Global learning dream founders;Millennium edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Contrary to theory, nationalities are not converging into a homogeneous culture and education is one area where governments are asserting control, writes Andy Green.

In the global society, we are told, borders dissolve and nation states wither. Logically, national education systems should go the same way. However, reality is a little bit more complicated.

Developed economies are increasingly internationalised. Information technology, de-regulation and increased competition mean that capital, goods, services and ideas are all now furiously traded on the global market. On a normal day, world capital markets move more than one trillion dollars, almost half as much as total world trade in a year.

Neither manufacturing nor service industries now have any natural geographical locations; multinationals will rapidly re-locate to areas providing skills, market access and lowest costs. All this substantially erodes the national economies. However, politics and culture do not so easily transcend national boundaries.

Nation states cede authority to the world and regional bodies above them, and devolve power to regions within them, but they still remain the primary focus of political organisation and loyalty. Numerous new states have been created since the collapse of communism, and most international bodies, in any case, only exist by virtue of national representation.

Culturally, we may seem to be headed for one big English-speaking Macworld of Hollywood films, mass products and cosmopolitan lifestyles. Certainly, satellite TV and the Internet make it hard for nations to insulate their cultures. However, below the veneer of material consumption the result does not seem to be a new standardised world culture.

National, ethnic and religious movements proliferate, and cultural diversity abounds. Education seems to follow politics and culture as much as economics.

Higher education is becoming increasingly internationalised, with more remote learning, student exchange and cross-border research partnership. The signs are that in the future knowledge-based economy, it will become a major international commodity.

The island of Singapore, for instance, has two national universities, but is about to host no fewer than six campuses of American universities to meet the rising demand for qualifications. There is also more international borrowing of policy ideas across all areas of education and training.

Compulsory education systems, however, remain stubbornly national. They continue to prepare young people to work in national labour markets and, in many cases, still try to promote national cultures. East Asian countries are trying hard to give their young people international competences - the abilities to communicate and negotiate in foreign cultures - but also they want them to maintain their national sentiments and loyalty.

Japan, Korea and Singapore, for instance, are all seeking to reinforce their national and moral education programmes. Western states are more reticent about this, but still worry about whether their schools are developing good citizens with the right values.

Contrary to what the global theorists predict, national education systems are not all converging. They all maintain their own peculiar characteristics, as products of different national and regional histories, and embedded as they are in distinctive national cultures and political systems.

Governments have certainly not stopped trying to control their schools and colleges in the pursuit of national objectives. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. As governments lose national autonomy in defence and economic management, they cling the more to education and training as two areas of policy which they can still control.

The UK is a case in point. Central government control over curricula, qualifications and standards has tightened in recent years, even if schools and colleges have greater autonomy in day-to-day management. The national curriculum sought to reassert the primacy of English literature and history and now "values education" is firmly back on the agenda.

It is certainly true that higher education is quite internationalised in the UK, particularly in research, although we are losing the race for international students at home and abroad to Australia and the USA. But compulsory schooling pays only lip-service to developing European Citizenship and international cultural competence: witness our still deplorable record in foreign languages.

Further education is another area where our system is being relentlessly nationalised. The Further Education Funding Council created a national funding and inspection system for colleges. This raised the public profile of the sector and enrolments increased dramatically, but post-compulsory provision in England still remained notably fragmented, with sixth-forms, colleges and youth training programmes funded and regulated in different ways and competing against each other for the same students.

New Labour has recognised that the post-compulsory sector needs more planning and coherence and less reliance on markets and competition. The Learning to Succeed White Paper promises a new national Learning and Skills Council responsible for the planning, funding and inspection of the whole post-compulsory sector (barring HE).

There will be 47 local councils, with an as-yet-undetermined degree of autonomy, but the creation of an overarching national agency with a budget of pound;5 billion-plus will undoubtedly represent a "nationalisation" of the sector.

This is probably a good thing and hopefully the involvement of OFSTED in 16-19 inspection will not sour the whole process. The post-compulsory sector in England has grown up in a very disorganised and ad hoc fashion and we badly need more coherence.

The new proposals may allow this to happen, especially if local authorities are allowed to open up new sixth-form colleges. Painful as it may be for some schools, it makes sense to close small, inefficient sixth-forms and create 16-19 institutions dedicated to the needs of that age group and able to provide a wide range of academic and vocational opportunities.

The move makes sense as well for FE colleges, which are increasingly becoming 18-plus adult institutions along the lines of the successful American community colleges. They would become the key institutions for adult lifelong learning, with a clearer mission and sense of identity.

Despite the entry of higher education into the global knowledge market, most formal education remains organised along national lines. Given its importance for promoting citizenship and social cohesion, this is hardly surprising. The coming decades, however, will see increasing tensions between education as an individualised consumer commodity, traded on global markets, and education for national competitiveness and social solidarity.

Professor Andy Green is head of lifelong learning at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is the author, with Alison Wolf and Tom Leney, of "Convergences and Divergences in European Education and Training Systems", available from the Institute's bookshop.

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