Transfer of the Dual System of Vocational Education to Developing Countries – Help or Hindrance for Development? Reflections from an Austrian Perspective

By Margarita Langthaler, Austrian Research Foundation for International Development.

Austria flag Currently, there is much talk about why youth unemployment rates in Austria, as in other German speaking countries, are substantially lower than in the EU and OECD area. Generally, media and politicians point to the existence of the dual system of vocational education as the main reason for better employment performance. This has generated considerable interest in the dual model, in particular from unemployment-stricken Southern European countries, but also from transition and middle-income countries. As a consequence, the export of this type of vocational education approach has increased significantly in the German speaking region. This thriving dynamic has implications for development cooperation.

The dual system of vocational education generally refers to a model of apprenticeship based on simultaneous company-based training and formal education in vocational schools, whereby, unlike most other forms of combined approaches, the major part of training (usually 80%) takes place in the company. Accomplished apprenticeships lead to qualifications which are widely acknowledged in the labour market. This specific form of vocational education has historically developed out of the medieval system of guilds of craftsmen and is deeply rooted in particular patterns of social organisation of labour based on institutionalised cooperation between public administration, the education system, the private sector, professional associations and interest groups.

While it is true that numbers show a correlation between low youth unemployment rates and the existence of a dual system (according to OECD data for 2012: Austria 8.7%, Switzerland 8.4%, Germany 8.1%, OECD total: 16.3%), there is enough research-based evidence to shed some doubt on the assumed causal relationship. Lassnigg et al, for instance, point to the fact that in Austria, besides other factors, a targeted labour market policy helps to keep youth unemployment rates low.

Notwithstanding these doubts and its obvious social and cultural specificity, export of the dual model is widely recommended by politicians and economic players alike. Traditionally, Austrian foreign economic activities have concentrated on the South and South Eastern European region, and this is true for the export of vocational education as well. However, there is also some interest in a transfer of the model into transition and middle-income countries outside Europe, even though this interest seems to be considerably smaller than in Germany or Switzerland.

Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) is currently seeking synergies with the educational export activities of private enterprises. It has set up a funding scheme targeting companies which intend to establish an economic activity in a developing country. Frequently, vocational education is part of these “economic partnerships” between ADC and Austrian enterprises.

Although Austria has a long tradition of support to vocational education as part of its development cooperation portfolio, its interventions have been more focused on vocational schools and the systems level than on apprenticeships. However, existing experience, as well as recent evaluations from Switzerland and Germany point to the difficulties attached to a transfer of the dual model due to its social and cultural embeddedness. In particular, the involvement of the private sector, which is a basic and crucial feature of the dual system in German speaking countries, seems to be difficult to establish and to sustain over time. The Swiss evaluation notices that interventions based on the dual system model were most successful in the informal economy. However, employment and income effects of these interventions were negligible. Therefore, it is generally recommended to transfer elements of the dual model (such as the emphasis on practical training), rather than the system as a whole and to apply a strong focus on local contexts. Generally speaking, experiences with the transfer of the dual system cast doubt on both its sustainability on the systems level (which would be a precondition for a positive impact on private sector development) and its effectiveness in terms of poverty reduction, the overarching goal of Austrian Development Cooperation.

From a developmental point of view, the question arises under which conditions a transfer of the dual model (or elements of it) can be supportive to local development. By drawing on its own and our neighbouring countries’ experience, ADC has a lot to contribute to this issue. Hence, in engaging with the enterprises’ vocational education export activities, ADC should ensure that developmental criteria outweigh, or at least balance, purely economic interests.

Margarita Langthaler is a researcher at the Austrian Research Foundation for International Development Her work focus is education in developing countries and development cooperation in the education sector. Email:


Lassnigg, L., Schmitz, K. and Strahm, R. (2013) Austria’s Success on the Youth Labour Market – Not Systemic but Voluntaristic. Lifelong Learning, in: Europe LLinE, Issue 1

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for about 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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Education Diplomacy – Towards a Common Understanding

By Katharina Hone, DiploFoundation.

Many of the participants in the Education Diplomacy Day in Geneva in October pointed out that they were not sure exactly what education diplomacy means. And then they proceeded to talk about their own work – which in each case was a good example of education diplomacy, in one of its many different aspects.

The Geneva event is a good starting point for mapping the terrain of education diplomacy. The term itself was suggested by the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) in 2009. ACEI began by describing education diplomacy as the “cross-disciplinary, intercultural sharing of theories, ideas, and concepts that advance the landscape of education and, thereby, enhance human development.” Putting this in the context of the theory and practice of diplomacy, I think education diplomacy is best described as what is often called “new diplomacy.” We find the term commonly used in connection with environment diplomacy or health diplomacy to convey “… that we have entered a new era of international cooperation and that the boundaries of traditional diplomacy – concentrated on national security and economic and commercial matters – are being extended to a much broader concern for global sustainability” (Kjellén, 2008). In this sense, new diplomacy describes the arrival of new actors and new topics on the diplomatic playing field.

Taking further inspiration from definitions of health diplomacy, we might describe education diplomacy as “a political change activity,” a “multi-level, multi-actor negotiation processes,” “the cultivation of trust and negotiation of mutual benefit in the context of global [education] goals,” and as “the chosen method of interaction between stakeholders engaged in public [education] and politics for the purpose of representation, cooperation, resolving disputes, improving [education] systems, and securing the right to [education] for vulnerable populations.” I suggest that applying these definitions to education diplomacy and critically analysing their fit and potential implications can be a useful step in further pin-pointing the concept.

However, given the importance of education on the global agenda, as exemplified by the second Millennium Development Goal and the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, it is quite surprising that the concept of education diplomacy has not yet received more prominence. Further, if we do take environment diplomacy and health diplomacy seriously, why is there an absence of engagement with education diplomacy?

In order to begin solving this puzzle, it is useful to start by asking what education diplomacy entails. Based on the Education Diplomacy Day discussion, I suggest three broad areas as a first attempt to map the concept. These are:

  • the normative aspect of education diplomacy;
  • education diplomacy as an activity spanning various issue areas, policy fields and types of diplomatic engagement; and,
  • education diplomacy as a multi-level activity.

Further, in addition to these broad areas, suggestions regarding the skill-set of the ideal education diplomat deserve further reflection.

During Education Diplomacy Day, Diane Whitehead and Yvette Murphy of ACEI emphasized that the term education diplomacy clearly carries normative connotations. For them, issues of greatest concern are improving access and quality of education, ensuring equity, and contributing to sustainability. Also emphasising the normative dimension of education diplomacy, Lichia Yiu of the Academy for Quality in Education and Training reminded us that education is crucial to promote social and economic development, support country development objectives, enhance sustainable lifestyles and practices, and strengthen civic conducts and engagement. Similarly, Raymond Saner, director of the Center for Socio-Economic Development put education at the core of attempts to achieve sustainable development.

These and other presentations also reminded us that education diplomacy is a cross-cutting activity. It touches upon global trade negotiations, human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development, to name just a few. It is part of development cooperation as well as humanitarian aid. The discussion on the day also highlighted that it can be part of other types of diplomacy such as public diplomacy, city diplomacy, and track-two mediation. Further, education diplomacy can also be seen as a key ingredient in developing so-called citizen diplomacy further.

Undoubtedly, education diplomacy takes place in the traditional realm of diplomacy: the relations between states as developed in bilateral contacts and multilateral encounters. Various international agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF are also important players in the field. But, education diplomacy is also a transnational activity, directly connecting citizens of different countries. And most importantly, education diplomacy reminds us that the boundary between the international and the domestic realm cannot be maintained. In this spirit, many presenters and participants during Education Diplomacy Day emphasized the close connection between the local, national, and global levels and the need to understand how they work together and how they can be better integrated.

Having defined education diplomacy as part of “new diplomacy,” it is clear that education diplomats come from a variety of backgrounds and professions. While official state representatives take part in education diplomacy, they may not be the most prominent actors in the field. I think that education diplomacy is best understood as an activity that brings together the diplomatic practitioner and the education practitioner in order to achieve a common vision. This can take fundamentally different forms in practice. For example, a person engaged in trade negotiations under the GATS agreement and a representative of a grassroots organisation working to implement the Sustainable Development Goals on education can both equally be called education diplomats, if we follow the idea of a “new diplomacy.” Further, if we add transnational interactions and networking across state boundaries between those engaged in the education sector to the realm of education diplomacy, the circle of education diplomats becomes even larger. Hence, the specific demands on education diplomats vary considerably. ACEI suggests a number of broad core skills and dispositions for education diplomats. These include reflection, intellectual flexibility, global ethics, appreciative inquiry, negotiation, mediation, and cross-cultural communication. Toward visualizing the various tools an education diplomat would need to possess, Dr Jovan Kurbalija, director of DiploFoundation, started sketching what he calls the Swiss Knife of Education Diplomacy. This idea, which needs further development, incorporates these skills and dispositions with key areas of knowledge (such as the global education policy agenda, trade, human rights, sustainable development, etc.).

During Education Diplomacy Day, we surely made progress in mapping the concept. However, two key tensions that surfaced in the debate deserve closer scrutiny. NORRAG’s Laetitia Houlmann and Mònica Serlavós pointed to the potential conflict between education as a public good and education as a commodity and the potential friction between a global approach on the one hand and the national, cultural and local specificities of educational systems on the other hand. These issues are not inherent to education diplomacy, but education diplomats need to be able to navigate these tensions.

While this blog post expanded on some of the issues we touched upon during the day, the question still remains whether or not we should consider education diplomacy as a new type of diplomacy and, if yes, how we define education diplomacy and how we practise it.

Katharina Hone is a researcher and online course tutor at the not-for profit organisation DiploFoundation. Working with ACEI and Diplo, she will be developing the first online course on Education Diplomacy, to be launched in the summer of 2015. She welcomes further suggestions, comments, and critique. Email: Twitter: @kathone


Kjellén, B. (2008) A New Diplomacy for Sustainable Development. The Challenge of Global Change. London: Routledge, p. xvi also pp. 39-49.

Further information

For more information on education diplomacy, please see You can consult the Education Diplomacy Day event programme, presentations, further resources, and a photo album at

The next global event will be the Institute for Global Education Diplomacy in Washington DC in March 2015. Learn more and register at

Follow the organisations on twitter: @diplomacyedu | @edudiplomacy | @acei_info

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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The Challenges of Promoting Transfer of the Dual Model of Vocational Training in International Cooperation

By Markus Maurer, Zurich University of Teacher Education.

Maurer In today’s highly globalised world it would be surprising if governments and their experts, whether operating in economically highly or less highly developed contexts, tried to resolve the challenges of vocational education and training (VET) by developing context-specific solutions from scratch. Rather, they virtually always try – as in most other domains of public policy – not to “re-invent the wheel”, and therefore look for models and best practices that have worked elsewhere. Policy transfer today is, thus, a very common phenomenon in the world of skills development, and has led to what McGrath has called this the global toolkit of vocational skills development. Certainly, this toolkit is nothing new, if one thinks of the emergence of vocational schools during the colonial era or of the career of manpower planning in the decades following the Second World War.

In view of their rapid global diffusion, national qualifications frameworks (NQF) are clearly one of the most prominent current tools in the kit. Given the complex set of actors that are promoting their development as well as the large number of countries that have started their implementation, it has even become difficult to consider this a process of traditional transfer of a model from one country to another. Ironically, even though so many countries have started to develop their NQF, this decision is rarely based on an analysis of evidence on their impact elsewhere. Rather, the fact alone that so many countries world-wide are adopting the model seems to be an argument in its own right that reinforces the diffusion process and complements other justifications, such as the ambition to increase the comparability of VET programmes within the system and with other countries, to improve permeability between VET and general education etc. Unfortunately, the little evidence we have on the effects of NQF is not very promising, particularly when it comes to developing and transition countries: The implementation often proves difficult, trainees are not seeing better training quality and hardly ever is access to further education training programmes improved, let alone access to foreign labour markets.

Somewhat in the shadow of the career of NQF, the dual model of VET, i.e. the systematic articulation of school-based vocational education and workplace-based learning, is also on the way to become a tool in the VET kit, though its outreach matches that of the NQF in no way. In particular, some of the German-speaking countries are interested in promoting this trend in development cooperation. There is thus re-emerging interest in a policy that had been strongly promoted by Germany until the 1990s when it was criticised for producing poor results, particularly in terms outreach and sustainability – and was followed by a period during which German development aid put little emphasis on VET. At the same time, Switzerland, whose aid budget is considerably smaller than Germany’s, had, for long, preferred not to be so explicit about the dual model and provided support to different forms of VET.

The current, growing interest in the transfer of the dual model, not only in these two but also in other European countries where workplace-based learning plays a key role in VET, has a number of reasons: firstly, many actors in these countries are deeply convinced of the effectiveness of this type of vocational learning and also consider it to be important to keep youth unemployment at a low level. These convictions are particularly strong among policy makers and, notably in Switzerland, among many VET professionals with mainly domestic expertise. Secondly, many experts who are aware of common trends in VET at the global level, are critical of the breath-taking career of the Anglo-Saxon NQF model and consider the dual model more in line with the real needs of VET systems in developing and transition countries.

Though it seems important to not only focus on system-level changes but on improving education and training processes at the level of their provision, it would be wrong to promote the dual model as a global panacea solution in development cooperation. The conditions for success, notably the readiness of the private sector to get involved into training delivery on a long-term basis, are, in many countries, not so different from those in earlier decades. Support to actual policy learning that aims at finding context-specific solutions to involve the private sector into VET, be in overall planning, curriculum development, delivery, financing or certification, might be a more worthy endeavour.

Markus Maurer is professor of vocational education at the Zurich University of Teacher Education. His research focuses on implementation of education and training policy reforms, on adults in vocational education as well as on comparative analysis of education and training systems. Email:

Further Reading

Maurer, M., & Gonon, P. (Eds.). (2014) The Challenges of Policy Transfer in Vocational Skills Development: National Qualifications Frameworks and the Dual Model of Vocational Training in International Cooperation. Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang.

>>Related Post: Maurer ‘Policy Transfer in Vocational Skills Development: Dual System and NQF Promises’ 24th Jan 2013.


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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for about 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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Without Theory, there are only Opinions

By Roger Dale, University of Bristol.


The phrase ‘without data you’re just another person with an opinion’ which has been frequently uttered by Andreas Schleicher as a defence of the PISA surveys, is – I argue – not only indefensibly dismissive but very misleading. I say this, because I argue that without knowing why and how they were collected (i.e, the theory/ies informing their collection), data such as those assembled by PISA remain mere agglomerations of numbers, open to the post hoc attribution of any sort of evidential status an observer might want to attach to them, with the result that we might suggest that ‘without theory, data both lack meaning and carry the capacity to seriously mislead’. Or, as Immanuel Kant put it, rather more pithily, ‘Concepts without percepts[1] are empty (but) percepts without concepts are blind’.

And this leads to a crucial question: in the absence of any theory of comparison beyond the simplest juxtaposition, and in the face of the demonstrable need for the suspension of disbelief that the same instruments can be validly claimed to provide any sort of meaningful comparison between countries that are clearly very different from each other in a number of respects, why does anyone take notice of them?

There are two quite different sets of issues here, though both relate to what is being ‘compared’ through PISA. One is ‘countries’ as the units of comparison.[2] On the one hand the analytic problems generated by methodological nationalism[3] (which I have written about at some length) are by now well recognised, and increasingly, observed. On the other hand, when comparing countries’ performance on tests, what assumptions are made about ‘countries’ as the bases of the comparisons? These difficulties have been recognised at least since Przeworski and Teune’s work on the nonsense of assuming that the proper names of countries in themselves embrace/include everything necessary to enable effective inter-country comparison, and the need to replace them by the names of variables…‘replacing the notion that ‘nations differ’ by statements formulated in terms of specific variables’ (Przeworski and Teune, 1970: 29-30).[4]

The other, and possibly greater, problem, concerns the goals of PISA, and the foundations upon which they are erected. To take just one instance: PISA says it needs to ‘develop indicators that show how effectively countries have prepared their 15-year-olds to become active, reflective and intelligent citizens from the perspective of their uses’ of these subjects (OECD, 2006: 114). No evidence is, or data are, or could be, provided for the future consequences of what 15 year olds have learned at school – which makes it sound very much like just somebody’s opinion, or a pretty baseless wish. The problem is that it is not just any somebody’s opinion, but that of – what some see as – the most powerful agent of education policy formation in the world.

So, all this leads us to ask what does it matter, what purposes does all this serve? To answer this, we need to take PISA itself as explanandum rather than explanans (requiring explanation rather than providing it), and try to theorise the basis of its success. This entails not asking just how far it has achieved what it claims to, but what differences it has actually made. One piece of evidence we have is a recent internal review of how member countries have used PISA in their own systems. This shows that in a significant number of cases, countries’ responses are based on doing what will maintain their relative ranking, rather than radically altering their education system. That is, it seems to be that it’s the position that matters, (see Breakspear, 2012), not what it’s based on – which might lead us to consider the possibility that the most effective outcome of PISA is not how it has changed the education of 15 year olds around the world, but how it has created at the level of national education systems a high level of reputational risk through ranking, which acts as very powerful pressure to demonstrate conformity. Such competitive comparison, even when lacking in validity, is an extremely effective technology of governance in governments’ attempts to control education systems.

Such fears on the part of governments, though generated by the changing forms and demands of capitalism have been formulated into diagnoses and remedies by international organisations such as the OECD.

As part of these diagnoses (which do not so much represent solutions for national governments, as provide definitions of the problems they face), measurement becomes  a tool of management. Where this happens, as has frequently been pointed out, ‘what gets measured gets managed’, though we should note that the full proposition is ‘What gets measured gets managed – even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so’ (Caulkin 2008).

Concluding Comments

The data collectors of course recognise that data are never sufficient in themselves, but they seem to be content if the data feel ‘intuitively’ good enough, especially when they have been enthusiastically received by many interested and informed parties, and they fit nicely with their perpetrators’ prejudices.  So what’s the problem? Why can’t we settle for technically brilliantly produced data? Why do I argue that opinions shouldn’t be based on data alone (without knowing why and how the data/evidence was generated)? And most importantly, why does it matter so much with PISA?

The problem is four fold:

First, surveys like PISA can never reveal, let alone take into account, everything about any particular issue in one country. Nor have they (without theory) grounds to claim that the differences that we know exist between countries are irrelevant (another theory-dependent claim) (and if we say it’s not necessary to know everything, only what is important, we are already acknowledging the need for a theory of what makes them important—because they don’t speak for themselves).

The second problem is that as a result of these shortcomings, theory is replaced by the informed guess, or at best what are more politely known as empirical generalisations. The most prominent example of this in education is ‘the correlation’ whose ‘intuitive’ appeal often manages to overcome all the health warnings and examples of spuriousness that elementary methods textbooks can throw at us.[5]

The third problem is that the consequences, as opposed to the outputs, of the exercise are not implicit in its findings. This is extremely important in an area like education – because ‘the facts’ of education management do not arrive from nowhere. They do not exist, except as a result of the PISA system, and moreover they cannot be taken in isolation.  Not only are the consequences – or even the uses to which they are put – of the assumed ‘effects’ of the findings unknowable, but the findings themselves could be explained in myriad ways.

The final problem, and perhaps most important, is that this subsumption of theory to data means that we have no way of knowing why or how they work, on, and for whom, under what conditions, or of how they might be changed, either in themselves or in terms of their implications, in ways that might bring about changes deemed to be desirable.

These are the critical elements that data fetishism tends to make invisible,  but even worse, that could clear the way for the emergence of a nightmarish new paradigm of knowledge, where, as one sardonic critic put it:

‘massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behaviour, from linguistics to sociology! Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology! Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.’

Roger Dale is a Professor of Education at the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Society, University of Bristol, and Co-editor and Review Editor, ‘Globalisation, Societies and Education’. Email:

>>Related post: ‘Big Data’ Does Not Mean Good Data’, By Susan L. Robertson, University of Bristol.

>>See all NORRAG blogs on the OECD and PISA.

[1] A general rule prescribing a particular course of action, conduct or thought.

[2] Blog Editor: This use of countries as a unit of comparison is, of course, now widespread in many global reports.

[3] Blog Editor: First discussed in the mid-1970s, methodological nationalism is ‘the assumption that the nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world’ (Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002: 302). The nation-state is considered to be the appropriate primary unit of analysis.

[4] Przeworski, A. and Teune, H. (1970) The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

[5] Blog Editor: A spurious relationship is a mathematical relationship in which two variables (let’s call them x and y) have no direct causal connection, yet it may be wrongly inferred that they do. Just because x and y are correlated, this is not proof of a causal relationship; both x and y may have been affected by a third (or more) variable(s).


NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Are Brazilians Masochists? Why do they Insist on PISA?

By Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Brazil flagKenneth King, NORRAG NEWS’ editor, has asked me why Brazilians insist on participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), despite the terrible results that come out for Brazil every time. In fact, some countries have given up because of their rankings. Do I have the right answers? Anyway, it is worth speculating on possible causes.

The facts are clear. When the first results were presented, in 2001, Brazil was the bottom in a group of 32 countries. To be fair, it joined a league of big dogs. At best, it hoped to beat Mexico. But it did not.

Subsequent rounds of PISA saw a repetition of the same dismal performance. In the last round, out of 65 countries Brazil ranked between 54th and 60th depending on the particular subject. The good news is that at least 5 countries fared worse. The bad news is that more than 50 did better. Therefore, the question persists: why stay with it?

A first thought is that Brazil has a very open society. Debate and bitter controversies are part of political life. The PISA results do not produce any more noise than other issues and scandals do. In that respect, the country is different from Mexico, Russia and Argentina, where governments often suppress information or shy away from obtaining it. Kudos for Brazil.

Another relevant aspect is the very wide acceptance in Brazil of evaluations and rankings of students, schools or territories. In fact, few countries in the world can match such a wide and comprehensive system of evaluations, ranging from the second grade of primary to PhD programs. Not only that, but results are public and easily available on line. As a broad generalization, one can state that the quality of tests and the logistics of application range from fair to very good. Notwithstanding, some tests still have shortcomings.

Second grade students take a test, still on an experimental stage, to verify how well they can read and write. All fourth, eight and twelfth grades, public school students take a national test (Prova Brasil) and institutions are ranked according to the scores obtained.

At the end of secondary education, students take another test (ENEM), in Portuguese, Mathematics and now in Science. Schools are ranked according to the average scores obtained by their students. Also, most public universities use the ENEM’s individual results in order to select those that will be accepted.

In addition to these tests, Brazil has a unique examination, at the end of the university cycle. It is based on the curriculum of each corresponding career. Individual results are not public, but programs are assigned a grade, based on the points obtained by its students. This controversial initiative seems to have had positive results, particularly in the case of proprietary colleges (covering 75% of total enrolment).

The oldest evaluation initiatives focus on Master and Ph.D. programs. From the late seventies, all post-graduate schools came under the scrutiny of CAPES (the Education Ministry’s agency in charge of post-graduate studies in the country). Publications, credentials of faculty, peer reviews and other data are combined to produce a single number, measuring the excellence of each program. In addition to the prestige attached to high grades, the quota of fellowships of each program is a function of the scores obtained.

Considering all this, PISA is not such a big deal. Stakes are much higher for the other components of the evaluation game, in many cases, pitching one institution against the others.

Finally, perhaps one of the reasons for not dropping out of PISA is the fact that being a lousy performer in education bothers Brazilians, but not too much.  Poor PISA results created turmoil in Germany, for an entire decade. Ultimately, it led to significant improvements.

Brazilians feel embarrassed by their abominable position, but not enough to make life miserable for those in charge of education.  In other words, if the education disaster it identifies was taken more seriously, perhaps PISA would be dropped.

The silver lining is that, ever so slowly, the implications of the PISA disaster are being digested by Brazilian society. It is taking years, but it may be bringing some positive results; in terms of increasing absolute scores in the last PISA round, Brazil did better than just about any other country.

Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Email:

>> See all NORRAG Blogs on PISA.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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The Global Influence of the OECD in International Education Policies

By Simone Bloem, Université Paris Descartes/University of Bamberg.

oecdThe OECD is the co-ordinator of what some claim is currently the most important and influential international student assessment: The Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA not only includes the 34 member states of the OECD, but an almost equally large number of so-called partner countries and economies.

There may have been times when informed readers in participating countries had heard more about PISA than the OECD itself. But over time, the organisation has undoubtedly become a well-known agent to stakeholders in education policy as well as for the professionals in school systems around the world. This may well be due to the fact that the OECD is an important knowledge producer with PISA data; they not only co-ordinate the implementation and further development of the assessment, but also analyse the data and draw policy-related conclusions on this basis.

Since the first publication of PISA results in 2001, the OECD Secretariat has prepared a growing number of reports and other dissemination materials related to PISA. Its analysts and managers diffuse PISA results and policy-related conclusions at conferences and events with stakeholders from politics, educational practice and educational research in the participating PISA countries and beyond. On the basis of the various data collected as part of the PISA assessment, it provides global advice to politicians and society aiming to improve the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of national education systems. Due to its high output rate of PISA products, its global outreach and the widespread use of its products in science, politics and the media, the OECD has become an important actor in shaping the interpretation and use of PISA data and results.

An increasing knowledge production with PISA data in the OECD Secretariat could be observed between 2001 and 2014. It is noticeable that the initial PISA reports (reports that are published simultaneously with the release date of PISA data) have grown considerably in volume and scope over the assessment cycles. While the initial PISA reports of the first assessment cycles consisted of one volume with a still manageable numbers of produced pages, tables and figures, the initial PISA reports are now published in several volumes and contain hundreds of pages and significantly more tables and text (see for example OECD, 2001, 2014). Over time, a concentration of analytical activities related to PISA has developed in the OECD Directorate for Education. Analysts in the Directorate have been preparing a growing number of PISA thematic reports, which deal with specific issues in greater detail, like gender equality, students’ motivation or performance of students with an immigrant background (see for example OECD, 2012). These reports had earlier been drafted earlier by external consultants mostly from the academic field.

Most notably the OECD Directorate for Education has tried to strengthen the link between PISA and policy advice through new forms of data analysis and has adopted a more public oriented data communication approach with the aim of raising the relevance of the assessment and its results in politics, educational practice and society. The mostly descriptive presentation of results in the initial reports of the first assessment cycles has been supplemented by more in-depth secondary analysis and reference to countries’ experiences and reform trajectories that are intended to serve as “best practice” examples. According to OECD experts, this follows from a growing demand for policy advice on the basis of PISA data from countries and the availability of more and comparative historical data, as the PISA assessment has already had several cycles which would allow an in-depth use of PISA data. At the same time, this turn from a largely descriptive presentation of results to a more policy oriented use of PISA data is, at least in part, seen critically from members of the PISA community in and outside the OECD. Furthermore, the OECD Directorate for Education had strengthened and extended its media outreach in recent years, in particular by showing more presence in social media and by producing more accessible materials, ranging from overview brochures (e.g. OECD, 2014) and other shorter pieces of work summarising main results, to online tools allowing the public to explore PISA results themselves. In passing, it should also be mentioned that these additional activities went hand-in-hand with an increase in the number of employees working for PISA and additional financial resources available to the OECD Directorate for Education.

These developments can be interpreted as a growing politicisation of the knowledge production of PISA in the OECD’s Directorate for Education since the publication of first PISA results in 2001. It increases OECD’s visibility in society, politics and the media and ties PISA data more closely to educational policy. With this, OECD’s global influence in international education policies will likely increase even further.

Simone Bloem, Université Paris Descartes/University of Bamberg. Email:

This blog is based on Bloem’s thesis on OECD’s knowledge production with PISA, which she will defend in November 2014.

Further reading:

Bloem, S. (2013). L’exploitation des enquêtes PISA : entre rigueur scientifique et exigences politiques. INITIO -Réformes scolaires : perspectives internationales – no. 3, automne 2013, 4-25.

>> Related post: Bloem, S. ‘PISA in Low and Middle Income Countries’ 10th Jan, 2014.

>>See all NORRAG blogs on the OECD and PISA.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.



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Situating Post-2015: the Global Architecture of EFA, GCE, ESD and the World Education Forum

By Bong-gun Chung, Seoul National University.

upeIt is not certain whether those who designed the Education for All (EFA) Goals and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) over a decade ago intentionally – and in a close collaboration – set the same target year of 2015 on purpose. Intended or not, the coincidence of these two great global endeavours now commencing a new set of post-2015 global development goals is a hopeful sign for those who have not been not so happy about what has been achieved so far in the EFA and the education MDGs. This time, they believe, things could be done differently with more preparation, cooperation and commitment. Indeed, from Jomtien to Dakar to the UN Millennium Summit until now we have learned by doing that global development goals are by no means easily obtainable. International Organisations and national governments have dozens of reasons and excuses for the unmet goals of EFA and MDG. That was a sheer reality vis-à-vis the dream for the new millennium.

At any rate, we should learn from our experiences and do it right this time around. Encouragingly this time the UN HQ, with an emphasis from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has been actively assuming a leading role in setting the development goals for coming decades. By May 2013, the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda had already suggested twelve goals, including the provision of quality education and lifelong learning, to pursue beyond 2015 along with other related targets. On the other side of the theatre, contrastingly, UNESCO seemed to be a little late in consulting on the post-2015 agendas at country level; this, and the general lack of southern discussions at the time, led NORRAG to talk about a “northern tsunami, southern ripple” in an April 2013 working paper. Lately, to our relief, we see the tide begin rising in a series of meetings of UNESCO such as the EFA Steering Committee in Paris, the Global EFA Meeting (GEM) in Muscat, Oman, and the Asia-Pacific Regional Education Conference (APREC) in Bangkok, Thailand.

From these gathering clouds some swirling shapes of EFA, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and Global Citizenship Education (GCE)[i] debate seem to be appearing. The gist is something like this: EFA has not been accomplished yet so it needs more and continued attention; meanwhile, ESD should be carried on to the next decade through the Global Action Program; and, the GCE should be the ethos and practice of the global community beyond 2015. So the scene is the usual countervailing of concentration versus divergence so common in the rooms of any international organization. In the past decade, while there have been concrete discussions about how EFA and ESD are related in theory and practice, the discussion on links between ESD and GCE and between EFA and GCE have just begun. Even some EFA supporters suspiciously look at GCE as a strange bed fellow. So, of the three sides of the triangle, one line is still missing making the tripartite architecture weak and fragile.

The GCE as a post-2015 agenda is rather a late comer pushed by Korea, perhaps encouraged by the UN. As a new player in the court of international development cooperation little is known about Korea’s skills and resources in educational agenda setting. Frankly speaking, so far other than technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and some higher education, Korea’s involvement in EFA, ESD, and GCE has been quite limited. It might be suggested that global volunteers should come to join Korea to design the tripartite structure of EFA, ESD, and GCE in the World Education Forum 2015.

Bong-gun Chung is a Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. Email:

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

[i] Education for Global Citizenship is a key pillar of the Global Education First Initiative.

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