Rethinking the Role of Comparative Education
The Changing Environment for Comparative Education Studies
There was a time, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when comparative education was asserting itself as a new ‘educational discipline’ on university campuses throughout North America, western Europe and east Asia. Specialist journals and societies were launched. Governments, bent on reforming their education systems, sought to glean ideas from developments and innovations elsewhere in the world. Then, during the late 1970s and 1980s, it went through a ‘crisis of confidence’. It came under attack from academics in the social sciences as to its relevance: in what ways did it differ from sociology, curriculum studies, educational administration and planning, policy-making and so on? Was there anything special about a comparative research methodology and was there any underpinning theory? What was its relevance to trainee teachers, policy-makers and educational administrators? Numbers studying comparative education at undergraduate level in the United Kingdom fell dramatically (Watson, 1982) but in the USA at least there was a fightback. Comparative education was classified as a ‘field of study’ whose relevance was both unique and important (Altbach et al, 1982; Altbach & Kelly, 1986). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the picture has changed yet again. There is no longer any need to justify comparative educational studies; there is, however, a need to refocus its orientation; to ensure that classic mistakes of misinterpretation are avoided; and to seek new areas for research. How and why has this change come about?
The growing ‘globalisation’ of the world’s economic systems and the apparent triumph of neoliberal, free market economics (Roberts, 1985; Fukuyama, 1992; Colclough, 1997) have led many, if not all, governments to recognise that the future success of their countries, even their survival, in the global market place depends less upon their natural resources than upon their human resources. The overwhelming evidence would now suggest that it is increasingly the creation, acquisition, manipulation and use of knowledge that constitutes the basis for international competition, especially with the growth of information technology. Singapore provides a shining example of this thesis. The better the education and training provided, the higher the levels of skills acquisition and the greater the knowledge base offered to the next generation, the more likely is it that a country, or region, will thrive and be able to compete economically. The converse is also true.
It is this recognition that has led international agencies such as the World Bank (1995), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), UNESCO (1996) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to re-emphasise the importance of education and training for both human resource development as well as for socio-economic development, especially in the poorer countries of the world. This was the thrust of the 1990 Jomtien Conference on Education for All, and of the World Bank’s emphasis on the necessity to develop primary education as the foundation for all other developments:
Education, especially at primary level, has a vital role to play in the process of socio economic development. It is even more true to-day and in the next century with advances in technology, micro technology and computer related industry that a nation’s capacity for development hinges as much on the ability of its people to acquire, adapt, and then to advance knowledge as it does on its natural resources. Literacy, numeracy, communications and problem solving skills – higher order thinking among the workforce – are essential for economic survival, let alone development. (World Bank, 1990, p. 1)
At the same time, the industrialised countries have been looking askance at the economic challenge posed by the growth of the Newly Industrialising Countries (NICs) such as Mexico, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan, especially as the Asian countries have consistently outstripped the USA, Australasia and western Europe in the International Evaluation of Achievement (IEA) surveys in mathematics and science. Just as the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 led to some soul-searching and educational reforms in the USA, so has the continuing growth of the Asian economies (Lewin, 1998) led many of the industrialised country leaders and businessmen to focus on the role education has played in their sluggish economic performance compared to the ongoing high rates of growth in Asia. It has frequently been suggested that the inspiration for many of the educational reforms in Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom during the last two decades of the twentieth century had their origins in a misreading of developments in Asia.
Certainly, the World Bank’s advocacy of greater private sector involvement in higher education drew much of its inspiration from Asia and Latin America (World Bank, 1994). Unfortunately, this line of argument was based on a somewhat superficial and decontextualised reading of the situation because it chose to play down the role of state regulation and intervention in favour of playing up the place of the private sector (Watson, 1995).
One of the main purposes of comparative education has always been that of reform, learning from other situations with the express intention of borrowing ideas that might enable reform in one’s own country context (Hans, 1964; King, 1968). This is no less true now than it was fifty, or even a hundred, years ago. As the UNESCO World Education Report of 1993 so aptly put it:
At a time such as the present, when profound changes are occurring in the whole structure of global economic, social and cultural relations, and the role of education in these changes is coming to be recognised as fundamental, all countries can only benefit from knowing more about the cultural premises of each other’s education. (UNESCO, 1993, p. 89)
The willingness on the part of governments and policy-makers to seek ideas from other countries and to recognise the importance of looking comparatively, using comparative data and ideas to inform policy decisions, cannot be underestimated in the newly emerging global economic order but there are challenges that need to be recognised.
New Challenges and Opportunities
The first of these challenges is that more comparative studies are being undertaken than ever before, but by non-specialists, by consultants and by politicians or by educationists from quite different backgrounds, many of whom have a preconceived policy agenda rather than looking longer term and objectively. A classic example of this was the work done by Reynolds on primary school teaching in Taiwan (Reynolds & Farrell, 1996). Another has been the work done on school effectiveness across cultures (Reynolds, 1993). Both have largely ignored the cultural differences between countries.
A second challenge is that of speed. Because democratically elected governments might only have a limited lifespan before new elections, they are often in a hurry. They are committed to educational reforms but over a short time span, unlike the reform in Japan, following the Meiji restoration, or in China, following the Boxer Rebellions at the beginning of the twentieth century, or even the long gestation period for the reforms introduced in Sweden during the long period of control by the Social Democratic Party from the 1930s to the 1970s. The result is that ‘quick fix’ ideas or principles are ‘borrowed’ from one society and transferred to another without thinking through the consequences. Examples of this would be the ‘mentoring’ system for new teachers, tried in Singapore and Australia and transferred across to England and Wales; decentralisation of decision-making without necessarily transferring financial responsibility to the local level, as is happening in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa; or the experimentation with student loans in many countries, both advanced and developing.
The biggest challenge of all is linked to the use of decontextualised data, and statistics, gathered from many countries and used for policy decisions. There has been a danger in this approach ever since the International Bureau of Education was founded in the early 1930s in Geneva. Subsequently, OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank have published international ‘educational indicators’. Unfortunately, the raw data give no information about the underlying educational philosophy of a country, nor any details about the social, economic or cultural context of a country, which, ever since Michael Sadler’s famous Guildford Speech of 1900 (Sadler, 1900), comparativists have recognised as essential both for meaningful comparison as well as for contextual analysis. An education system is shaped and moulded by the cultural context in which it develops. If nothing else, the recognition of this simple truth, which largely accounts for the ‘difference’ between systems and the uniqueness of every system of education, is one of the central contributions of comparative education. Failure to recognise what causes system A to be different from system B and failure to recognise that not every idea or ‘system’ can be successfully transplanted from one society to another was highlighted in Noah’s classic piece on ‘The Use and Abuse of Comparative Education’ (Noah, 1984). It is timely to be reminded of this, especially since the viability of nation states has been called into question with the growth of ‘globalisation’, particularly of the media, which can undermine many of the values and curriculum ideals that individual governments may seek to protect. It is also worth being reminded of this because of the growing importance of other players in the provision of education, namely the Trans National Corporations (Ilon, 1994; Heyneman, 2001). Given that traditionally international comparisons used the nation state as the basic unit of comparison, one of the new challenges is clearly what points of reference should be used for meaningful comparison in the future.
Perhaps the biggest challenges lie in how comparative education faces up to what the Delors Report (UNESCO, 1996, pp. 15ff.) calls the ‘Tensions of the Twenty-first Century’. These are between the global and the local, perhaps highlighted best in Rolland Paulston’s work on social cartography (Paulston, 1996); between the universal and the individual; between diversity and uniformity, or in the comparativists’ sense, between difference and similarity; between tradition and modernity; between long-term and short-term considerations; between competitiveness and equality of opportunity; between the extraordinary expansion of knowledge and the ability of individuals to absorb, let alone use, only a fraction of it; and between the spiritual and the material. How to make sense of the proliferation of ideas and values, and the rejection of commonly accepted norms and traditional values, will be a test for comparative educators in the decades ahead.
It is likely that traditional areas for comparative study will continue for the foreseeable future, given that formal structures of education are set to remain. Inevitably, therefore, there will be studies on raising the quality of schooling, through school improvement, staff development and headship training; on patterns of administration, especially relating to decentralisation, financial devolution and local community participation; on the educational provision for minority groups, whether they are ethnic, linguistic or religious. How governments seek to ‘control’ or ‘regulate’ education through examinations, national curricula and inspections in the face of pressures, both philosophical and geopolitical, which are of necessity undermining national boundaries and allegiances, will also be crucial areas for comparative research. To some extent, this will ensure a continuity of research interests.
However, it is the new avenues for research which will necessitate both a redefinition of the field as well as provide different parameters for undertaking comparative studies. The weakening of the nation state means that alternative providers will move in, or new types of educational provision will gather apace. There is already a growing network of private schooling and universities run by companies, often not-for-profit organisations that have been able to undercut state provision, that have found niche markets, or that have begun to use a brand name, together with clever marketing, to win over students (Tooley, 1999). The National Institute for Information Technology in India, Objectivo in Brazil or EDUCOR in South Africa would be examples of a new brand of private education, as opposed to the privatisation of education (Bray, 1995).
Competition for the limited number of places in higher education has long been acknowledged in countries such as Greece, Japan, Mexico and Sri Lanka (Dore, 1976) but as demand continues to exceed supply, the number of private tutors has increased dramatically, with considerable ramifications for family incomes and the ‘pecking order’ of the existing institutions. Mark Bray (1999) has called this development ‘the shadow education system’. The scope for fruitful comparative work in this area is considerable.
There is, however, another ‘shadow system’, which is based less on tutorial and cramming schools: the private school system beyond, or outside state control. Schools that fit into this category would be specialist language schools, especially given the growth of English as the dominant global language (Watson, 1999); specialist institutions offering courses in computing and information technology, business administration, accounting and entrepreneurship; and religious schools that have grown up as a result of disillusionment with the declining moral values offered in the public schools. These schools have sometimes been referred to as education ‘beyond the state’ (Watson, 1994; Watson & Mackenzie, 1996).
The growth and influence of global Trans National Corporations are also having a profound influence on the shape of education. Not only are they having an influence on the curriculum being taught in mainstream education (Ilon, 1994; Heyneman, 1999a), but increasingly they are establishing their own ‘universities’ as, for example, Motorola University in Beijing. How these ‘universities’ operate, whether they are little more than specialist company training institutes, and how far they are developing a ‘corporate image’ that largely exists irrespective of local cultures will take comparative education research into very different locations and will, certainly, challenge assumptions about the role of ‘universities’ in the new global era. This kind of education is clearly very ‘different’.
So, however, are the new approaches to teaching and learning that are being developed as a result of new information technology. Video conferencing, electronic mail, access to the Internet, inevitably mean that classroom boundaries, let alone national boundaries, are becoming meaningless. To some extent, this has always been the case. Some knowledge has always transcended both cultural and state boundaries. The development of distance learning and ‘open universities’ during the past 30 years has meant that people living in remote, or isolated, communities could still have access to education beyond their immediate environment, provided that they had access to a radio receiver, a tape recorder, or a television screen and a good postal service. The creation of the Internet has opened up horizons that are truly global so that it is now possible to develop ‘virtual’ university systems such as the British Aerospace Virtual University in the United Kingdom. The scope for undertaking comparative studies on these institutions, which is far more exciting than simply examining quality control mechanisms over overseas ‘franchised’ courses, is breathtaking in its implications. For example, comparisons could be made of the courses offered, where students come from and what they do with their qualifications. So, of course, is the realisation that education now is truly lifelong since much of the world’s population, living well beyond retirement age, is still eager to learn and develop new skills. Education for the Third Age is bound to increase. Over 20 years ago, Edmund King talked about ‘Education for Uncertainty’ (King, 1979). That uncertainty is greater now than ever before, given the speed of scientific developments, the creation of new ‘knowledge’ and the development of new technologies. There may be an element of continuity in the research methods involved in comparative studies, but the new world order will require a greater focus on change.
Continuity and Change
These themes of change are largely picked up in the following chapters. The first four are devoted to reconceptualising the field of comparative education. Watson stresses the need to re-examine the historical roots of the field and suggests six reasons why comparative studies should be refocused. Crossley suggests how this can be done, emphasising the need to stress the contexts in which different educational systems have grown up, together with the need to understand other social science analyses of postmodernism, post-colonialism and globalisation. Preston argues that there is growing differentiation within and between states, in spite of the pressure to conform to similar ideologies, and she shows that non-formal provision is just as important as formal systems of delivery. She believes that this aspect of education has been overlooked, though Carr-Hill, in a later chapter, explains, to some extent, why this has been so. Broadfoot’s chapter, originally delivered as the presidential address at the inaugural meeting of the British Association for International and Comparative Education in 1998, traces the tension between qualitative, culturally focused studies and more positivist research approaches, and argues for what she calls a ‘neo-comparative’ approach which embraces a wide range of social science perspectives. The term that she originally coined was ‘comparology’, a term designed to be all-embracing, yet stressing that lessons can only be learned by comparing; and indicating that all learning in society, not only that which takes place in formal institutions, is worthy of study.
The issue of context as a means of explaining and understanding both differences and similarities is picked up in several of the chapters, most notably by Osborn in her research on different approaches to learning in England, France and Denmark and by Schweisfurth in her comparison of teachers’ experiences of educational reform in Russia and South Africa. Sanchez also explores context but in a somewhat different way. His research poses questions arising from the integration of children from the Maghreb region of North Africa into Spanish schools. Whose cultural values should predominate? With the increase in migration within and across countries as a result of economic globalisation, this is an issue that is bound to gain in importance.
Sweeting raises a question that has long been debated in comparative education circles: is it feasible to do comparative education research while focusing on a single society? He clearly argues that it is not only possible, especially if comparisons are made of different historical periods, but that valuable lessons and insights can be learnt. In this way, he strengthens Watson’s argument that we must not forget our historical roots and traditions. He uses Hong Kong as a case study to develop this line of thinking, much as Phillips (1994) used Germany and England and Wales to develop a similar argument some years ago. Gellert also takes these countries, Germany and England and Wales for his more contemporary analysis of the differences in access to, the courses studied at, and the undergirding philosophies regarding higher education and society in both countries, if England and Wales are classified as one, which, for administrative and legal purposes, they have been until a degree of devolved government was introduced in 1998.
Moving away from national contexts, Le Métais highlights some of the problems facing comparativists, especially if they are concerned with large-scale cross-national studies such as those undertaken by the European Commission or the National Foundation for Educational Research. She clearly recognises that different terminology, different concepts of time, different expectations, and above all, unrealistic expectations on the part of governments and policy-makers can, and frequently do, add to the constraints. Her plea is that researchers should also be part of the policy-making process if misinterpretations and costly mistakes are not to be made.
Phillips & Economou develop these concerns in a more practical way as they describe the preliminary details of the PRESTIGE project (Problems of Educational Standardisation and Transitions in a Global Environment) funded by the European Commission. They show how a large-scale project across six European countries has divided up areas for inquiry while at the same time it has thrown up problems of realistic comparison which, even now, have not been adequately resolved.
Bunt-Kokhuis’s study of academic migration across Europe, especially from the former eastern European countries, not only brings out the imperatives for improving career opportunities, arising from globalisation and the freeing up of markets, but also develops a rationale for comparing why academics migrate. The reasons are not always very different from those of the Maghrebi migrants outlined by Sanchez.
One passport to migration and seeking better job opportunities is internationally recognised qualifications. Lowe’s preliminary investigations into what qualifications are sought, and how they are used, could be the forerunner of many similar studies, given that international companies and organisations are now fishing in a global pond for the best employees, rather than relying on a national or regional labour force. This develops a theme that was identified by Ilon in the early 1990s and more recently in connection with gender equity in schooling (Ilon, 1994, 1998).
Migration is not only a part of globalisation but is also a part of the post-colonial experience. As Tikly’s chapter shows, post-colonialism is also a field that is ripe for comparative analysis. He highlights several areas that could be of interest to comparative researchers – racism and educational policy; language and culture; knowledge and the curriculum in post-colonial societies. Up to the present, much of the research in these fields has been undertaken by historians, sociologists and policy analysts. The scope for comparative educational research is, nevertheless, plentiful.
Problems of undertaking international and cross-cultural comparisons are widely recognised, which is why the more complex and detailed the studies become, the more realistic they become. Unfortunately, there is less likelihood of governments taking note of the small print. It is easier to seize on the headlines and, as Le Métais rightly reminded us, for policy-makers to be selective in their use of comparative studies. Where consultancy is used as part of a research project, there is frequently a conflict of interests between the different parties involved in the project. McGrath points out that there are dangers of ‘schizophrenia’, especially when scholars of the North are working with scholars in the South and when research agendas are set by funding agencies with their own policy and time frameworks. Inevitably, there are conflicts of interests; different audiences need to be addressed and theories become subordinate to practical day-to-day realities.
These problems can lead to frustrations and considerable difficulties for those involved in undertaking cross-cultural comparative studies, as Stuart’s brief chapter illustrates only too well. She describes the background to an imaginative, and rather complex, research project called the Multisite Teacher Education Research Project (MUSTER). This is a collaborative venture involving researchers in Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago and coordinated by a team from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. It is concerned with both exploring the costs of conventional teacher training and what would-be teachers are taught in the curriculum of training colleges as well as with developing a research capacity within the countries concerned. Unfortunately, because the driving force has been a United Kingdom-based research team, and because it has been funded by the British overseas development agency, the Department for International Development (DFID) there have been conflicts over ‘ownership’ of the research. As similar large-scale comparative research projects become the norm, such conflicts will probably increase. In an age of multimedia information, it becomes increasingly difficult to control the ‘ownership’ of knowledge!
It is also apparent that frustrations arise over the lack of ‘corporate memory’ or ‘corporate will’ with regard to development aid agencies. Lacey & Jacklin’s account of their dealings with DFID, over what use was made of the evaluation reports of aid projects over the period 1987-98, touches on raw nerves. Not only is there a sense that local ownership is largely ignored, but an even greater sense that provided the evaluation has been done, and the respective boxes have been ticked, there is little incentive to follow up any of the recommendations made in the reports. This is partly because career civil servants move to different jobs; that new personnel might have different interests, or different projects to become involved in; or that government agendas might have changed. It might simply be that appearances are more important than substance. It does, however, come back to the conflicting interests highlighted by McGrath, and it does make it difficult to ensure that lessons have been learnt so as to avoid future mistakes.
Comparative educators have traditionally used both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques but problems often arise in the quantitative field when it comes to using national and international statistics. The reliability of, and the difficulties of making sense of, international statistics have been commented on by several writers (e.g. Puryear, 1995; Heyneman, 1999). In this volume, Carr-Hill, Carron & Peart explore in some detail the difficulties of getting agreed definitions of what is meant by non-formal, formal and adult education, and hence the difficulties of fitting statistics into meaningful classifications. The fact that there are at least 17 different terms for non-formal education does not help. The result has been that agencies like UNESCO usually end up by collecting all data outside the formal education system and classifying this as ‘non-formal’. However, they explain that there have been significant improvements in recent years and discuss the developments in the International Standard Classification of Education (INSCED). Once this standard classification becomes widely used, it should make comparative analysis considerably easier.
The final chapter is written by one of the doyens in the field of comparative education, ‘Harry’ Higginson. It is fitting that a scholar who has specialised in analysing the works of Michael Sadler, whose contributions to comparative studies in education spanned the late nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth, should end the century by reflecting upon the developments in thinking and focus of comparative education, by looking at the journal Compare, the journal of the British Association for International and Comparative Education. Clearly, a ‘discipline’ or more appropriately, ‘field of study’ that can periodically reflect on the changes that have taken place in education and refocus itself in the light of these changes is not only healthy but is capable of facing up to the challenges of the new century. Continuity and change are but two sides of the same coin. It is hoped that the following chapters will both encourage the reader and will focus their attention on the new opportunities that are opening up.
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