Distance, proximity and Australia in global education governance

By Tore Bernt Sørensen

For the last seven weeks I have had the privilege to conduct the Australian leg of my PhD fieldwork in Australia. With the support of the Researcher Mobility Programme of World Universities Network , I was hosted by the excellent Professor Tony Welch and his colleagues at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. During the stay, I also visited Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne for interviews and meetings. My research focuses on the labour of teachers as a subject for global education governance, and in particular the OECD programme Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) as a policy instrument. The fieldwork thus involved interviews with researchers, teacher union leaders and senior civil servants who in various ways are engaged with the framing and implementation of TALIS in Australia and in using the results for various objectives.

Overall, spending time in Australia for the first time was one of those experiences where the more time you spend the more it became clear how little I know. And I only got to scratch a tiny corner of the continent. For me, the apparent sense of familiarity was clearly deceptive.

1 Uni Sydney

University of Sydney

This point was driven home when I visited Canberra for interviews at the federal Department of Education and Training. With its cardependent neatness, the planned capital left me intrigued and wondering what might be happening between the lines to make life in this model city livable. One of the few exceptions to the orderliness is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of the Old Parliament House.

2 tent embassy

Tent Embassy, Canberra

3 DfET Canberra

Department for Education and Training, Canberra


I happened to be visiting Canberra just a few days after the murderous attacks in Paris, and a few hours later Old Parliament House was floodlit with the French Tricolore. The attacks triggered the full spectre of reverberations, both solidarity and mourning, defensiveness, and what appears to a further entrenchment of existing political divides.

A long way to Paris

One of the main themes of my current project concerns the relations between national governments and Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which has headquarters in Paris. OECD is a hybrid between an intergovernmental organisation, think tank and knowledge broker with its own sense of agency in a vast range of policy areas. Currently accounting for around half of the global economy, the OECD has traditionally been seen as a quite Euro-centric club (though the US and Japan are the two main funders) for rich countries. But the organisation has in recent years become more global in terms of membership and now has 34 member countries.

The relations between OECD and Australia are particularly interesting because the country since it became OECD member in 1971 has embraced its membership in a way that is tempting to interpret as a prime expression of the tyranny of distance traditionally held as a main tenet of Australian collective identity and policy. Or indeed a love affair thriving on that distance and remoteness from Europe as Chris Duke would put it in 2003. The distance metaphor should probably not be exaggerated in our changing world of geopolitical alliances and trade partnerships. But, the point to be made here is that Australia has been very engaged also in OECD activities in education. In the 1970s federal Australian government thus dedicated an OECD Education Committee to nurture and amplify links with OECD in Paris. Later, during the 1990s and first half of the 200Os when a reinvigorated OECD emerged as the main global hub for educational assessment and policy advice, it was with Australians at the helm: Malcolm Skilbeck was Deputy Director for Educatio until 1998 and succeeded by Barry McGaw who became the very first OECD Director for Education when a Directorate for Education was established in 2002. Moreover, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), one of the most prominent research centres for quantitative educational research in the world, has over the decades undertaken much work for OECD, including the development and implementation of the most influential enterprise in comparative education research ever, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

More recently, ACER has lost terrain to multinational edu-business Pearson (it’s a small exclusive world out there when it comes to the global networks that matters in this respect as pointed out by Diane Ravitch and Anna Hogan and colleagues). However, with the legacy in mind, it should come as no surprise that PISA is high profiled in Australia. It is indeed remarkable the extent to which PISA’s appeal of simplicity has been taken at face value with the Australian Education Act 2013 including as an objective for Australia to be among the top five countries in PISA by 2025. Thinking about teachers, TALIS is not much discussed as a resource for policy formation in Australia, certainly much less so than PISA. Much of the debate in Australia on teachers’ labour and practices appears to be purely instrumental in the sense that they are supposed to be harnessed for the pursuit for higher student performance – as assessed in national testing and PISA. As a survey for teachers, TALIS offer some inconvenient results and government has not done much to spread word about results from the survey. Indeed, the federal Australian Education Union has been more active in using TALIS in their campaigning for more egalitarian school funding. This is a bit of a puzzle since it is government authorities that pay for Australia to take part in TALIS.

Maybe, some of the explanation for the low profile of the OECD survey in Australia is also related to the federal structure of the country where the governments of states and territories continue to be responsible for most aspects of funding and regulation of schools. While national curricula, testing frameworks, and professional standards for teachers have been put in place in recent years, educational debates remain largely state-centred and shaped by the ideosyncracies of these systems. As TALIS results for Australia are not disaggregated to state level – unlike PISA results – they are not found to be very useful in those state debates.

In short, the research visit to Sydney and Australia has raised some questions that I would most likely not have been asking if I had stayed in Europe. Australian government is clearly embracing OECD work in education. Yet, what this means for the outcomes and impacts of programmes like TALIS and PISA in Australia is not clear apart from the general observation that they are shaped by the federal structures of education governance in the country. Decisions with regard to education at national level in Australia are formally consensus-based, just like decision-making in the OECD. So, multiple layers of soft governance stacked on top of each other, or rather, intersecting with each other. These complex constellations make it all the harder to trace who decides and who conforms; who takes responsibility and are accountable for the political decisions that shape the nature, contents and practices of education, teaching and learning.

Editor’s Note: Tore Bernt Sørensen is a doctoral candidate (Education) in the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures, University of Bristol. His PhD project concerns contemporary trends in the global educational policy field. Focusing on the main political actors involved in OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), the project discusses the implications for the teaching profession on a global scale and in selected countries such as Australia, England and Finland. Contact: