In what is now becoming a tradition, today we review the field of comparative and international education for 2018. With me are Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, co-editors of the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education.

In our conversation, we touch on many topics, from the contradictions found within the Sustainable Development Goals to the lack of Climate Change research in the field and to the power of PISA.

Susan and Roger also point to new directions in research for 2019.

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, Roger, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 142, podcast audio, December 30, 2018.

Transcript, translation, and resources:


Will Brehm  2:44
Susan Robertson, and Roger Dale, welcome back to FreshEd.

Susan Robertson  2:59
It’s absolutely great to be here again, Will in 2018, and in December.

Roger Dale  3:04
I agree with that. It’s even very cold here.

Will Brehm  3:07
It’s actually quite cold here in Tokyo, too. I mean, we’ve now done this for three years, talking about the state of the field and -looking at the field of comparative and international education, and globalization and education- sort of taking stock on the year. So, I guess to sort of kick it off, how would you begin to describe the current state of the field of comparative and international education?

Roger Dale  3:32
Well, I had a look at the year’s output of the main journals and the thing that struck me perhaps most was a piece in Comparative Education that Maria Manzon did and continues this very impressive updating of the field that she’s brought about. And I thought that was very useful and one useful things about that issue as well was the “regionalisms” bit. So, we get Felicitas Acosta talking about Latin America, and the differences and so on. So, I think that there is -maybe- a sort of not splintering but greater elaboration of regional differences and recognition of regional differences. But at the same time, essentially, the content remains driven by the conditions of knowledge production in comparative education, which essentially are the production of PhD students who are typically doing their PhD on one country and from one point of view, and very rarely self-consciously comparative.

Will Brehm  4:11
My students, I’m sorry to jump in here, but you know, I’m a product of that. I did a whole PhD on one particular country. And when I teach comparative education today, my students look over the journals -the main journals of the field- and that’s the first thing they see is that, wow, this is comparative education but basically, we’re talking about single country studies. And I know that that might fall into methodological nationalism as the both of you have pointed out before, but I think you’re right. I mean, we’re not necessarily pushing the ball forward in what it means to compare.

Roger Dale  5:21
Exactly, yes,

Susan Robertson  5:22
I mean, I’ve often reflected on that Will, and I think part of the problem is that it declares itself a field. And typically, in the social science, comparison is a methodology. And there’s been a great deal of reluctance to be quite explicit about comparison as a methodology. Now, the minute you do that, then you’re often typically looking for comparisons, because that’s actually how you get the methodological innovations. And how would you be -in my case, for example- thinking about how do we go about comparing regions? And we did a book that came out last year on global regionalisms. And that became a very interesting exercise, because, for instance, it should be the kind of thing that comparative education is doing, or indeed, global studies, for example. Because essentially, you’re looking at how you go beyond the typical juxtaposition, but maybe moving your way toward, you know, the structuring mechanisms that in context that generate outcomes, for example, and there you might see different manifestations of something like a region, you’re probably very likely to, because of the kind of cultural, political economy of that particular space, but you can compare that level. So, I think there’s a deep problem in the field of comparative education because of that. Perhaps globalization offered a bit of a promise but I think that if I look back over the year, and I look at things coming through our journal, it seems to me that it’s dominated now by an industry of, you know, mobility and students moving and we get little micro studies of, you know Japanese teachers training in Cambodia, and so on, or Americans in Thailand. We’ve seen these quite specific kind of cuts into it, and so on. But I don’t think there’s much reflection at the moment -which is quite peculiar- about where the field of globalization studies sits at the moment, and particularly, given the reversion back to, you know, hardening boundaries, nationalisms, notions of nation, and so on. So, that’s quite an interesting lack of development in our area.

Roger Dale  7:44
I think that globalization continues to be represented more and more through PISA and the various forms that PISA takes. So that’s the other main thing. PISA is related to everything. And it’s not accidentally. I mean, it is even more ambitiously going forward across a number of fronts. And the way that PISA documents itself, I think, is something that we might take more seriously. I know, some people have done it, I think, I think Bob Lingard and Sam Sellar have done some of this -but record how PISA operates, which is really very interesting. It has been from the start when there was all that publicity about it. And that’s what they wanted.

Susan Robertson  8:24
So, can I come in there?

Will Brehm8:27

Susan Robertson  8:27
I feel that on that front, there’s a kind of fixation with PISA and there’s an awful lot more going on and I think this is something that the academic community needs to, you know, back off. I think there’s a kind of an underdevelopment analytically. I’m reflecting, and I gave the European Education Research Association keynote address this year, and challenged the field, the audience, actually, because people writing on let’s say, PISA tell us all that, you know, rankings, you can take the whole lot. What we really are looking for here is, I would say, a sociology of quantification. There’s been a kind of lazy governing by numbers. Okay, now, the French states governed by numbers since the beginning of the 1800s so what is it that’s different now and how can we analyze that? And there are some very nice resources out there -epistemic resources, if we want to call it that. People like Marion Fourcade doing some wonderful work around thinking about reforms of quantification and how we might think about that, you know, ordinal systems and so on. So, moving ourselves just away from that kind of easy governing by numbers, which, you know, is quite catchy, and so on. But actually, it’s if you get really close to it, essentially, it doesn’t tell us “that” much about how these big, you know, large data-driven systems of measurement actually work. And the aspect of the way in which is -just measurement is actually about representing worlds in vertical ways, and in such a way to generate competition. And it’s the competition part that’s the crucial bit not the governing -it’s not the performative bit of the number itself. But it’s actually the way competition gets set up.

Will Brehm  10:20
You know, earlier this year, I was asked to host a webinar called the Datafication of Comparative Education, and it reminds me a lot of what you’re talking about, is this sort of the field itself trying to come to terms with, well, what does it mean to live in a world of big data, of PISA, sort of representing everything and having so much power not only in the governance but impacting competition, and impacting performativity of students and teachers and researchers. So, I do think that is certainly a very interesting direction the field is going in, and maybe will continue to go in in the future next year. I’d like to turn to the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report that was put out just a few weeks ago. It connects to something you mentioned earlier about this focus on mobility and migration, that that was the topic of the GEM report. So, I want to hear what’s your take on that report? And what does it say to the field of comparative education? Or maybe more importantly, what could the field of comparative education say to that report?

Susan Robertson  11:31
So the report -and it’s in many ways it’s a welcome report in the sense that it’s talking about intra-national mobility, which of course, is clearly something that is particularly not reducible to China, but we often see the Hukou system for example, and the way the promise of education is tied to your registration at birth, and families that are mobile into the cities and so that typically, what they have to do is access private education, not state-funded education and so on. Looking at that report, I mean, it’s quite interesting, I looked, scanned down and countries that are regarded as actually somewhat recalcitrant and indeed Australia, my accent you can hear that is an Australian, so I feel quite ashamed of that. You know, housing migrants and refugees and asylum seekers off shore and so on and that continues. Perhaps, what isn’t there, if the question is what’s not there, and that’s the challenge for the field is there’s not much by way of a structural analysis in there that causes these massive shifts, you know. And I feel and I’m going to tie this to the PISA global competence framework which will be reporting fairly shortly, because I understand it’s got to report in December. And additional set of questions that engage with particular scenarios. Here, again, in the same representation of the world, students are invited to think of being globally competent, by also thinking about, you know, people who are moving and so but movement in this moment, in the global competence framework, pretty much gets reduced to a kind of cosmopolitan kind of, you know, you should move across a boundary, you should go out and see the world. Now, or there’s an acknowledgement that there is reluctant, you know, asylum seekers and refugees and so on. But no scenario is set up in such a way that you invite students to begin to interrogate why these mass movements are taking place. You know, to do with war, violence, and so on and until we can get at some of those structural issues, and then from there, look at the ways in which we might encourage let’s say, learners of relevant ages, because some of this might be not suitable for really young children. But then it seems to me that we never really get at trying to understand the social and political problems of the world. And they are massive and huge and confronting at the moment.

Roger Dale  14:18
Yeah, I think what we get is I think this is a very interesting piece of comparative work for somebody to do is to see we have these different reporting bodies, we have the GMR. We have the World Development Report, we have the PISA type stuff and they’re all doing different things for different purposes with different histories. And it would be very interesting to try to fathom out their kind of understandings of the world. I mean, we know GMR is probably the easiest because it’s the longest, but it’s changed a lot in its track. World Development Report, to my amazement, has a fantastic chapter on social contract. Which I was very surprised -really very, very interesting, which has prompted me to try and do something with it. Working on the idea of social contract in ways that we would think about, but they would think about as well and more broadly. And so, there’s Human Capital Index. Now, all these things, and the remaining traces, if there are any of the World Bank’s monitoring of all countries, in the knowledge assessment methodology, which still in design, and ranks every country in the world, from 1 to 172, or whatever it is. Now, it would be really interesting thing to do -I mean, we say this, but I might have a go at it- to compare not just the methodology, but the purpose and the theory and the outcomes and the uses of these things. I mean, one of the things we don’t look at with these things is, who are they talking to? Who are their audiences? Are their audiences’ government? Are their audiences’ universities? And who? So, I think that’s a very interesting range of things emerge from this.

Will Brehm  16:04
You know, it makes me think about that, like, the World Bank itself is not monolithic. There are so many different sectors and factions inside the World Bank, and even looking at, say, comparing the World Development Report, which, you know, it had that chapter on the social contract. But I mean, I always that 2019 World Development Report on labor is so fascinating. I mean, it has a picture that is painted by basically a Marxist painter with a big sort of industrial labor on the cover of it. And the first lines of that report start with Karl Marx. I mean it is incredible to think that this is coming out of the World Bank, and that later on, they actually talk about, you know, some tax reform and trying to get more people to pay taxes, which is pretty wild, considering that they have another report called the Doing Business Report, which has a whole indicator that says fewer taxes in a country gives you a higher score. So, I mean, it’s just wild to think like, even inside the World Bank, that there are such different reports being generated at the same time.

Susan Robertson  17:19
I mean, you’re absolutely right. And I think, you know, Brank Milanovic’s work who was the economist who actually put out a book at the same World Bank economist I don’t think he’s there any more, he put out a book at the same time as Piketty and Streeck and all of that lot in 2014. And he was always a person that drew your attention to the social and the political aspects of the world as it were and not just simply a very particular economic take. Perhaps unfortunately, the world of education largely, it seems to me, has been dominated by a very specific kind of economics, because not all economists are the same of course. But I guess we could take us over and you know also reflect on the OECD. I mean, it’s a split organization and it has from its beginning in the early 1960s. It was the Alexander King, for example, in the OECD who got going the limits-to-growth activity and that potential kind of degrowth area in gets canvased within the OECD shows you the kind of split within the OECD. So, on the one hand, you’ve got a much more kind of economic drive -economy, innovation and so on. And on the other hand, within the OECD, and that still continues, there’s a concern with, you know, do we have the right approach to growth? Could we not be thinking about degrowth and so on? Now, that’s a story within the OECD that we haven’t really talked much about. We tend to talk about that bit of the OECD and the degrowth, the limits-to-growth, which was the Club of Rome activity that came out in the 1970s, that’s a story that could get told a bit more because essentially, if we stay with what is the hegemonic moment, as intellectuals, what we do is we firm up, we harden that account of the world and we become complicit in erasing alternate narratives that actually currently exist within the OECD. Just let me remind our listeners in 2010, well, before Piketty and others were putting their books out, the OECD in the social kind of welfare area had flagged a major, major concern with rising inequalities in places like the UK, United States, and so on. So those reports are very interesting to read. And actually, if we go to the first framework report for the global competences, you’re slightly knocked off your feet, a bit like the World Bank Report with how explicit it is about inequalities, racism, jobs disappearing, people who’ve lost out and so on. Now, when we get to 2018 report, a good chunk of that’s missing. And funnily enough, the 2016 report if you didn’t get a copy of it in paper form, that’s also missing as well. So, there’s been a movement in the direction of being extremely conservative and that happens because of the way the PISA thing happens, you know, where you’ve got to get broad agreement right to the last person as to what quite will be the questions that get asked. And essentially, there’s a kind of complete whittling down and an erasure and it loses its politics. So, I think there’s a lot of work and research to be done to kind of look inside these institutions and try and get hold of alternative stories. I was minded of a young woman that sat in my office, and she went off to New York, and she’s been working, she wants to come back and do a PhD but she’s working in New York amongst a set of journalists trying to get on the ground stories of innovation around sustainability, collectives that get organized to engage in community work, and that kind of thing. And I guess where I’m going with that is to, in her case, as a journalist is to make more visible these alternative movements, a bit like Harvey challenges us to do with rebel cities. You know, can we tell different stories that are out there, so that we open up the possibilities to use these alternate stories in imaginative ways.

Will Brehm  21:41
So. one of the things about 2008 that has really struck me were the number of extreme weather events around the world. I mean, it just seems like climate change has really reached this moment where it’s nearly impossible to miss now, and even the UN report talking about all these different reports, the IPCC or IPPC report is now sort of saying that 2040 is going to be the decade where we are really going to experience massive changes in the climate that will have real consequences for humans. So, I guess what I wonder is, has the field of comparative education said anything about climate change this year?

Roger Dale  22:29
Not as far as I’m aware but I can’t remember quite how but I found myself reading quite a lot of political ecology, which is absolutely tremendous. Very very interesting to the point where I tend to sort of divide the field of globalization up into the globally, international, and the planetary because these are three different sets of things. And the planetary will in the forms of a lot of very good work on political ecology I think is a really good beginning place. And one of the interesting parts about it is that I think, and we haven’t so far surprisingly mentioned the SDGs because I think the SDGs are very different proposition from the MDGs in many ways. They offer very interesting opportunities for doing a different kind of investigation because we’re not looking so much at countries as at activities and so on. And they also are open to some kind of ecological recognition. And I think if I had any more students looking for a topic I would say look at the SDGs and compare them with the MDGs because MDGs sort of come out as a big disappointment. SDGs come up much more in a sense self-consciously and much more broadly. And I think they really do represent not just a replacement of the MDGs but a really interesting opportunity for alternative ways of understanding because they operate in different ways.

Will Brehm  24:04
It reminds me of -with the SDGs what is so fascinating to me is the number of contradictions that exist within them. And I use contradictions in the sense of David Harvey’s “17 Contradictions” book, where it’s not about having two things and only one can be right. But it’s about having two forces that are so opposed to each other and yet somehow, they coexist and what I’m thinking of in particular here -and listeners will probably know this is a soapbox of mine- is that the contradiction between SDG 13 which is about reducing or solving climate change, and then SDG 8 which is all about economic growth. And to me, having the economy continuing to grow, to connect to what Susan was saying earlier about degrowth, having constant economic growth is certainly going to impact climate change. And so, to me, there’s a major contradiction between SDG 13 and SDG 8 but somehow that sort of works for this moment in time.

Susan Robertson  25:07
Yeah, because degrowth, I guess is, is extremely challenging for many countries, because we’ve imagined the health of the economy always in terms of growth each year, as it were, and to develop a different language. I mean, and this is simply just the way we imagine an economy is actually at work. So, could we begin to think about different ways of imagining economic -and representing because it’s a question of representation- economic activity, and different ways of actually representing global economic activity. I just want to remind the listeners, it was quite interesting to think about the global economy that emerged as a way of representing the global economy in the 1930s during the Depression years, and we’ve kind of stuck with that. This idea of a barometer that’s measuring the health of the economy. But it’s a representation, it’s not the so called “real economy”, though we often think of it as real, or, you know, we look at the stock market and that’s, again a representation. You know, could we have other forms of representation that actually do take into account aspects of sustainability, climate change, I mean, that’s clearly all part of our economy. So rather than being separate things in the SDGs, those things should be any economy that isn’t sustainable actually, that ought to be embedded in the way in which we measure the health of the economy. I must say, I was quite pleased, there’s an audit going across my university at the moment in relation to courses being taught and is there any content around sustainability and those kinds of questions and we have a lecture in my third-year sociology class on sustainability, putting that on the agenda. You did ask has comparative education done and I would want to say that actually any of the folks working on small islands and so on were quite alert to this you know, 5, 6, 7 years ago and particularly you know places like the Maldives and so on you know whole islands just disappeared with one of the tsunamis and so on. So, they have had their head -the small islands scholars- on issues of sustainability but you know. So, pick up a nice contradiction here Will. The global competence framework encourages mobility. Now likely we don’t want mobility. We want to push people to be more immobile in many ways and to think of ways in which the carbon footprint -as my son often points out you know. Are there different ways in which we can be connected together using digital technologies other than thinking that you hop on a plane and go somewhere else? So that’s that direct encouraging mobility in the global competence framework at the same time we’re pushing for sustainability and you know carbon reductions and so on.

Roger Dale  28:12
Just come back briefly to the SDGs, I think they do represent a very different order of challenge from the MDGs. For instance, SDG 4 is huge but within SDG 4, I’ve done a lot on one element SDG 4.7: Global Citizenship Education, which is a massive thing and presents wonderful challenges and opportunities for really constructive and creative work.

Will Brehm  28:39
Yeah, I mean because SDG 4.7 particularly looks at outcomes of education, which is so unusual in these sort of global goals, which usually looks at the inputs to education. And so that is such a big challenge. But it’s such a big challenge that the people that actually have to measure it, unfortunately, have sort of reverted to looking at inputs.

Roger Dale  29:00
Yeah, I mean, I think the challenge is in the totally internally contradictory idea of global citizenship.

Will Brehm  29:07
What’s contradictory about that?

Roger Dale  29:09
Oh, everything. What is the entity of which we are a citizen? Oh, yeah, I’m a citizen of the globe. Oh okay, we all are darling.

Will Brehm  29:19
Yeah, like, what passport would you hold, in effect?

Roger Dale  29:21
It is associated with it and I think this is another very, very flabby but dangerous concept here is cosmopolitanism. And I think we do really do have to keep an eye on the growth of cosmopolitanism, as the nice solution to everything.

Susan Robertson  29:38
I mean, that is my criticism, actually, both of the current conceptions on the table of global citizenship and the global competence framework. It’s pretty much a kind of weak liberal -I mean it had some potential, it had some possibilities. If you looked at some of that documentation -essentially, the way its run is still to thinking in terms of nations, so that you are to look out beyond your nation. I’ve, for various reasons, found myself in Kazakhstan on several occasions in the last couple of months and my comment publicly in that space was to actually say that you had global citizenship within. In other words, Kazakhstan, that’s got multiple ethnic communities and working incredibly hard and has to work very hard to secure those different ethnic communities to a common notion of nation and so on. And that would, somehow need to be acknowledged. And I’m taking from this idea of internationalization at home. You’ve got globalization at home. Within your national territorial boundaries, how do you become globally aware within those boundaries, okay? Could be beyond too. But actually, a good first step would actually be within so a notion of global. Now, on those metrics, that’s not going to count you’re going to do pretty bad actually because the focus is not on, you know, beyond the boundaries and, and so on. So, I see that as a bit of a problem. Quite a weak, well, it’s a kind of liberal, you know, you’ll just be a good and tolerant citizen. And sometimes we might want to unsettle the world with some quite confronting truths about, you know, who we are, how we relate to each other, our lack of empathy for each other. You know, “I’ll be all right. But don’t ask me to think about my neighbor”, that kind of thing.

Roger Dale  31:32
You talk about culturally related responses, but they’re actually culturally held norms and understandings. There isn’t the basic. Again, we can’t judge every everybody against French ideas of politeness or whatever.

Will Brehm  31:46
Taking a relational idea of “the global IS the local”, I mean, in a sense, perhaps, we should be saying we want local citizenship rather than global citizenship, maybe it means the same thing, or maybe it allows us to conceptualize it a little bit more -I don’t know, more realistically?

Roger Dale  32:05
I mean, I think the challenge there comes from the movement of people. Because the movement of people disrupts and troubles the conception of national citizenship. Look through Eastern Europe, most of Europe now. Citizenship is a problem.

Susan Robertson  32:21
Can I give you a good example of what I’d see as local citizenship: the mobilization of young people in the United States around the shootings in school and that became a national campaign? And there’s an amazing image of the shoes of the young kids who marched in Washington, but they marched all over the country, and they took their shoes off and they left those pairs of shoes in front of the Capitol building. Now, that’s local citizenship and a claim to certain rights in the United States that we can connect across boundaries, as it were. I could imagine a classroom in France or England, and a teacher might lead a discussion around those shoes and the absent bodies. Again, where does a gun lobby come from? You know, how are guns organized in the UK? What do we see as global statistics from nation-to-nation, community-to-community, that kind of thing? So, I mean, all struggles are always anyway, local. It’s what we do – and this would Burawoy kind of notion of connections. How do we connect across different spaces to the conditions of possibility or probability, and the politics that then kind of follow? And perhaps it’s a healthier way, then, of thinking of the global, of the connections between us and the possibilities and the politics in any one place of what actually happens. In that moment it’s an unsettling and confronting challenge to adults about the world that young American children living.

Roger Dale  34:05
But the dominant medium of this global thing is graduate status across the world. That is the common denominator that actually -the only thing that overcomes national boundaries.

Will Brehm  34:16
Is graduate -What do you mean graduate students. People who graduate from universities?

Roger Dale  34:20
People with undergraduate degrees.

Will Brehm  34:22
Right? I mean, it assumes that. Even though there’s so much mobility of people outside of that domain.

Roger Dale  34:29
Whatever else strange habits or beliefs they have, that’s the common denominator. It is the medium that enables people across all the world to talk to each other in some way or other and we don’t have another one.

Will Brehm  34:42
So, I know we’re not in the business of predicting the future, but I did want to ask you sitting here in December of 2018, and looking into 2019, do you have any predictions for the field itself for research that that may be coming out, or topics that may be of interest to researchers?

Susan Robertson  35:06
In fact, I’ve just been working on our journal and the papers kind of which will be coming out and so on. And some of the potential special issues and so on. There clearly is more than a rumble around decolonizing agenda and there are papers coming through. There is clearly more than a rumble and there are papers and special issues coming through around you know, what’s the university for. Partly because there’s a kind of somewhat of a collapse at one level of faith, you know, in the promise of education, and this kind of displays directly into the idea of human capital: invest in yourself, and you’ll get an outcome. Well actually for increasing numbers: No. And one of the things that we could see about the Brexit vote is for sure, there were disenfranchised groups, you know, working class clusterings around the coastal areas and so on. But in the southeast of England, it was also an upper-working class, lower-middle class group of young voters who felt that their faith and their investment in education had not been repaid. And they are heavily indebted. So, there are papers coming through the journals and we want more of these thinking about the ways in which education has been heavily financialized. It’s a services sector and we often don’t go out there and think of the way in which education has been grabbed for the purposes of the economy and for building up services sectors in the developed countries, particularly. But also, China’s kind of involved now with the One Belt, One Road initiative. Perhaps the other topic we don’t see much writing on but it’s crucially important is the rise of China. There’s writing on the rise of China, of course, but and its transnational project that’s underway, the One Belt, One Road initiative, which is clearly having consequences across both the belt and road as it were. So, this stretches out right across toward Europe, on the one hand, and then snakes down through parts of the East Asian world, right down to Indonesia. But education is important in that because it becomes part of the infrastructure that enables movement and so on. But there are kind of elements, and we can see that across Europe, you know, Poland, becoming very interested in turning toward China, and looking at the way in which even its education institutions are, you know, looking to watch on and that’s no surprise there. But we need to know more about these kinds of initiatives and what that means for education. You know, what kind of foreign policy is this? You know, does aid happen for China in the same way an infrastructure development. And perhaps one last reflection Will about areas -we talked a bit about PISA and big data, but there’s a lot of work both going on, and it’s likely to be coming through the journals, but exciting work around the rise of platforms, infrastructures, and so on. And how do we want to think about that? Of course, the big firms that are in there, you know, like Facebook and Google and others and Google Schools, and Silicon Schools -lovely writers like Ben Williamson and others doing work in this area. But even some my own students looking at Google Classrooms. What does this mean for the oversight of the state? Questions of citizenship and issues of security surveillance, and so on. So, a major, major agenda of work to be done, and it’d be interesting to come back and talk to you the end of 2019 to see how far down the agenda we have got in that regard.

Will Brehm  39:00
Well, you are always invited back. I mean, it was an incredible year and it sounds like there is a lot of very interesting work coming out in 2019. So yes, please do come back. Susan Robertson, and Roger Dale, thank you so much for joining FreshEd and Happy New Year.

Roger Dale  39:15
Thanks a lot and hope to see you soon.

Susan Robertson  39:17
Thank you very much.

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