Worlds of Education

Trump, Trumps, Trumpted: Cat and Mouse Games in ‘The Education House of Cards’

published 24 July 2019 updated 24 July 2019

By Susan L Robertson, Professor of Sociology of Education - Faculty of Education, Cambridge

I’ve recently been heard remarking  I never thought I would say  politics appears to be trumping economics. Of course, I am mostly talking about the disastrous consequences for the UK economy if BREXIT  finally comes to pass in October.

This would see the UK coming out of its long-standing regional agreement with Europe without any kind of deal. A small group of  ego-led politicians appear to be motivated by nothing less than their own personal indulgence.  To hell with the economy, and to hell with large fractions of the public who might disagree with them.  Brexit, Bolsonaro, Orban, Boris and Trump.

Scale up to the global level, and the reverse seems to be true. The UN system has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Economic Forum to pursue a Global Redesign Initiative (GRI). In a nutshell, the GRI is aimed at designing a new system of global governing. We’re told this is a multi-stakeholder led initiative, but the biggest and most powerful partner in this relationship is the World Economic Forum (WEF). Not only has the economy trumped politics here, but civil society is completely missing.

The WEF, headquartered in Davos, Switzerland, represents global corporations and transnational capital. Their annual meetings attract the great and the good – from Prime Ministers and Presidents of nations, to the glitterati of the music and film world. In short, the wealthy and the connected.  It is the WEF who are setting the pace – with areas like education, financing, climate change, health and gender –  all on the agenda.

We could be hopeful that these areas – the stuff of the Sustainable Development Goals  with their various targets – might mean the big challenges facing us all are of concern to global capital and the global elite. Yet closer inspection reveals that there is a great deal of pulling back from the potential of the SDGs to change, if not reverse, growing inequalities, carbon footprints, unsustainable development – the list goes on.

Instead, here is in this initiative a reframing of the aspirations for the SDGs; one where education’s role is now seen as important to manage the rapidly changing world of work, including the threat of artificial intelligence and machine learning to make labour redundant.

For sure work is changing, and rapidly and we will need to have responses to important questions of redistribution if education for work, and work-based redistribution is now in question.  If the education-work relation is severed, what does an education-non-work curriculum begin to look like. And how does redistribution work. These are knotty and important problems.

But so too is the pace of climate change and the divisions between the rich and the poor. Bovens and Wille (2017) also point to a cleavage between those who have access to an education that they can cash in for access to decent work and pay and those who don’t.  And it is this cleavage that maps onto to a pro versus anti-Trump, and a leave versus remain Brexiter.

Susan Sell talks about the game of cat and mouse as some forums become harder to influence. Moving to a different scale of action enables those who want to influence the outcomes to get around messy and difficult politics.

As national political arenas have become more difficult to gauge and negotiate, lobbyists and corporations have worked on  opening up new spaces from which to drive their agendas (profits). The mega-trade deals, such as TISA, TPP and TTIP have stalled, in the face of rising nationalisms and populist politics. Is this the reason for moving to a UN-WEF space and deal?

In the international sphere, the various agencies of the UN, along with inter-governmental organisations like the OECD, all jockey for power. With much of the UN system badly underfunded (in education this includes UNESCO and UNICEF), but with pressure on them to deliver on the SDGs, they will feel the heat of accountability, but few resources to deliver.

This new initiative, described by some pundits as a mega Public Private Partnership, has many of the features of an earlier relationship with the WEF in the early 2000s, under Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Here Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships were to unleash a new entrepreneurialism within the UN system and change the sectors they engaged with. For the most part this was a complete failure as the world of business, at least in education, knew little if anything about what makes for a great education system.

For UNESCO this meant partnering up with global corporations  and corporate foundations to enable it to deliver its work. These are never innocent arrangements. They weren’t then, and they won’t be now.

UNESCO is currently tasked with delivering Target 4.7 – global citizenship and sustainability. Read through the lens of the  Global Redesign Initiative, UNESCO will be under pressure to wind back from its post War 2 humanistic mandate aimed at promoting global understanding and peace, and to align itself with promoting global economic growth and competitiveness in the context of  the changing nature of work.

In this asymmetrical partnership – of a global partner without resources, and global corporations looking for the next buck and bottom line - the UN system has to come off second best.  For those of you who play  the card game ‘poker’,  we might say the WEF has called Trumps!  We won, game done!

The sad thing is that the ongoing domination of the airwaves by ego-driven populist national politics has crowded out coverage of these global developments. And it matters.

Those in the world of education, who care about education and the future of the next generation, have an important job ahead of them. They need  to mobilise at multiple scales with an alternative agenda.

What might a global redesign initiative look like if it was ‘education for all’ driven,  equity conscious, ‘planetary’ aware, and ‘civil society’ oriented?  What might Trumped look like? Who might be partners? For my money, the young generation who are putting us – quite rightly – on notice.

It’s time to ratchet up the heat on this one and put a competing redesign on the table where the word ‘economy’ is replaced by ‘education’ in its fullest of senses. And in order to do this, we might draw forward the commitment from the post-World War Two UN drafters: that  education must play a role in making a more civil society and global polity. Could this be a new game of cards where


call – Trumped!

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.