One of a few prevailing controversies in international education is the idea of a Western neoliberal agenda to colonize and enculturate other nations through the medium of globalization and neoliberal education policies (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 19). Certainly, many developed nations recognize and capitalize on the benefit of exporting their national educational trademarks globally, drawing in international students to post-secondary institutions, exporting educational resources, and building satellite campuses abroad to the tune of billions of dollars in profit (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, p. 158). Moreover, this transfer is generally unidirectional from North to South or West to East; and can be coercive due to the international education funding provided by various NGOs to developing nations that choose to adopt certain “best practices” as defined by the OECD, IEA, or World Bank (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, pp. 154–156), despite little evidence to support their effectiveness and their potential to disrupt national structures and weaken reform when implemented (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 20).
In her investigation of cross-national educational policy borrowing. Steiner-Khamsi (2013) presents an intriguing argument that turns this idea on its head. She posits that “globalization is not an intervention that is introduced by external forces but . . . it is stakeholders in the system that use the semantics of globalization or international standards . . . to shake up the power dynamic in a system.” (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, p. 160). In her view, domestic policy debates result in policy-makers seeking support for their positions through global education policies or borrowing policies from global sources in order to build coalitions and compromise around externally-sourced “third reform possibilities” (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, pp. 155–156). Actors in the domestic context, in other words, apply the rhetoric of globalization, in order to build pressure for change to suit their local agendas ((Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, p. 157). She goes so far as to say that many western created standards and practices wind up as little more than “empty vessels . . . filled with local meaning”. (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, p. 157)
While the greater influence that global actors have on decision-making regarding educational policy in developing nations is undeniable (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 20), Steiner-Khamsi’s view puts more agency in the hands of the domestic policy-maker, and shifts the narrative from one of all-powerful neo-liberal globalizers forcing policy changes on unwitting and unwilling developing nations to one that involves a more reciprocal balance of power and benefit: Western globalizing nations produce educational products for export abroad, and local actors select from what is on order to fuel and credentialize ther domestic political rhetoric.
Unfortunately, corruption and patronage politics often present in the governance of developing nations means that improved student outcomes are often not the top priority for politicians or educators when deciding on policy reform (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 2). One need only look to the haphazard and politically-motivated implementation of Universal primary and secondary education in Uganda detailed by Chapman, Burton, and Werner (2010) initiated in order to garner votes from parents and business-owners but with no attention paid to system capacity or involvement of head teachers (pg. 77). Ultimately, the initiatives were successful politically, but resulted in a drop in the quality of education nationwide (pg. 77).
Clearly, despite the elevation of domestic policy-makers in Steiner-Khamsi’s (2014) view of globalization and transnational educational policy borrowing, the outlook for students when warnings against transnational policy adoption are ignored is not positive. In fact, given the disingenuous motives of some local policy-makers in many developing nations (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, p. 4), the political will required to develop capacity and delivery systems to effectively implement the strategies borrowed is questionable (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 3).
Chapman, D. W., Burton, L., & Werner, J. (2010). Universal secondary education in Uganda: The head teachers’ dilemma. International Journal of Educational Development, 30(1), 77–82.
Kingdon, G. G., Little, A., Aslam, M., Rawal, S., Moe, T., Patrinos, H., … Sharma, S. K. (2014). A rigorous review of the political economy of education systems in developing countries. Final Report. Department for International Development.
Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2014). Cross-national policy borrowing: understanding reception and translation. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 34(2), 153–167.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.