World institutionalism and policy borrowing

At the 2008 Open CourseWare Consortium conference in Dalian, China, representatives from universities in many different countries were gathered to report on the progress, and share their experiences with opening up access to their course materials. Chinese researchers shared statistics on how large a percentage of students were aware of OpenCourseWare, Japanese professors showcased their latest OpenCourseWare semantic search tool, and Mexican researchers from the Tecnologico de Monterey showcased applications for mobile learning. The concept of OpenCourseWare had decidedly gone global.

This would seem to support the idea that national education systems are converging globally. The view that there is a clear trend towards increased similarity in values and system design as the result of worldwide emerging models is held by Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez (1997, 145), who state that “worldwide models define and legitimate agendas for local action, shaping the structures and policies of nation-states and other national and local actors in virtually all of the domains of rationalized social life — business, politics, education, medicine, science, even the family and religion.” 

Applied to higher education, world institutionalism predicts a growing trend towards isomorphism, rather than divergence, in higher educational systems (Meyer, Ramirez, Frank and Schofer 2006). This theory proposes that educational systems are not only converging in structure, organization and content, but also in such values of education as views of progress and social justice. The fact that 39 countries are currently members of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, and have universities that publish courses openly and share teaching materials freely, could be seen as further proof that global values and institutions are converging (OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010a).

However, this theory is not without critics. Anthropologist Anderson-Levitt (2003) criticizes convergence theories for taking global schooling models at face value, and Schriewer and Martinez (2004) similarly believes that we have to look below the surface, and the terms employed, to see whether they are actually describing the same reality:

"There is a convergence of educational reforms, but perhaps it is only at the level of brand names, that is, in the language of reform. Once a discourse is transplanted from one context to another and subsequently enacted in practice, it changes meaning." (Schriewer and Martinez 2004, 33). 

They also differentiate between internationalization as a real process, and internationality as a semantic construct that can be referred to selectively, according to the “changing problem constructions internal to a given educational system” (Schriewer and Martines 2004; Silova 2009). They show how policy borrowing does not happen systematically, for example following a simple centre-periphery model, but rather is structured by the needs and discourses in any relevant society. References to educational innovations in other nations are often employed as a rhetorical tool to promote change that is desirable by certain groups. To discover these processes, the multi-country statistical analysis often performed by the world institutionalist group has to be complemented by very fine-grained analyses of individual cases of educational borrowing, taking into account the local context, including culture, history, power structures and discourse.

In her book “Educational import”, Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe (2006) discuss global educational policy borrowing through the lens of Mongolia. They show how the government uses the language of modern Western innovations, but does not change its actual practices on the ground. This is similar to what Schriewer and Martinez (2004) describe as using “Ausland als Argument”. In many cases, the Mongolian government had to adopt the language of the donors, for example applying for funding for girl-child education, even if girls were far outperforming boys in school already. In other settings, a government will refer to external examples to lend legitimacy to their policy decisions, in some cases even “borrowing policy” even though the practices are already being carried out locally. In some cases, the terminology is adapted to lend credibility to desirable programs nationally, and in other cases, to receive funding from donors with specific priorities (Steiner-Khamsi 2004).

In chapter four and five, I will give a detailed account of the historical background and context in which the Top-Level Courses Project was conceived, and the details surrounding the project. I will then compare it to the OpenCourseWare model, using both the typology proposed above, as well as the theories on world institutionalism and its critiques discussed just above.