How a European 'Fear of Falling Behind' Discourse Co-produces Global Standards: exploring the Inbound and Outbound Performativity of the Transnational Turn in European Education Policy

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This chapter maps how European education policy increasingly develops in transnational collaborations, with the OECD being only one among a number of transnational bodies whose strategies increasingly converge in manners that simultaneously produce global effects. The governing complex emerging from these collaborations involves transnational mediators that make European and Trans-Atlantic ideas fit to travel globally – across the North and the South. The key players are the OECD, the European Union, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and the Bologna Process (e.g. Krejsler, 2018; Robertson, Neves de Azevedo, & Dale, 2016; Schriever, 2012; Steiner-Khamsi, 2012). The driving discursive force in producing this new governing complex is a motivational force because it recounts the story of fierce global competition among knowledge economies, with nations falling behind if they fail to optimize their human capital (e.g. Meyer & Benavot, 2013; OECD, 1996; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). A ‘fear of falling behind’ regime in education thus appears to drive reform agendas by producing incentivizing fears that aim at inspiring hope that success may be achieved through relentless effort. Its trajectories have become mainstay in public education debate as transnational comparative surveys like the OECD’s PISA and the IEA’s TIMSS and PIRLS studies have increasingly been translated into rankings that produce shocks when school students do not perform as well on tests as they apparently do in other nations that we increasingly learn to fear. It feeds into the fear in public discourse that students are falling behind, that they are not employable or not becoming lifelong learners, and that they will drop out of school. At a more general policy level, it feeds into the fear that a nation or region is falling behind in a competitive global knowledge economy in which only the best will succeed. The EU Lisbon Agenda, launched in March 2000, is a prime example of this dynamic as it established a vision that by 2010 Europe would be “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion” (EC, 2000). The implied idea was that this agenda must be ambitiously adhered to if we are to avoid falling behind. This ‘fear of falling behind’ regime thus has considerable performative effects in producing a state of crisis awareness both at national and EU levels that has succeeded in motivating and driving education reforms that promise future growth if we comply with its associated panoply of political technologies in the form of testing, accountability measures, and rankings. As Rizvi & Lingard have aptly phrased it: “Policies, we know, often discursively create the contexts to which they are purportedly a response” (Rizvi & Lingard, 2006, p. 259). By expanding its standards for comparability, this regime brings these effects into performative circulation in networks and collaborations globally. As Appadurai (2006/1996) warns us, however, this kind of impact morphs considerably as it travels and translates into vastly different contexts with different policy needs and conditions. This chapter scrutinizes the fascinating case of Europe responding to global challenges by attempting to achieve simultaneously increased inbound integration and an increasing outbound export of ideas and standards. The inbound integration takes place in the form of mutual peer pressure in favor of common standards and guidelines among different nation states with entrenched national identities and centuries-long traditions of internecine competition and warfare. The outbound export takes place according to a diverse mix of mainly soft power strategies like “partnerships”, “joint ownerships”, “attractiveness projects”, and “shared values”. Altogether, Europe constitutes an interesting case for exploring the dynamics of globalization. Or as Manuel Castells puts it: “European integration is, at the same time, a reaction to the process of globalization, and its most advanced expression” (Castells, 2000, p. 348).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe OECD's Historical Rise in Education : the Formation of a Global Governing Complex
EditorsChristian Ydesen
Number of pages23
Place of publicationCham
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Publication date2019
Article number10.1007/978-3-030-33799-5_12
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-33798-8
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-33799-5
Publication statusPublished - 2019
SeriesGlobal Histories of Education


  • European education policy
  • Global standards
  • Transnational governance
  • Fear of falling behind
  • Uddannelsespolitik
  • Internationalisering/globalisering


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