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18 Sep 2019
Clara Morgan and Ali Ibrahim

Locating the UAE in the International Architecture of Education: A Closer Look at Configuration Processes and Global Tests

This NORRAG Highlights contributed by Clara Morgan, co-Chair of CIES’ Middle East Special Interest Group, and Ali Ibrahim, Associate Professor with the College of Education’s Foundations of Education Department at UAE University, discusses the effects of Large-Scale Learning Assessments (LSLAs) in the context of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The authors assess how useful LSLAs are in improving educational quality and suggest focusing on knowledge diversity, rather than on universal measurement principles.

In the past two months, NORRAG contributors highlighted the failure of the international architecture of education in improving educational outcomes (Klees 2019) and suggested a way forward that is dynamic, inclusive and transformative (Gorur 2019). With Large-Scale Learning Assessments (LSLAs) playing an increasingly influential effect in the structuring of the international architecture of education, UNESCO’s timely report, The Promise of large-scale learning assessments, raises several important concerns summarized by Tawil & Prince (2019) including: the under-use and over-use of these assessments and their combined use with accountability measures.

Inquiries at the micro- and meso-levels provide insight on how the global architecture of education is operationalized by agents and by their interactions with artifacts such as global tests. Our focus in this contribution is to share our research findings on the effects of LSLAs such as PISA and TIMSS in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) context.

The UAE case

Although scholars of LSLAs pay attention to their effects in cross-national contexts, this work has mostly been in the Global North and in Anglo-Saxon countries. Except for a few studies, little is known about the effects of LSLAs and how students as users of these tests are pressured in the Global South and in the Arab region.

The UAE is an interesting case given the substantive investments it has made in its socio-economic development as a result of its oil and gas income. To fast-track the achievement of its educational goals, the UAE pursued a policy of educational borrowing starting in the 1950s of employing foreign teachers and staff and importing curricula, textbooks, and teachers’ training.

For UAE’s leaders, choosing to participate in very public assessments such as PISA and TIMSS is a strategic choice for ensuring the nation achieves its planned education outcomes. Thereby, the UAE is actively embedding itself into the international architecture of education as a PISA- and TIMSS-participant. The UAE (as well as other Arabian Gulf states) would like to move away from being a recipient of ideas and assistance from the Global North to becoming a source of ideas and an equal partner in global policy setting circles, such as within the OECD.

In the UAE, global tests such as PISA and TIMSS are combined with high-stakes accountability schemes and become proxies for national progress (UNESCO 2019, 54). Specifically, PISA and TIMSS rankings have become the goals of education policy. As in several Arab Gulf states and in countries such as Australia, the government adopted international tests as credible and objective measures for assessing educational improvements. UAE’s 2021 National Vision of developing a first-rate education system includes raising its rank to be one of the top 15 countries on TIMSS and among the top 20 countries on PISA. Since UAE’s educational ministries are under pressure to translate these targets into policy action and implementation in schools, results on PISA and TIMSS have become high stakes. More precisely, students enrolled in UAE’s government schools perform below average on these global tests compared to students in private schools.

Pressuring PISA and TIMSS users to fit in the international architecture of education

Our research traced and captured the social, cognitive, and affective construction processes of PISA and TIMSS test users in the UAE. The state played an important role in pressuring users through discursive practices and by regulating emotional responses. Thus, through these practices, the UAE is attempting to configure its principals, vice principals, teachers and students to become embedded in the international architecture of education as users of PISA and TIMSS.

Affective inducements involved labelling students as ‘good’ citizens in terms of their pride and motivation to participate in these global tests and their commitment to improving UAE’s ranking on PISA and TIMSS. As one of the school coordinators shared with us:

[They told us] love for the nation so that the students participate in the exam since this determines where the country is among other countries. So that students take it seriously so we can represent the Emirates and rank (tasneef) the Emirates compared to other countries (AD12).

In addition, institutional practices were put in place by schools and educational authorities to solidify the ways in which users interacted with global tests. For example, educational authorities adopted reverse engineering practices to improve student performance the day of PISA and TIMSS testing by modifying curriculum components so that they are aligned with test components and by incorporating into the curriculum sample PISA and TIMSS questions to familiarize students with the assessments. Other institutional practices included enlisting parents to help prepare their children for these tests and administering mock exams and training sessions for the students.

Despite the energy and resources that the UAE committed to these student configuration processes, our respondents told us that certain factors that impact teaching and learning in UAE’s public schools remain unaddressed including significant knowledge gaps among students, poor English language abilities, and the need for additional remedial learning classes that would help support and improve students’ educational outcomes and learning.

Final remarks

Given that LSLAs such as PISA and TIMSS make up an important dimension of the international architecture of education, how useful are these tests in improving educational quality for countries such as the UAE? Our research represents the evidence base for urging governments to shift away from universal educational discourses and measurement practices and encourages them to develop approaches that nurture knowledge diversity. By documenting and tracing the effects of global tests and their unintended consequences, we are better equipped with the knowledge to do the transformative work (Gorur 2019) in rethinking education.


Authors’ note: This blog is derived from a recent publication in the Journal of Education Policy entitled, ‘Configuring the low performing user: PISA, TIMSS and the United Arab Emirates’.

About the Authors: Dr. Clara Costandi Morgan is the current co-Chair of CIES’ Middle East Special Interest Group and a former faculty member with UAE University; email: Dr. Ali Ibrahim is an Associate Professor with the College of Education’s Foundations of Education Department at UAE University; email:

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