3 Chapter 3: Understanding Policy and the Role of Actors in Postsecondary Education

A. Session Introduction

There are a lot of parties both within and outside the post-secondary sector that have vested interest in shaping the post-secondary sector to meet certain needs and depict their vision. The shaping of the organizations happens through the policies and therefore, these parties try to influence policy analysis, policy formation, and policy critique processes.


We begin this session by gaining an overview of education policy. Reading Chapter 1 of Delaney (2017), we will explore various definitions of policy. We will also consider the benefits of a well-written policy.

Just as there are many actors who wish to shape elements of postsecondary education, they do so by shaping/writing different kinds of policies. Consequently, there are many different types of policies that exist. Reading Chapter 3 of Delaney (2017) will provide us with an overview of different policy classification approaches.


Gallagher (1992) states, “In the most general sense, policy analysis is the process of locating information relevant to the identified purpose. In the broad sense, policy analysis is synonymous with problem solving” (as cited in Delaney, 2017, p. 34). In other words, policies exist to solve problems or resolve issues that may exist at present or manifest in the future.

Policy analysis is comprised of five steps:

  1. Define and analyze the problem (also called policy analysis)
  2. Construct Policy Alternatives
  3. Develop evaluative criteria
  4. Assess alternatives
  5. Draw Conclusions (also known as Make the Decision concerning the Problem at hand)

1. Define and analyze the problem

Why is defining the problem important? Unless you define it properly, you will not know when you are effective in resolving the problem. How you define the problem will affect what solutions you will entertain. For example, consider the issue of poverty: how do you define it? Possible answers include: Not enough money: not enough disposal income; insufficient savings; inter alia. One could also define poverty as low earned wages. One could also base the issue of poverty as a symptom of a lack of skills and low levels of education. Alternatively, it could be seen as a sign of the disintegration of the nuclear family unit; or even elevated drug addiction. Depending on how you envision the problem and how you define it your proposed solutions will differ drastically.
It is one thing to define a problem, but a policy tool is initiated if the problem is widespread enough to warrant it. Therefore another component of problem analysis is to measure the problem. Again, depending on how the problem is defined, it will be measured differently. Of course, in order to have confidence in the extent of the problem that has been measured, one needs to be cautious as to who is collecting the data, that is, who is measuring the problem. What is the bias of the people reporting the extent of the problem? What is the source of data? Might it be convenient for the parties to advance their objectives/agendas? A discrepancy in measurement is often a contested issue.
After the decision on how the problem is going to be measured, the magnitude of the problem helps establish how extensive is the problem.
Since a policy analyst conducting problem analysis is deeply involved in the study of the problem, he or she is expected to determine the causes of the problem. This is related to the definition of the problem above, but at this stage, some of the other components are established and agreed upon and therefore a clearer picture of how the problem manifests becomes apparent.
When the preceding four steps have finished, one starts to get a picture of how the problem could potentially be resolved. This constitutes the fifth step of problem analysis as setting goals or objectives. It might seem that this step is related to setting the evaluation criteria above, but there are certain normative issues that make this a normative goal or criteria. (To learn more about a normative goal, see Robert & Zeckhauser, 2011).
And finally, the last step of problem analysis is establishing the link between problem analysis and the next step of policy analysis. It offers some ways in which the problem could possibly be tackled. Often, this step is ignored if someone (or some agency) were doing the entire policy analysis, but this step is retained if a third party does the problem analysis (a subset of policy analysis).
The reason why the emphasis has been placed on problem analysis is that it is the first and most crucial step of policy work. The success of subsequent policy analysis depends on how well or thoroughly this step is done. The success of the policy analysis work is very much contingent on the thoroughness of this step.

2. Construct Policy Alternatives
What can be done is the central preoccupation in this step – what can governments or universities or colleges do? Essentially, these are brainstorming ways of setting up various options that can be undertaken to tackle the problem. Depending on the jurisdiction, these include (but these are neither limited to, nor applicable at all levels):

  1. Regulation
  2. Spending
  3. Educational campaigns
  4. Rationing
  5. Spending cuts
  6. Charging fee
  7. Privatizing
  8. Taxing
  9. … …

3. Develop Evaluation Criteria
The policy analysis requires that the definition of how the success of the policy measure will be evaluated be provided. Various ways of evaluating success are measuring:

  1. Effectiveness
  2. Efficiency
  3. Equity
  4. Effects on personal freedom
  5. Political feasibility
  6. Social acceptability
  7. Administrative feasibility
  8. technical feasibility
  9. … …

4. Alternatives
Depending on the outcomes of the previous steps, the next step of policy analysis attempts to offer other alternatives. This is where the possibility of inaction is also considered. Sometimes that is the most viable option because of the costs (fiscal, technical, political, inter alia) are so high that actions are deferred. Can you think of examples from college or university sector?</span

5. Draw conclusions
Recall, the policy analysis is a mechanism to address, redress, or resolve problems. Therefore, the policy process is only complete if appropriate decisions are drawn.


If the connection between policy and problem solving is apparent, then it is not surprising that the first step of policy analysis is defining the problem (Kraft & Furlong, 2018). In reality, the problem definition is such an important step that many parties both inside and outside try to influence how the situation is perceived and defined.

Understood in this manner, the attempts of students, parents, guardians, funders, researchers, the board of trustees, governments, unions, administrators, all have vested interest in shaping the policy analysis process to advance their objectives and aims. The analysis of existing policies are sometimes analyzed for their validity in process, content, history, ethical, and empirical validity.

​Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Policies may be analyzed using a variety of approaches. Reading Chapter 4 of Delaney (2017) will give us an understanding of different forms of policy analysis. We will also consider two different policy analysis models and review tips for good policy analysis.  

Understood in this manner, students, parents, guardians, funders, researchers, board of trustees, governments, unions, administrators, all have vested interest in shaping the policy analysis process to advance their objectives and aims.


B. Learning Outcomes

By the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Consider various definitions of policy
  • Understand different types of educational policies
  • Understand the policy analysis process
  • Analyze an actual PSE policy

C. Session Resources

Delaney, J. G. (2017). Educational policy studies: A practical approach. Edmonton, AB: Brush Education. [Read Chapter 1, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4].

Kraft, M. E., & Furlong, S. R. (2018). Public policy: Politics, analysis, and alternatives (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Robert, C., & Zeckhauser, R. (2011). The methodology of normative policy analysis. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 30(3), 613–643. https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.20578


D. Learning Activities

1. In Chapter 1, Delaney (2017) describes that there is not a universally accepted definition of policy and provides definitions from eight different sets of authors. In the post titled “Policy definitions”, describe which author’s definition you prefer. Provide an explanation for your preference. 

2.  In Chapter 4, Delaney lists Pal’s 10 tips for good policy analysis. In the post titled “Policy tips”, share which tip you think is paramount and why. Can you think of any example related to this tip – either where the tip was ignored and the outcome wasn’t good, or where the following tip led to a more favourable outcome?