to be keen on the reliability of the data.

Who is eligible to be incorporated?

Only accredited and/or nationally recognised institutions of higher education are eligible to be incorporated in the classification. Every eligible institution may be assigned to a category within a dimension; each institution can only occupy a single category within each dimension.