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12 Sep 2013

The Post-2015 Debates and the Challenges for the International Education and Development Research Community

By Simon McGrath, University of Nottingham.

As the end date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches so the focus on goals, visions and policies for development after 2015 becomes ever heightened. However, there has been relatively little engagement by the educational research community in these debates. A former UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Burnett, has warned about the dangers of education’s perceived “irrelevance” for post-2015 debates: what are the implications of potential marginalisation and irrelevance from these debates for the field of international education and development research?

When one considers the evidence used to talk about education’s role in development in both the HLP Report and wider post-2015 debates, it is quickly apparent that this is almost entirely drawn from the work of economists. The point here is not to criticise those producing this work but rather to challenge those working in the more sociological comparative education tradition. Many within that tradition would be uncomfortable with much of what is being said about education and development in the current debates. They would be concerned about the absence of historical, cultural and political contexts from the storyline. They would worry about the orthodoxy that the technologies of educational improvement are straightforward:

In focusing on social sectors like health and education, the MDGs prioritised areas of work where there was already extensive knowledge of what needed to be done: what was missing was the resources to do it. (Evans and Steven, 2012)

This largely paraphrases Jeffrey Sachs (2008: 301-2; see McGrath 2010 for a critique of his naive account of education and development). Those from the sociological tradition would also worry that there is no sense of education’s negative effects and that there are dangers in the inevitable instrumentalisation of education that results from such policy processes.

How then do we respond to these policy debates and to the challenges that lie in academic engagement with policy? It may be that the academic international education and development community is more comfortable in keeping these policy debates at a distance. If so, there are clear dangers here that certain routes to funding will likely be closed down. Equally, this may play against the strong educational research drive to engage in social science that makes a difference.

If there is to be limited engagement with post-2015 then it is important that alternative ways of developing practices of research, action and dialogue be further strengthened. For Northern researchers, there is a strong case for these being strongly embedded in far more radical engagements with Southern actors, including teachers and learners.

It may be that there should be a stronger but more strategic engagement with the post-2015 debates. This may be around interdisciplinary dialogues around such issues as early childhood development, the role of professions in development or environmental sustainability. Engagement with the post-2015 debate would also require a careful analysis of how best to engage with the instrumentalised accounts of education that are dominant in the policy-advocacy arena, and the silence about education’s violences.

At the same time, engagement with development studies as well as the development policy community requires a reappraisal of epistemological and methodological stances. Like many, I remain committed to the importance of contexts and the value of interpretative research drawing on the words and life worlds of individuals. However, I am concerned that we are not creative enough in both our communication of research from qualitative traditions and in our collaborations across methods and disciplines. This would need to be placed alongside critiques of inappropriate imposition of randomised control trials and depoliticised theories of change.

Are we comfortable in the irrelevance that Burnett identifies? At times, this appears to be a moral choice, but is it the right one? That is the greatest current challenge for academics working on international education and training.

Simon McGrath is Director of Research and Professor of International Education and Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham. Email:

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