Susan Robertson & Roger Dale
2017 in Review
What a year! 2017 was a year of massive growth for FreshEd. We put out 44 shows that received over 25,000 listens. We covered a range of topics, including – but certainly not limited to –educational privatization, student unions, intercultural competencies, the militarization of childhood in Japan, and, of course, PISA. We spoke to professors, students, politicians, and development practitioners from around the world.
All of this is huge for a show that is basically a hobby for a group of education enthusiasts.
There are some changes in the works for next year, but I’ll announce those details once everything is finalized.
For now, let’s take stock of the year.
What were the big ideas in educational research in 2017? What was missing? And where are we going in 2018?
For the final show of the year, I’ve invited Susan Robertson and Roger Dale to reflect on the year in research and point to future directions.
They are co-editors of the journal Globalisation, Societies, and Education, which — like FreshEd — has a relatively broad remit.
In our conversation, we look back at the diverse range of topics covered in educational research this year. We also ponder why certain topics, like austerity and meritocracy, remain unexamined and why many scholars don’t fully engage theory.
Susan Robertson is a Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge and Roger Dale is a Professor of Education at the University of Bristol.
Citation: Robertson, Susan, & Dale, Dale, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 101, podcast audio, December 28, 2022. https://freshedpodcast.com/2017inreview/
Will Brehm 2:01
Susan Robertson is a professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge and Roger Dale is a Professor of Education at the University of Bristol. Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, welcome back to FreshEd.
Susan Robertson 2:05
Thank you very much Will for having us. Lovely to see you, or listen to you, at the end of 2017 and as we face into 2018.
Roger Dale 2:17
And thanks very much for the work of FreshEd over the year. It’s been a fantastic outlook; it really has been a terrific contribution.
Will Brehm 2:27
Well, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to have you back on the show to talk about 2017 and what has happened over this pretty tumultuous and crazy year. So just as we did last year, I want to just reflect on the year. What were some of the big events? What were some of the big pieces of research that you found enjoyable? What wasn’t being said? Things like this. I guess, to start, how would you describe the state of the field of comparative education or globalization and education for this year specifically?
Susan Robertson 3:06
Will, I think any field, to some extent, is positioned in historical time, as it were. And 2017 has been quite a tumultuous year, really, on political fronts. And maybe that’s also where, to some extent, journals, if there’s a lag, you know, what are we publishing in 2017? To some extent, some of that work, not all of it, but some of that work, reflects contributions, research that might have been done in 2015, perhaps, even indeed landed in our journal in the production flow in 2016 and yet 2017, they’re kind of crawling through the system. But some of those are actually not talking about what’s really going on in a really important way. Perhaps, the retraction back into national borders, which raises some interesting theoretical questions about, how are we thinking about the state and territory. So that would be my reflection. Perhaps, Roger, you might have one as well.
Roger Dale 4:16
Yes, looking back, I’m quite surprised to find the level of continuity. So that articles published in the last two years could have been published four years ago, and vice versa. I don’t see much reflection, for instance, of the impact of austerity. I don’t think we’ve seen the word austerity in the journal practically. And I think part of this is that, while the world has changed, the conditions of knowledge production within academia haven’t changed that much. And so we’re still based, I think that the journal is still to considerable degree, based round a knowledge production regime that is based on producing PhDs. And so we get a lot of case studies, which is perfect for PhDs. But we get fewer reflective pieces. And I think that that’s quite a strong trend, and it’s held out over the period when lots of things have been happening in the work. For instance, another area I think we’ve not got very much on is the “new philanthropy”. That becomes a huge deal in terms of globalization education, but I don’t think we’ve had many, if any, pieces on it. So necessarily, we’re behind in terms of time because of throughput, but of the four or five years, this similar trend.
Will Brehm 6:06
So it’s an interesting dilemma, I guess we could say. Is this a problem with the way in which journals operate? How long it takes to go through the peer review process, and maybe there’s other structural issues that are making researchers maybe not addressing the most timely issues that we see, such as austerity or new philanthropy or maybe even this issue of the retreating into the national borders, as Susan said. So is this an issue of the journal? Is the journal that you co-edit implicated in this process?
Susan Robertson 6:49
Quite likely, but I’d say that there’s also another issue. Some of the research that I think is both pressing and important includes the rise and the rise of the for-profit sector, and again, also think of the way in which they’re deeply involved in the emergence negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals. But getting close to some of these corporations, and perhaps, what are the pieces that did come through our journal? Curtis Reap, who was studying, as part of his doctoral work, Bridge International Academy. Now, he found himself in a really challenging situation in Uganda, and with accusations. I don’t want to go into the details, though the paper is in our journal. But he was very anxious about what Bridge might do, even to that published piece of work. He was harrassed in the city itself, in Kampala. The police, with their lawyers, picked him up and accused him of being on territory that he hadn’t declared himself, and he was impersonating. So all of those things were shown to be false. Now, I don’t want to go into the details of that case, but more and more what I see in the university is a difficulty in working on what I think are really some of the really pressing issues to do with education – encroachment of large corporations into the sector, and a high level of risk averseness by universities, for example. Signing off field work into more complicated spaces. Now, there is a duty of care that the university has both toward its students and its staff, but at the same time, how a recent student in Cambridge working on Syria or, what are the implications of working in parts of, let’s say, sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Latin America, where the situation is difficult. So I think there’s several things that are occurring here that mean that we’re not always following the detail of these much more pressing and complicated issues. Now, it’s not all like that, but there is a growing amount of work to do with globalization, education, who gets what. So the implications for society. What this journal is fundamentally concerned with, that now is running hard up against power, and the ways in which power can block. And you can’t access much of that through freedom of information, because commercial sensitivities and so on get invoked.
Roger Dale 9:56
Yeah, I think a really interesting contrast with that, that confirms it, would be the case of OECD and PISA, in particular. Bob Lingard and Sam Seller, and their group have had fantastic access there, but as they point out, this is part of the PISA strategy itself. Bob will insist that what distinguishes PISA from other international things is they want the publicity. It is highly public. And that’s part of the whole strategy. And so they have very good access to PISA, and they deliver very good papers on this. But we don’t get the same kind of access, for instance, to the philanthropists. So we don’t get the same kind of access, probably, to the World Bank and others who are funding. And I think that’s a big difference.
Will Brehm 11:07
Why would PISA want the publicity? And does that publicity – that desire for it, and that granting of access to researchers – limit researchers in some ways?
Roger Dale 11:21
We don’t know what would help. That’s one thing. But I would think that PISA and the internal workings of PISA, have been subject to more sociological probing and analysis than anything else. And we know a lot about it, and how it works. But that is the point because I think that the PISA people want it to be known like this. It is really important to them that it maintains a high profile. And then the PISA branch spreads sideways into other areas too.
Susan Robertson 12:02
Can I come in here, Will, because I can see in that example, and I’ll use a different one, is a strong temptation amongst researchers to then be totally preoccupied by PISA. And yet the OECD has other large scale instruments that it’s developing, towards adults, potentially young children, teachers, the Teaching and Learning International Survey called TALIS. So one of the issues, I think, is that by putting PISA right in the middle as the OECD would want, only because a lot of countries also signed up, we also don’t, I think, put sufficient attention on to, as researchers, the other instruments that are being developed. Perhaps they’re a little bit problematic and the OECD is on its way to trying to fine tune those instruments. But I think we need more work on these others. So that’s one example. The second example is, there’s been a huge amount of interest amongst researchers looking at Pearson Education. And yet there are many other large corporations involved, and I think we need to widen the scope. So at one level, that’s an important kind of advocacy issue, looking at the largest corporation, although it’s lost some of its education portfolio, and some of its power, I think, because of some issues that have emerged in the United States around marketing or using education foundations for marketing purposes when they shouldn’t.
But I think we need to widen the scope and look at a whole raft of other actors. It was profiled in one of the issues this year. Janja Komljenovic and she’s been looking at quite interesting organizations like LinkedIn, you know, these new platforms that are emerging. There’s some interesting work, I think, to be done around the rise of platform capitalism. But more generally, if we want to name it that, but quite simply what that means is more and more of education is sitting on infrastructures, so providers, much of the venture capital money that came out of the housing sector in 2008 went directly into education. But where did it go? It actually went into the development of platforms on which education systems, research management systems, LinkedIn, or Research Gate, these are platforms that are very nicely accumulating and accumulating data that gets packaged and repackaged in different ways and so back to the sector. So I think there’s a danger then of just bringing one big, spectacular actor into the fray, and we might say, “Well, on the advocacy front, we’ve had some wins, if some of the research is used for that purpose”, but it doesn’t show the scale and the scope of the unraveling of education to private interests.
Will Brehm 15:30
Reflecting on the show over the last year, and even in the beginning of the year previously, PISA and privatization have been consistently topics of interest by the researchers that I’ve brought on. So Roger, would you call PISA and even thinking of privatization by looking, as Susan said, at the big actor – at Pearson, for instance. Would this be part of the level of continuity that you are talking about?
Roger Dale 16:03
I think it is continuity, but I think, as we’ve both been saying, what people thought of maybe 10 years ago, maybe less, was real problems of access to these institutions. It’s all turned around and they welcome that, they welcome the publicity. And they don’t mind that, I suppose to a degree, the critique because they can almost draw some solace from the fact that academics critique them to say, “we must be doing something right, almost.” I think that’s going too far. So I do think it’s changed, but this is just another instance of the wider issue of the journal having to follow what is available, in a sense, in terms of empirical happenings, what is available. And I think that what we would prefer to see in terms of a balance in the journal is less empirical studies – good though they are – and more fundamental theoretical studies to say what’s happeningbecause, as I’ve said, it doesn’t seem to me that we’ve reflected as fully as we might have, the changes in the world.
Will Brehm 17:49
So this reflection, these reflection pieces that you’re talking about, this is where you think more theory could be brought in?
Roger Dale 17:57
Yeah, I think so.
Susan Robertson 18:00
You could draw empirical studies to get it. So we’ve got a lot of material now on, as Roger says, empirically based work: branch campuses, let’s say American students in Thailand, some students that go from the US into the Arab world, and so on. So we can see these kinds of studies. But if we took all of those together and we said, “What are these cases of?” And then it seems to me, you can begin to ask some interesting kinds of questions here about trying to think about theorizing space, movement, mobility. Thinking about time, how time gets worked or reworked? I think there’s work to be done on thinking about the state. How do we want to think about transformations of the state in 2017 looking back in terms of state theory? What does the rise, or the retraction now to some extent, of regions do to how we begin to think about the state? I’m also increasingly taken with, and we see very little work coming through. Roger’s right, I agree, there’s been very little work on austerity. But, the rise and the rise, global inequalities, and what does that look like? And it’s not just a question of looking at who gets access to education, but two ends of that spectrum.
What does it mean to be thinking about education and education as an opportunity structure in the face, on the one hand of austerity, and on the other hand, of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few? And the increased limits by the state on its capacity to redistribute, so pressure on households and levels of indebtedness. So I’d like to see, you know, perhaps more and even potentially comparative global work on: What does it feel like to be an incredibly indebted household in China perhaps putting all of their resource into, in some cases, the movement of their child across the oceans to take up education elsewhere? We might think about that in the domestic sense. Certainly in the UK now, we’ve got families who are paying per year, a bit more than 9,000 per year, if they’re paying that, not taking out a loan – although eventually they’ll have to pay that back. But can we look at the rise of global indebtedness, and what does that feel like? What does that look like? How does that work? What’s the role of the rising financial sector in funding some of that indebtedness? Some incredibly interesting phenomena that we need to be tracing. New kinds of financing.
We talk a lot about Uber, for example, and Uber as a phenomenon, business. The new way in which you would sort taxis that’s running on a platform. But actually, there are schools, teachers, parents, who use crowdsourcing to fund initiatives that you might have expected the state to fund. Now there’s efforts to regulate peer-to-peer or crowdsourcing and so on through the financial regulators. But these are really interesting and important phenomena, which are kind of global, in a sense, because that those funds can be raised globally. And again, I think these are interesting agendas that we could begin to look at. Perhaps the other one I would want to point to would be the whole movement of people and refugees. So while we do have mobility, and this is perhaps a voluntary mobility to some extent, the ways in which mobility, security, the rise of xenophobia, populism, and so on, all of these are in a really heady mix that we need to begin to think about together. How does one feed the other, feed the other, feed the other? And what is it that we might begin to raise, in our research, about the ways in which these sets of contradictions keep both emerging and falling in on each other that generate a new round of challenges?
Will Brehm 22:41
What do you think it will take for researchers to maybe look at some of these different topics that you’ve raised – some very interesting topics that go all over the world and all different directions, and will take an army of researchers to really understand? What would it take for researchers to begin to really theorize in ways that you see as currently lacking in the last few years?
Roger Dale 23:06
I think at one level, it’s a straight matter of access. We see these bodies of refugees moving across the world, and in a sense, they’re kept moving, and it’s very difficult. But what we do get are some excellent accounts from volunteer workers and social workers who are working with them, giving excellent accounts of what happens in these places. We were just looking at one on the Australian camps in the Pacific and they’re just grim, but it’s very difficult indeed to get any access to them. And similarly, across, probably all the different ways, the ways that these huge bodies of people are being dealt with, because it is quite extraordinary numbers and extraordinary things happening, and extraordinary results coming out. This is a perfect opportunity, I would have thought, for comparative studies of these things.
Susan Robertson 24:24
You ask a question about theorizing, Will, these developments. And I think one of the things in all academic disciplines – education is no different – we tend to run along with our favorite theorists as if those theorists can be abstracted from time, space. Of course they can’t. People who’ve been very significant, perhaps when we have been doing research in nation state spaces in the national context, Basil Bernstein might be one example, Pierre Bourdieu, another example. Now, they were largely writing and reflecting on developments, probably beginning for them, their last works on the edges of neoliberalism, for example. But we took Basil Bernstein, he definitely was not actually thinking about global phenomena. And some recent work that some of us have been involved in, is actually bringing some of this work. So what would it be like to think with, not just to put that hat on, Bernstein hat, and just keep running with how Bernstein saw the world. What would it mean to take those theoretical resources, and to put them into conversation with the contemporary world?
When you begin to do that, I think it addresses the issues that Roger and I have raised on other occasions around methodological nationalism. So, to some extent, Bourdieu is writing at a time when … his theory reflects a level of stability in the world. He reflected the much more tightly-bounded notion of the nation state, A state itself that was a particular kind of state in the way it was organized. But writers like Wolfgang Streeck and others, you know, much of that work that came out in 2014, Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time, Robert Reich, or all of those … Thomas Piketty. They’re really pointing to some very profound transformations in the state, the relationship between the state and its citizens, this is the social contract. What we see through this period too is the rise of global multilateral institutions that are driving education agendas.
And again, if we were to think with, let’s say, Bourdieu or Bernstein and others who are trying to help us think about the social, so this is the “societies” part of our journal, what kind of insights could we begin to generate here that would actually help us think with the sorts of tools that Bernstein himself, he has a language to describe this, he talks about a language of description. So you have theories here, but actually, if you take them out into the field to look at the contemporary world, you should be actually … what he describes redescription, redescribing both the theories here, and this was a very strong push that he had in his work; he asks us to avoid what he calls “singularist”, so just your little favorite theorist, you know, it’s Foucault or whatever. So bringing these quite important vantage point standpoints into conversation with each other that enables us to say something more than the singular, that is the specific theorists that of course, can’t have a theory of the world at all times for all time.
Roger Dale 28:22
But I think that one of the things, when you mentioned Piketty and so on, it reminds us that even someone who is quite well … not just someone, is that the dominant, if you like, fundamental meta-theory, behind all educational things at the moment is meritocracy. It is the signature. It is what, at a global level, is accepted in different forms, in different places, but it is accepted as an effective and efficient way of stratifying and sorting populations. And that underlies practically everything – all the assumptions about education systems that we come across. And as long as we have that, then we’re going to be looking for ways of accelerating but most of all delaying, but we are still talking about a ranking based on educational performance as the best indicator of ability and value.
Will Brehm 29:32
And hence, why some students would go and take out all sorts of loans to access education.
Roger Dale 29:38
Susan Robertson 29:42
I’ve been interested in this silence on meritocracy, because of course, the opportunity structures, we know this from very nice work that people like Phil Brown and Hugh Lauder and that have done – the global auction. So increasingly, we see it play out in places like China; we know that there’s turbulence in China – in Hong Kong, for example, the Umbrella Movement. We’d love to see a special issue, for example, on these student movements: How do they link together? Because we do know that they were in communication with each other – the student movement in Chile, in Hong Kong, the Occupy. Everyone rushed to perhaps look at Occupy, but we don’t see some more joined up research that’s reflecting on these kinds of developments. And to some extent, these student movements – certainly I know in the case of Hong Kong – some of it is tied around issues of meritocracy. They had bought into, there would be, if you invested in education, a better job for you, there would be a future. And that future, for many families, is looking actually quite bleak. So we can reflect on what that feels like, but actually the research to be done is, “what’s happening to meritocracy across all of these different countries?” “How does opportunity and so on get parsed?” “How do we legitimate these so-called investments in education?”
Some of the work I see coming through is looking at this idea of lacking of, dispossession, and perhaps some of the David Harvey work here, ideas around dispossession and so on. But I think there’s some intellectual work, some research work, some thinking work, some theory work to be done, and we’d love to see that in our journal around these really big issues that are occurring across societies with the turbulence that gets created, which generates major issues for how the state manages the nature of its social contract between itself and its citizens. Now some of that social contract is actually being managed through the global institutions and the Sustainable Development Goals. And even, indeed, this idea of, let’s say, a “global competence”. And here, I’d point out the OECD when it’s developing its Global Competence Indicator. It frames the importance of this issue in terms of rising social conflict, some people missing out in terms of possibilities of opportunity and equality and so on. But again, this would be, I think, some important work that we would love to see coming through in the journal.
Will Brehm 32:37
So is there anything that you’re looking forward to in 2018?
Susan Robertson 32:41
We’ve given you a really somewhat pessimistic reading of the world, and I don’t think we should be so pessimistic. If I just went to the trained issues, for example, the reason they’ve been conducted in secret is, of course, because actually social movements, monitors, they’re looking at these developments and so on. So, Roger, what are you looking forward to in 2018?
Roger Dale 33:13
I would like to see the shift from the Millennium Development Goals for Sustainable Development Goals really become a focus. I haven’t seen any really interesting papers on the nature of the shift, but it’s very clear that there’s something quite different going on with the SDGs. And that it has a number of different potentials, not just to try and fill in the holes left by the MDGs, but to do something. I mean, if we look at the list of them, it’s incredibly ambitious. Still, many people would say it’s still not ambitious enough. And I don’t think it matters too much, but we didn’t seem to publish a great deal on the MDGs, surprisingly enough, perhaps because there were other development journals that people sent those things to. But I think that the SDGs is a really very interesting initiative, and it goes on for a long time.
Susan Robertson 34:25
The monitoring in the world, just think of the Panama Papers, and the most recent release. These things are actually exposing where money is being offshored and so on. I think they’re positive things, because to some extent we can talk about the rise of the digital economy, but to some extent, that so-called digital world does mean that information, knowledge and so on flows across boundaries more easily. Now, you can get locked down, and certainly in the case of Turkey and what’s actually even going on for academics in Turkey, I think, a) we need to be, you know, talking about those as part of our research, but it’s harder and harder, at one level also, to get away with things because of the way in which knowledge and information flows are at work. And I think they offer us some really interesting and important developments for democracy, potentially, there. So, making sure that the kind of research that is being done that might be coming through our journals is also able to reflect on those things. I would like to say that some of the research that I see young scholars doing, having said what we said earlier, is just fabulous. And in some cases, it’s work on Syria, there’s been some absolutely fantastic work being done. Again, thinking of some of the doctoral students that we’ve even been supervising, it’s outstandingly interesting work. So as long as I think we get together, your program Will, it’s just such a breath of fresh air because they’re new media spaces, voices, that share part of a global community, where I think fundamentally, why do we do research on these issues? Because I think we have to care about the world that’s emerging, we have to care about what the opportunities are for the future generation, and we’re hoping that the kind of research that this journal is wanting to ensure that we get in and get out there, makes a contribution to those kinds of debates and those kinds of potential shapings of futures.
Roger Dale 36:58
Can we turn this around on you and say, “What’s the most important things you’ve been doing through FreshEd this year?
Will Brehm 37:04
Well, it’s a very good question. I would say that I’ve had such a pleasure and really an honor of reading so many people’s work that I wouldn’t normally read. My field of study is that particular area, and as a scholar, you get really into it. But this show has pushed me to read very broadly, and I’m now engaging with work that I might never have engaged with prior. And so it’s just quite amazing to see how diverse the field, and I don’t even know what field I would even classify this as – the field of comparative education, maybe. It’s just so diverse, and so interesting, right? And there are so many amazing scholars that really bring to life some issues that I never really thought about, to be perfectly honest. But, in terms of what I’m looking forward to, I think a lot of it is similar to what you’re saying. Piketty is putting out the World Inequality Report in 2018 with a team of researchers, and this is going to be pretty incredible to see this data finally available. I know they’ve made their data available for some time, but this is going to be this global report looking at all sorts of indicators of inequality.
Roger Dale 38:25
Will Brehm 38:27
Exactly. Well, that’s right – it might be an interesting critique to make about the meritocracy that’s assumed or applied in the analysis, or at least in their data. I’m also very fascinated by some of the work on democracy and being critical in this time of retreating to national borders. And so someone like Henry Giroux, who’s quite well known, but he’s been putting out some new work that I think has been really incredible. So I’m looking forward to more of that as well, I guess. For me, I think FreshEd is hopefully a complement to journals like yours that allow maybe more of a wider audience to really engage with some of these ideas.
Susan Robertson 39:20
But I think it gets a global perspective, I think that’s what you are able to do. Look at what’s going on in the globe, and FreshEd, I think, in a really nice way, is able to identify issues that come up. I know, for instance, I spoke to you pretty soon, within days, after the Brexit issues. And so there’s a timeliness I think, and therefore an importance of something like this media FreshEd that then I think, is able to also shape perhaps conversations and agendas that then might get worked out in ways in which we can’t just do in a 40 or 50 minute kind of conversation, as it were. But the thing I think that you pointed to, and I think we’d like to see that in our journal. Education is a complicated business. And it requires you to read very broadly around economics, international relations. If you were thinking in the head of an anthropologist as they go in and try to understand the detail of everyday life, and how what things mean, and so on. So it does require very broad wide reading to join up the dots. And in doing that, I think you start to see new things. And I think that would be the plea really, to think in a trans- or multi-disciplinary way, to think with and for education, and in that broadest of senses. So that we can actually see, not “a society”, but “societies”, because that’s more relational thinking as well. Whathappens in the US is often shaped by what’s going on in China and vice versa. Region building, for example, regions don’t just get built from within, they are in relation to other developments, other regions that get developed in other parts of the world. So this joined up, or transdisciplinary approach, I think actually for education, is quite fundamental to helping us understand it as a complicated business. And I don’t mean that in the sense of the work, the work of the business sector, but actually a complicated endeavor, which makes it all the more important and worthy of study.
Will Brehm 42:00
Well, on that note, I’m going to say thank you so much, again for joining the end of the year show. I look forward to having you on next year, and I think we’ve discussed many different issues that hopefully get picked up for next year, and some of the researchers come on FreshEd and some of the researchers publish in your journal. So Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, and have a wonderful new year time.
Roger Dale 42:25
Thank you for providing this fantastic facility; this absolutely tremendous input. It does as much as anything to bring this community together. Terrific.
Susan Robertson 42:36
And thank you for me, Will, and we’ll see you in 2018.