The evolution of higher education rules: evidence for an ecology of law

AuthorArjen van Witteloostuijn,Gjalt de Jong
Publication Date01 June 2007
Date01 June 2007
The evolution of higher education rules: evidence for an
ecology of law
Arjen van Witteloostuijn and Gjalt de Jong
Politicians have displayed a keen interest in the build-up of regulations and
bureaucracies for quite some time now. A case in point is the Netherlands. The
second Balkenende cabinet, though, vowed to downsize the number of rules as
one of its main policy initiatives. Evaluating the success of such a policy requires
the measurement of changes in rule volumes. Doing so is no easy task. Using
higher education legislation as a case study, this article attempts to chart and
explain developments in regulation volumes for the period 1986–2004. For the
time being, there appears to be no evidence that rule levels are on the decline –
in fact, the reverse is the case. We also provide evidence for a so-called ecology of
law, suggesting that the rules-breed-rules mechanism is difficult to put to a halt.
Points for practitioners
Policy-makers can design different mechanisms aimed at constraining the eco-
logical processes that would otherwise lead to rule overproduction. No introduc-
tion of new rules and, at most, only amending existing rules to new circumstances
would be the most efficient way to reduce the rule birth rate. However, this is
easier said than done. A more realistic option is to attach an explicit date for repeal
of any new rule – a so-called sunset clause. This pre-specified end-date for a new
rule circumvents the fact that existing rules are almost never annulled. Once rules
come into existence they are there to stay. Another option would be that for every
new rule that is introduced, a number of existing rules of similar size should be
repealed. A related policy is the introduction of a quota system – i.e. a fixed
number of new rules per ministry per year.
Arjen van Witteloostuijn is Professor of Management, Economics and Strategy at the universities
of Antwerp (Belgium), Durham (UK) and Utrecht (the Netherlands). Gjalt de Jong is Assistant
Professor of International Economics and Business at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands).
Copyright © 2007 IIAS, SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore)
Vol 73(2):235–255 [DOI:10.1177/0020852307077973]
Review of
Keywords: ecology of rules, higher education, minister profiles, rule evolution
Many organizations and citizens complain about increasing bureaucracy and over-
regulation. Managers from education institutes, for example, regularly report long lists
of often conflicting and incomprehensible ministerial guidelines and regulations. In a
similar vein, the business world blames reduced competitiveness on increasing
regulation. Although this lament has not surfaced overnight, it does appear to be
attracting more and more attention in Western societies. This was one of the main
reasons, for instance, why the Dutch and the French voted against a European con-
stitution. Another case in point is Germany, where the Merkel administration has
promised to reduce the bureaucratic burden of over-regulation. Ever since the rise
and fall of Pim Fortuyn, Dutch politicians have joined in the plaintive chorus, too.
Witness the Balkenende II cabinet’s plan to reduce the administrative burden for the
business world by 25 percent. A further example is a recent report from the Dutch
Scientific Council for Government Policy entitled Proofs of Good Service Provision
(Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, 2004). Behind this optimistic title
lurks a sobering analysis: the quality of public service is suffering under a rising stream
of rule changes, often under the watchful eye of one of the many new bodies in the
regulatory land.
The theme of the lament is not only the fatigue that individuals face in their deal-
ings with bureaucracy. A second tune highlights the negative impact on the economy
and society as a whole. Evidence for the performance-damaging effect of over-
bureaucratization and over-regulation is reported by, for example, Olson (1996).
Under the yoke of increasing bureaucracy and over-regulation, processes and trans-
actions are becoming inefficient, new initiatives are nipped in the bud, employers and
employees lose motivation, the effectiveness of policy implementation is reduced,
and so on. The 1996 study by Olson points out that low economic growth is in many
cases caused by ‘wrong’ (read ‘bureaucratic’) government policy that leads to a con-
siderable waste of money and resources. Another example is the small business
growth-reducing impact of regulation, as revealed in the comparative study of
Capelleras et al. (2005).2
In order to design effective de-bureaucratization measures, we need to under-
stand why rule overproduction occurs in the first place: what are the underlying
processes driving the never-ending production of new rules? In recent years, empiri-
cal research within organization studies has begun using counting methods to
examine the evolution of organizational bureaucracies – in other words, counting the
number of regulations that are ‘born’, changed or ‘killed’ each year, often over a
period of several decades. A good example in this tradition is the US study of red tape
at Stanford University during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (Schulz, 1998; March et al.,
2000). A key finding was that the number of rules had jumped from 58 in 1961 to
127 in 1987. New rules were introduced with great regularity, while old ones were
seldom or never scrapped. The most alarming conclusion was that the more rules
there are, the more rapidly will new rules emerge. The growth in the number of rules
is therefore an explosive process – and one which cannot be stopped easily. The aim
236 International Review of Administrative Sciences 73(2)

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