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Journal of Education Policy
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Globalisation of education policies: does PISA have
Marjaana Rautalin, Pertti Alasuutari & Eetu Vento
To cite this article: Marjaana Rautalin, Pertti Alasuutari & Eetu Vento (2018): Globalisation
of education policies: does PISA have an effect?, Journal of Education Policy, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2018.1462890
Published online: 07 May 2018.
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JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY, 2018
Globalisation of education policies: does PISA have an eect?
MarjaanaRautalin, PerttiAlasuutari and EetuVento
Faculty of Social Sciences (SOC), University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland
The paper examines the role of PISA in the globalisation of education
policies. It approaches the question by assessing the eects of PISA on
the ways in which new legislation was debated in national contexts in
the period 1994–2013. The study asks: Has there been an increase in
the number of references to the international community in debates
on education policy due to PISA, and, if so, is this change conned
to debates on education policy? Our analysis shows that education
policy debates feature an increasingly global discourse in which
organisations such as the OECD have an authoritative role. Yet, our
ndings do not support the claim that PISA is the cause of a change
in this respect. Debating national policies in a global context and
utilising the same transnational discourses regardless of the policy
issue area in question has long been with us, yet there is a global trend
in which national policies are increasingly often debated through
appeals to models and policy advice promulgated by international
Education researchers have recently become increasingly interested in the globalisation
of education policies. Scholars assert that, particularly on account of the Programme
for International Student Assessment, or PISA, led by the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD),1 education has become a global policy eld
(Lingard and Sellar 2014; Sellar and Lingard 2013a) within which various reference countries
and their policies are presented as justication for initiating reforms in countries ranking
lower in the assessment (Carvalho and Costa 2015; Dobbins and Martens 2012; Lingard and
Rawolle 2011; Takayama 2010; Waldow, Takayama, and Sung 2014). It has been argued that
there is thus increasing convergence between the policy frames of national school systems
(e.g. Breakspear 2012; Grek 2009) at is, as policy-makers in the national contexts ever
more oen seek inspiration from PISA and the reference systems it contructs, there is now
more global impact on national policy-making.2
Such claims and hypotheses raise the question of whether national education policies
have indeed become more globalised and, if this is the case, whether this trend is attributable
to PISA. ese are tricky questions in a number of ways. One of the most common ways
Received 10 May 2017
Accepted5 April 2018
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Marjaana Rautalin Marjaana.rautalin@uta.ﬁ
2 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
of tackling PISA’s possible role in globalisation of education policies has been to analyse
problems, criticism and recommendations put forward in the OECD reports drawing on
PISA data and contrasting them with the education policy reforms implemented in separate
nation-states (e.g. Bieber and Martens 2011; Bonal and Tarabini 2013). ere are, however,
empirical problems in determining the criteria by which discrete national reforms are inter-
preted as proof of the eect of PISA, and, even if parallels with the OECD recommendations
and national reforms can be demonstrated, it is dicult to attribute them specically to
PISA because national policies are typically outcomes of many dierent actors and factors.
Reporting on whether the OECD recommendations are implemented in Western
European welfare states, the book edited by Armingeon and Beyeler (2004) is a good exam-
ple of the problems faced by social scientists in their eorts to show causal relationships
in the processes through which domestic policies take shape. Although the contributors
to the study identied a remarkable concordance between OECD recommendations and
national policies, they rejected the hypothesis of a strong and direct impact. is is because
concordance among policies may be due to the inuence of other international organisations
(IOs) pursuing similar ideals. e national reforms may be responses to domestic challenges;
the policy changes may result from new domestic power constellations; and, nally, there
may have been changes in economic paradigms not only at the level of the OECD but also
at the national level (see Armingeon 2004, 230, 231).
Another way of demonstrating the impact of PISA on national education policies would
be to conduct interviews with national policymakers and ask them directly how PISA
inuences national policy-making. Such an approach was indeed applied in examining
the inuence of PISA on national secondary education (Knodel, Martens, and Niemann
2013). However, this approach, too, is not without diculties. e reliability of the infor-
mation obtained from informants is dicult to assess. For instance, even assuming that
interviewees respond honestly, rather than giving politically correct answers, it is not easy
for individuals to assess how much they have been inuenced by a particular factor because,
as discussed earlier, national policies are rarely attributable to one single actor or factor.
Rather, as emphasised earlier in this journal (Gür, Çelik, and Özoğlu 2012; Rautalin and
Alasuutari 2009) and in other forums (Carvalho and Costa 2015; Rautalin and Alasuutari
2007; Takayama 2008; Takayama, Waldow, and Sung 2013), the proliferation of transnational
policy ideas such as those promulgated through PISA is always an active process, and ideas
are shaped and translated dierently in dierent settings. Local actors do not merely imple-
ment ready-made global policy ideas but instead draw on them in the local political eld
according to their own particular interests. e nal policy outcome depends on these local
developments, in which all kinds of counter-discourses are mobilised to negotiate the shape
of policy reforms. Consequently, the end result may be a far cry from the original ideals
as promoted by the OECD (e.g. Bonal and Tarabini 2013) and there may be considerable
dierences between countries in which the same policy idea or model has been introduced
(e.g. Martens and Niemann 2013; Ringarp and Rothland 2010).
As the existing research has not so far succeeded in proving conclusively what devel-
opments in national politics are attributable to the inuence of global actors or to factors
such as PISA, here we approach the globalisation of education policies from a dierent
perspective. Instead of studying actual changes in domestic policies and their possible
linkages to PISA, we examine how the global community is invoked in debating national
policy reforms. As a case in point, we analyse the references made to the global community
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 3
in debating new legislation in domestic contexts. From this angle, globalisation of education
policy manifests in the fact that cross-national comparisons, models adopted elsewhere,
or international recommendations are invoked in the debates on dra laws. Accordingly,
the extent of the globalisation of education policies can be roughly determined through
the percentage of the debates on new legislation in education that refer to the international
community or the ‘global eld’ of education policy. A rise in that percentage would be indic-
ative of a temporal change. We can test the hypothesis that education policy is exceptional
in its rapid globalisation by comparing it with other policy issue areas. Whether PISA plays
a role in these uctuations can be ascertained by checking whether a possible change is
discernible aer the early 2000s, when the rst PISA results were released, and whether
debaters refer to PISA and to policy models adopted by other countries when proposing or
opposing new legislation. By approaching the globalisation of policies from the perspective
described above, we do not aim to determine who or what drives national education poli-
cies, but rather to ascertain how this alleged harmonisation of national education policies
is achieved – that is, how actors in the domestic contexts justify their views by referring to
the global context. e main questions posed in the study are these: Has PISA aected the
ways in which new laws are motivated? For example, has the number of references to the
international community in education policy debates increased since PISA? If so, is this
change conned to education policy debates?
e study begins with a review of the existing theoretical discussion on the role of IOs
and their knowledge production in global social change. We also discuss how our approach
diers from those presented in earlier accounts and how it thereby contributes to the exist-
ing body of knowledge. Aer this, we present in greater detail the data and methods used
in the empirical analysis. Next, we contemplate the main ndings from our analysis – the
ways in which the global community has been invoked to debate new legislation in diverse
policy sectors, including education, throughout the 20-year time span examined. We also
consider how globalised education is when compared to the other policy sectors studied
and whether PISA plays a role in that development. We conclude with a discussion on a
global trend identied in our ndings.
IOs and global social change
With our analysis of the ways in which the global community is cited in justifying new leg-
islation in the domestic context and the potential role of PISA in possible temporal change
in the references made, our ultimate aim is to contribute to the wider theoretical discussion
on the mechanisms by which national policies change and how reforms in one country are
related to those in other countries. Such questions are oen approached by claiming that
in the contemporary world there are ever more powerful global actors whose knowledge
production and policy recommendations enable them to guide national policies. In edu-
cation research in particular there is a widespread assumption that the OECD enjoys such
an inuential position. It has been claimed that through ‘information management’ (Rinne
2008; Rutkowski 2007), the OECD guides and regulates the attitudes, values and measures
present in domestic education policies and that domestic education policies have become
increasingly similar for this very reason (Henry et al. 2001; Martens and Wolf 2009; Sellar
and Lingard 2013b). e Organisation’s ability to steer domestic education policies is oen
attributed to PISA. It has been claimed that through PISA the Organisation has been able to
4 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
launch ‘a new mode of global educational governance’ (Meyer and Benavot 2013) in which
state sovereignty over education-related matters is replaced by inuence from large-scale
international organisations and in which the very meaning of public education is being
remoulded, transformed from a project aimed at forming national citizens and nurturing
social solidarity into one driven by economic demands and labour-market factors.
e success of PISA in achieving such a dominant position in contemporary societies
has oen been explained by the OECD’s ability to appropriately evaluate the skills and
competences of schoolchildren nearing the end of their compulsory education. By system-
atically assessing these skills cross-nationally (and ever increasingly the skills of other age
groups, too), the OECD has become a powerful actor in the global educational research
eld. As databases and information on the skills and competences have been collected by
a single organisation, the interpretation of the amassed information resides in the OECD
(e.g. Moutsios 2010; Rutkowski 2015).
Another frequently evinced explanation for PISA’s claimed success concerns the OECD’s
ability to inltrate into national education policy-making. It has been argued that the OECD
has been able to engage national policy actors in the comparative educational measurement
development for which PISA allegedly serves as a ‘prototype’. According to Lingard and
Sellar (2014), the OECD is reaching into the politics of nations and regions to set particular
policy agendas in relation to the knowledge economy and human capital investment. As
they put it, ‘this steering is enabled by drawing national policy actors within close reach
as part of the transnational epistemic communities that the OECD fosters’ (Lingard and
Sellar 2014, 10).
ese are undeniably interesting angles of approach and add to our understanding of the
reputed role of IOs and their knowledge production in the process in which contemporary
policies take shape. Yet we know that policy-making in relation to schooling (as well as to
many other domains of social life) is still the province of national (and sub-national) poli-
cymakers albeit they may be increasingly aected by the global discourses amanating from
appreviation ‘IOs’ such as the OECD. In recent years, the OECD has become particularly well
known for the statistics it produces and the comparisons it conducts in all areas in which
it does research. rough these statistics and comparisons, the OECD sets standards for
poorly performing countries for how to develop their systems. For instance, by measuring
the cross-curriculum competences of teenagers in dierent member and partner countries
in PISA, the OECD ranks the countries according to the scores achieved. On the basis of this
comparison, the OECD carries out benchmarking exercises and ascertains which countries
should serve as the world’s educational examples. By identifying positive examples or best
practices, it also sets goals for countries performing poorly in PISA (Jakobi and Martens
2010). It has been argued that this method of governance, also called ‘the OECD technique’
(Wallace 2000, 32), is an ecient tool for guiding policies in individual Member States.
Instead of imposing sanctions on laggards, its eectiveness is based on a form of ‘peer review’
(Pagani 2002), or ‘naming and shaming’ (Mahon and McBride 2008; 2009), as no member
country wants to be seen as the poorest performer in a given policy area.
Should the OECD be successful in seducing nation-states and their governments into
participating in its various research programmes and producing information that is actively
taken into account when domestic actors design their policies, it does not ultimately mean
that the Organisation has become an actor in its own right and thus capable of determining
the direction of national policies. Quite the contrary, the OECD is still a ‘member-based
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 5
organization’ (Pal 2012).3 e OECD typically consults the Member States about the research
programmes to be started, yet the nal decision on the programmes and the actual par-
ticipation rests with the Member States themselves.4 Furthermore, it is the Member States
and their governments which nance all the work done in the Organisation (Carroll and
Kellow 2011).5 at is, the activity and funding of the OECD depend on what research
projects the Member States’ national governments choose to fund. If the majority of the
governments want some research programme to continue, it will be continued; if not, it
will be discontinued.6 us nation-states are not mere paying customers but stakeholders
at whose behest the OECD’s diverse projects are initiated. is leads us to a question: if the
OECD has no jurisdiction over nation-states and their policies, what is the foundation for
its position and existence? Why is it that national governments and other actors are ready
to invest in the work of IOs like the OECD and use the information these bodies produce
if they have no formal authority?
We suggest that neoinstitutionalist world society theory aords the best tools for mak-
ing sense of this mystery. e theory proceeds from the premise that societies in the con-
temporary world, ‘organized as nation-states, are structurally similar in many unexpected
dimensions and change in unexpectedly similar ways’ (Meyer et al. 1997, 145). e theory
posits that the key to the mystery is world culture. e culture of world society encompasses
norms and knowledge shared across state boundaries, most of them rooted in 19th-century
Western culture, but subsequently globalised and born along by the infrastructure of world
society (Lechner and Boli 2005, 6). As a shared cultural frame extending far beyond states
or nations, world culture as the culture of world society constitutes us as actors, with the
result that we all nd the same arguments and discourses appealing. Consequently, the the-
ory goes, nation-states and their sub-units are more isomorphic than most theories would
predict and change more uniformly than is commonly realised (Meyer et al. 1997, 173).
Even though world society scholarship assumes that the contemporary world society
is a at polity in the sense that there are no central, controlling organisations (e.g. Meyer
2000, 236) telling nation-states how to organise their policies, this does not mean that the
theory fails to acknowledge the role of IOs in contemporary societies. In fact, it proposes
that IOs are major (if not the most important) embodiments of world culture. Acting as
the primary carriers of world culture and as agents of many categories of individuals and
peoples, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and intergovernmental
organisations (IGOs) translate the diuse global identity and authority of world citizenship
into specic rights, claims and prescriptions regarding (appropriate) nation-state behaviour
(Boli and omas 1997). e roots of such organisations are claimed to lie in processes in
which modern actors faced with problems endeavour to solve them by means of shared
models or rules frequently relying on scientic authority. is has spawned numerous sci-
entic organisations and expert bodies tasked with jointly pursuing the interests of world
society – that is, of solving ostensible problems on behalf of individual actors (e.g. Bromley
and Meyer 2015).7
However, the world society scholarly tradition emphasises that the organisations so
created have no jurisdiction over nation-states per se. ese collectives nonetheless act
as if authorised in the strongest possible terms: they make rules and expect them to be
followed, and they make their arguments to states and express moral indignation when
those arguments go unheeded. ey also formulate codes of ethics and endow them with
sucient legitimacy to ensure that agrant violators lose standing in the relevant community
6 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
(Boli and omas 1999, 37). In other words, world society theory treats conformism as an
explanation for the inuence of IOs.
e theoretical approach applied in our study draws heavily on the abovementioned
research. However, research into the ways in which ideas and models mediated by these
organisations permeate national boundaries is scarce in the world society theory literature.
Nor has this research tradition scrutinised how IOs establish their authority or how any
specic idea or model assumes authority. If anything, the world society literature suggests
that, guided by rationalistic world culture, actors in the national contexts ritually ‘enact’
world cultural ideas and scripts, because it is generally believed that IOs, like any formal
organisations, have power that they can wield (e.g. Meyer and Bromley 2013). erefore,
the theory must be developed further to elucidate the role of local actors and how authority
To understand the role of IOs in world society, we stress that governance is ‘epistemic’
in that in local and global contexts alike, actors wishing to exert inuence work on others’
conceptions of reality, proper normative principles and identity constructions (Alasuutari
and Qadir 2014). Part of the ‘epistemic work’ that actors engage in entails utilising prevalent
conceptions of the social world, for instance those wielding power in society (Alasuutari
and Qadir 2016). Accordingly, because it is commonly believed that IOs have power over
nation-states, those wishing to inuence domestic policy-making utilise that belief. at is,
actors establish IOs and other international networks and take part in their activities since
they deem it prestigious to do so and because the prestige or authority of these bodies is of
use in the pursuit of their objectives. Once organisations and networks are institutionalised,
various actors can use their authority to legitimise their own policy objectives (Alasuutari,
Rautalin, and Syväterä 2016). Furthermore, these networks and organisations are not mere
conduits of world models; rather, they are the sites where such models and standards are
created. As several case studies (Alasuutari 2016, 51–70; Syväterä and Alasuutari 2013;
Syväterä and Qadir 2015) suggest, actors seeking to advance a policy model form networks
and organisations that codify the model in the form of a global policy standard and advocate
it globally (Stone 2004, 2008). is mechanism has given rise to international research pro-
jects and monitoring mechanisms such as PISA, and these are then cited in local contexts
to inuence policy decisions.
To understand how authority is created and vested in organisations such as the OECD,
we need to bear in mind that authority is a relational concept, based on recognition on the
part of others. We suggest that it can be built on four distinct grounds: authority can be
ontological, moral, capacity-based and/or charismatic.8 Ontological authority refers to the
prestige of a source of reliable information about reality, typically based on scientic research
and expertise. Moral authority rests with an actor or other entity consulted or referred to as
a source dispensing guidance on what is right or acceptable. Capacity-based authority entails
deference based on perceived competence (e.g., an actor’s ability to accomplish actions
such as lending money or completing a military operation). Finally, charismatic authority
is based on characteristics unique to a certain individual or organisation. It may be built on
the exceptional sanctity, exemplary character, or heroism of an individual person (Weber
1978, 215), but it can also be said that modern-day celebrities possess charismatic authority
in that whatever a celebrity or well-known organisation does is of interest to many people
and may provide an example for those who admire that entity.
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 7
Empirical analysis of how much politicians in various countries refer to IOs as authorities
to justify their views shows that these organisations have diering proles in this respect
(Alasuutari 2016, 116–129). For example, the OECD is typically referred to as an expert
organisation and hence as an ontological authority; the United Nations has a strong prole
as a moral authority; and, based on its ability to provide or withhold economic assistance,
the World Bank has considerable capacity-based authority, especially as regards developing
countries. Whatever an organisation’s specialisation may be, it takes time and resources to
build authority that others widely acknowledge. Authority based on scientic expertise
requires abundant production of knowledge of a high standard, and the capacity-based
authority of a military alliance requires personnel, equipment and credible military per-
formance. Yet what ultimately counts is not the money or time expended on building an
entity but whether others regard it as an authority: whether its pronouncements or actions
are taken into account and referred to in others’ deliberations on their choices. It is also
important to stress that authority is neither tied to nor wielded exclusively by a given
authoritative actor. Rather, in advancing their goals actors do not merely create an illusion
of themselves as authorities, but appeal to all possible entities considered authoritative.
In that sense, authority is similar to social capital as discussed by Putnam and colleagues
(1993, 170): it increases with use and diminishes with disuse. Furthermore, it is obvious that
the deference shown to an actor or organisation is typically a mixture of these four types;
authority is ‘epistemic capital’ accumulated in entities such as organisations.
References to international comparisons, policy standards and recommendations in
national parliaments are of particular interest from this perspective. It is through such
references to the international community and to IOs attempting to act as scientically
or otherwise prestigious agents that the authority of those organisations is actualised. e
authority of the OECD and the knowledge production of its PISA project are a case in point.
e potential eects on national education policies are not due to simple diusion of models
from the OECD to Member States (cf. Jakobi 2012). Rather, the authority of PISA manifests
in and is constructed through policymakers’ actions in domestic debates, in which they
utilise the cross-national comparisons and other ‘external’ information (Steiner-Khamsi
2004; Takayama 2010; Waldow 2009) that PISA produces. Nations’ decision-making is
hence interdependent (Simmons, Dobbin, and Garrett 2008), yet this does not mean that
dierent countries behave similarly. Instead, with each country considering transnational
policy ideals and trends when deliberating its policy choices, national policies are synchro-
nised with each other (Alasuutari 2016).
Data and methods
To examine how references to the international community are used in domestic poli-
cy-making and whether – and how – this has changed in recent years, we present a cross-na-
tional comparison of the frequency with which members of parliament in various countries
have referred to policies enacted elsewhere or considered to be international ‘best practices’.
e data-set comprises stratied random samples of debates on dra laws typically referred
to as ‘second-reading’ oor debates from six countries – Australia, Canada, Trinidad and
Tobago, Uganda, the UK and the USA – and spans 20years, 1994–2013. e number of
debates collected from each country is 120 or just over. e data were collected from the
national parliaments’ own electronic and physical archives.9
8 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
e countries in the sample were selected on the basis of their dierences with reference
to three factors: geographic region, wealth, presented here in terms of gross domestic prod-
uct (at purchasing power parity) per capita in international dollars,10 and level of global
networking. Apart from Canada and the USA, each of the countries selected represents
a dierent continent. ere are also dierences in the level of international networking
among these countries. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago and Uganda are not members
of the OECD, yet all countries in the sample except Uganda have participated in PISA at
least once.11 If we discern a consistent pattern in the globalisation of policy discourses, the
major dierences between the countries compared increase the likelihood that the results
do not apply to a specic group of countries.
Our intention in collecting the sample as described was not to examine how an indi-
vidual country’s success in PISA aects the ways in which dra laws are debated. e
latter approach would rst entail constructing a theoretical model of the sample countries
on the basis of their PISA ranking to be used when interpreting the ndings. We take a
dierent path: instead of trying to explain our ndings in light of individual countries’
PISA performance, our aim is to generate a more holistic understanding of the ways in
which political reforms are debated in national contexts. We are especially interested in
the ways in which the global community is referred to in the parliamentary rhetoric when
new legislation is being justied. We are also interested in whether references to the global
community increased aer the launch of the PISA project and whether education diers
from other policy sectors in this respect. Such an analysis entails including countries not
directly involved in, or covered by, the OECD’s education-related work.
e sample for each country was collected by picking roughly the same number of debates
from each of the 20years. In addition, we tried to spread the sample as evenly as possible
over 10 distinct policy sectors: civic, consumer, crime, education, environment, scal, for-
eign and security, health, science and technology and nally social policy. With education
policy as one of the sectors chosen, this sample enabled us to check whether it diered from
other policy areas. e education debates covered by our sample were not restricted to the
level of basic education, which is the level on which PISA focuses. is sample enabled us
to check how new legislation addressing on education was justied in general, but we could
also examine whether debates focusing on basic education level diered from those on other
levels of education. Because the rst PISA reports came out in 2001, we could also assess
whether a temporal change had occurred since that time. Furthermore, we could ascertain
whether the OECD and PISA were frequently mentioned, and hence whether the OECD’s
role in education policy appeared to account for any possible changes. Finally, if there had
been changes, we could study whether education policy diered from other policy sectors
in how new legislation was debated in national parliaments.
When we look at national parliaments in a cross-national perspective, their similarity is
striking. Variation in the processing of proposals for new laws in national parliaments are
minor; legislatures are lawmaking factories composed of the same concepts and organisa-
tions such as laws, ministers and ministries, committees, oor debates and ballots. e same
goes for argumentation: across the board almost identical problematisations coupled with
solutions emerge, as do the subsequent arguments by the opposing parties (see Alasuutari
is said, we do not of course mean that the organisation of political decision-making
is identical in each country selected. For instance, among the countries selected there are
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 9
dierences regarding jurisdictional authorities. For instance, education policy is imple-
mented separately for the componentnationsof theUnited Kingdom. e same applies to
the federal systems represented in our data. Consequently, many political decisions related
to education do not end up being debated in the national parliaments. In each of the coun-
tries covered by our data, there is, however, a lot of educational development and reform
work ongoing (as well as other development and reform work related to domestic policies),
which assume the form of national legislation and are thus debated and decided upon in the
national parliament. In the UK data, such reforms relate, for example, to special educational
needs, teacher training, access to higher education and tuition fees. Hence it is interesting to
examine how debaters in these contexts justify their views and how the global community
is invoked in the justications used.
Our empirical analysis is largely based on the coding of this data. e coding was con-
ducted through a combination of close reading and word searches made with the help of
specic word lists generated for dierent coding categories. Each document was coded for
every category as either one (found) or zero (not found). e variables used in this coding of
the data were (1) cross-national comparison, covering references to other countries, groups
of countries, and international rankings; (2) exogenous models, containing references to
other countries used as models (whether negative or positive) and entire policy models
(for example, the Nordic welfare model); (3) country image, covering statements about the
international reputation/image of the country in which the debate was held; (4) model for
others, which denotes references to the speakers’ own country being hailed as a model that
other countries should follow; (5) international agreements, which includes references to
all legally or morally binding agreements of an international nature; and (6) international
organisations, which denotes the statements in which an international organisation was
mentioned. In addition, the references to international organisations were examined more
closely through further coding of two sub-categories (7) international organisations as
expert bodies and (8) international organisations as a source of policy models and recom-
mendations. ese variables were determined inductively by reading the data and nding
dierent ways in which the international community was invoked in the parliamentary
discussions. e resulting categorisation includes the vast majority of international refer-
ences, excluding only a small portion of miscellaneous references, for example, to wars and
business ventures by companies.
e results of this coding (shown in Figures 1–6) were also tested for inter-coder reli-
ability as part of a larger data-set consisting of twelve countries. Of the whole data-set 5%
was tested by two testers, and scrutinised for every variable individually. On every variable
intercoder agreement was found to be over 90%.
Parliamentary debates on dra laws are interesting from the perspective of the research
described above because they constitute an interface in which global ideas about desirable
policies are integrated with national policy discourses, thereby contributing to the interna-
tional synchronisation of national policies. Of course, parliamentary debates are not unique
in this respect. Similar interfaces can be found in other forums, too. National media, for
example, serve as a public forum where various interested actors (all the way from politicians
to ordinary citizens) engage in debating what the status of domestic systems is and what
the desired policy decisions may be. All these discourses appearing in the national media
inevitably have a bearing on how policies are debated in the national parliaments. at is,
in their work national policymakers need to take account of the notions shared among the
10 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
general public and make decisions that are, at least to some extent, in line with the fram-
ing within which the great majority discusses domestic policies. is works the other way
round, too. e accounts in the national parliaments are regularly reported in the national
media (Alasuutari, Rautalin, and Syväterä 2016). Hence it can be argued that if international
comparisons and the best practices thereby constructed trigger debates in national media,
this will also be apparent in the parliamentary rhetoric. e signicance of oor debates is
due to their function as a public forum in which politicians justify their views in ways that
are domestically deemed morally acceptable and convincing. Parliamentary debates do not
take place in a vacuum. From that perspective, parliamentary debates are ideal research
material through which to study how policymakers try to convince the majority as to which
is the ‘right’ and ‘sensible’ decision to take and explore the role played by references to the
international community in this persuasive work.
References to the global community in debates on draft laws
If the conviction held by many education scholars about a fundamental change caused by
the OECD and its PISA studies is valid, it would be reasonable to assume that this change
would also be apparent in domestic political argumentation. at is, if we assume that
education has become a global policy eld, we could expect politicians in national parlia-
ments – ministers and members of parliament – to justify or criticise dra laws on education
policy by increasing reference to the international community. at is, policymakers may
defend their views by referring to international rankings, international agreements, policies
adopted in other countries, or international recommendations – such as those made by the
OECD on the basis of the PISA studies.
e empirical analysis shows that education policy is indeed a policy sector in which it is
typical to refer to the global context when debating new legislation. Among the ten policy
sectors covered in our data, education policy discussions ranked high for references to the
international community. As Figure 1 shows, under 10% of all parliamentary debates on
education policy included no mention of the international context. However, the dier-
ences between policy issue areas were very small; in eight out of the ten analysed, fewer
than 20% of the discussions contained no references to the international community. ese
ndings thus do not support the claim that education is somehow a more globalised policy
sector than others. We can only conclude that referring to the international community is
a commonplace way to advocate policy reforms in any policy sector, not only in the realm
of education policy.
To examine whether there had been an increase in the frequency with which policymak-
ers referred to the international context when justifying new policies and whether any such
change coincided with the launching of the PISA project, we divided the 20-year time span
into two periods, 1994–2000 and 2001–2013, as in Figure 2. Since the rst PISA reports
came out in 2001, the rst period reects the situation before the potential eect of PISA
on education policy. Furthermore, references to the international community are divided
into various types in Figure 2 to reveal whether potential change is due to an increase in
particular types of references to the supranational context.
Our investigation shows that references to the international context did indeed increase
during the 20-year time span studied. Yet this increase was not very signicant. In the
latter period (2001–2013), a slightly higher proportion of debates on dra laws included
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 11
an international reference relative to 1994–2000. e only exception is references to the
country’s image, the frequency of which remained unchanged between the two periods
investigated. As shown in Figure 2, the increase was most marked regarding references to
international organisations (9.0 percentage points), international agreements (an increase
of 8.7 percentage points), and cross-national comparisons (3.7 percentage points). is
shows that, on average, it has become increasingly commonplace to argue for or against
dra laws in national parliaments by presenting the issue in an international framework:
how national policies are related to policies adopted or recommended by others or what
national policies look like from outside the country in question.
However, when we break down this temporal change for analysis by policy sector, it
turns out that references made to the international community in education policy debates
have declined rather than increased. As Figure 3 shows, only references to international
Figure 1.References to the international community by policy sector (%).
Figure 2.Temporal change in references to the international context.
12 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
organisations in this sector increased aer 2000. In other words, it appears from our sample
that the rise in the frequency with which policymakers argue for their views by referring to
the international context is due to discussion in other policy sectors, not education policy.
is discovery casts signicant doubt on the assumption made by many education schol-
ars that education policies have become more globalised due to PISA. Because PISA has
become particularly well-known for the rankings in which national education systems are
compared, we would expect an increase at least in references to cross-national comparisons
if PISA has, in fact, had a signicant eect on the discourses within which national educa-
tion reforms are debated. However, that does not seem to be the case. As Figure 3 shows,
references to the international community in parliamentary debates on education have, on
average, diminished since the turn of the millennium, apart from references to IOs.
As for the latter, while the increase in references to international organisations in all
policy sectors averaged 9.0 percentage points aer 2000, the corresponding increase in
education policy debates alone was 10.3 percentage points. In addition, as Figure 3 shows,
referring to IOs was already more commonplace in education policy debates than the aver-
age for other policy sectors before the release of the rst PISA reports. is implies that
in education policy debates it has been acceptable for quite a while to justify reforms by
referring to international organisations.
To achieve a better understanding of what this increase in references to IOs signies, we
need to look at those mentions more closely. Closer scrutiny shows two main ways in which
speakers may refer to an IO. An IO may be mentioned only as a body with expertise, or it
may be alluded to as a source of models and recommendations. In the data, we coded the
former to cover references to information and opinions ascribed to any IO, while ‘models
and recommendations’ comprises references to specic policy models and measures rec-
ommended by an IO.
e frequencies for these sub-categories show that referring to information and opinions
provided by IOs became more common in education policy debates aer the launching
of the PISA project. Yet, as Figure 4 shows, references to IOs as expert bodies increased in
Figure 3.References to the international context in education policy (%).
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 13
other sectors, too. For instance, in civic, consumer, health and scal policy the increase in
references to IOs as sources of expertise was even more pronounced.
e frequencies with which speakers alluded to IOs as sources of international policy
models or recommendations in the individual policy sectors considered are presented in
Figure 5. As the numbers show, there is a notable increase from 2001 onward. In educa-
tion debates, such referencing increased 12.7 percentage points, yet the trend is evident in
many other policy sectors, too. As Figure 5 shows, in environment, consumer and foreign
and security policy, references to policy models and recommendations promoted by IOs
increased more markedly since the beginning of 2001 than in debates concerning education.
Taken together, these ndings suggest that education policy conforms with a general
trend whereby references to the international context in parliamentary debates have become
increasingly commonplace, regardless of the policy sector in question. Furthermore, it seems
Figure 4.References to IOs as expert bodies (%).
Figure 5.References to models and recommendations of IOs (%).
14 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
evident from our sample that references to IOs as expert bodies and sources of international
recommendations have increased in debates, even those on policy sectors where citing the
international context was already relatively more frequent. Education policy is a case in
point. is could mean that further globalisation of the policy discourse in education policy
is indeed due to the OECD’s PISA project.
However, closer inspection of the references to international recommendations in the
education debates revealed that only a few of them directly concern domestic education
policies and practices. References made to international recommendations included, for
instance, a mention of the United Nations Educational, Scientic and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) Manifesto on the Role of Public Libraries Worldwide, the International Labour
Organization’s (ILO) recommendations on teachers’ wages, the United Nations (UN)
Human Rights Committee’s concern about the future of indigenous culture and livelihoods
in Australia, and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) views on stimulus packages. In
other words, many of the international recommendations found in debates on education
policy were not of the kind that would support the argument that domestic education
policies and practices are increasingly shaped via appeals to the recommendations and
policy advice of IOs.
Naturally there are also references to the OECD, which is the most commonly mentioned
IO in the education sector. As shown in Figure 6,
over 20% of all parliamentary discussions
on education policy include references to the OECD of one kind or another, whereas the
number in other policy sectors is signicantly smaller. Featuring among the other INGOs
and IGOs referred to in education policy debates are the World Bank, UNESCO, the IMF,
and the European Union (EU), but none of these even comes close to the number of ref-
erences to the OECD.
However, the popularity of the OECD as an organisation mentioned in discussions on
education policy does not seem to be due to the PISA project and the fame it has garnered
for the OECD, which had established a long-term interest in education already before the
2000s (for a discussion, see e.g. McGaw 2008; Papadopoulos 1994). In our sample, the OECD
is mentioned 43 times in 12 parliamentary debates on education (out of 57 debates). Five
Figure 6.Mentions of the OECD in parliamentary debate by policy sector (%).
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 15
of these discussions were conducted before and seven aer the beginning of 2001. Because
the latter group is slightly larger and the time frame considerably longer,13 the proportion
of discussions including a reference to the OECD has remained roughly the same. When
looking at these references more closely, we nd only ve discussions in which the exper-
tise or recommendations of the OECD were invoked to justify political decisions. In the
other debates, the OECD was cited only as a reference group of countries mentioned in
cross-national comparison. e PISA project was referred to in only one debate, albeit twice.
is result could, of course, be explained by our data-set consisting of discussions cov-
ering several levels of education. However, controlling for level of education and focusing
solely on debates on basic education does not change the picture. For instance, between our
broad categories for cross-national comparison and international organisations, the changes
from the rst period to the second had similar trajectories. In debates on basic education
references to cross-national comparison fell from 87.5 to 60.0%, and those in debates on
other levels of education declined from 92.3 to 76.9%. In debates on basic education refer-
ences to international organisations grew from 50.0 to 60.0%, and those in debates related
to other levels of education rose from 69.2 to 76.9%. In most other categories, the trends
were also similar between basic education and other levels of education.
ese observations suggest that the rhetoric in debates on basic education does not dier
specically from that in debates related to other levels of education. Instead, our analysis
suggests that citing the international community, especially IOs and their authority, to
motivate new legislation has increased in debates on basic education just as it has for other
levels of education.
In the study reported here, we set out to test the claim recently made by many education
researchers that the OECD PISA project has made education a global policy eld. It has
been claimed that PISA has produced a group of reference countries whose policies are
emulated particularly by countries ranking lower in the comparison. To test whether this
is true, we analysed how education reforms were justied and whether this had changed
since the release of the rst PISA results in 2001. We focused on debates on dra laws and
on how debaters invoked the global context when justifying or criticising new legislation.
Our investigation revealed that justifying reforms by invoking the global context was
indeed quite frequent in education policy debates, and more common than in debates in
many other policy sectors. We also found that, on average, references to the global context
showed a slight increase from 2001 onward. However, the analysis also revealed that refer-
ences to the global community in education policy debates actually declined with the advent
of PISA. Only references to the knowledge production and policy advice of IOs increased
with PISA. Even this increase, however, was greater in many other sectors. Furthermore,
while our analyses show that the OECD was the IO most oen referred to in education policy
debates, its role in justifying new legislation changed little in the course of the 20-year time
span considered in our study. In addition, speakers did not typically refer to the concrete
policy models or recommendations issued by the Organisation. Rather, the OECD was most
commonly mentioned when speakers cited the OECD countries as a reference group. As
to the PISA project, its role in justications was hardly perceptible.
16 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
Our study lends partial support to the claim that the discourse in education policy has
become increasingly global and that international organisations such as the OECD appear
to have a growing authoritative role in that sector. at is, they serve as respected actors or
‘nodes’ in the transnational network of actors (Grek 2009; Jakobi 2012; Ozga 2009) whose
policy ideas and recommendations are taken into consideration when national policies are
designed. However, our ndings do not support the argument that the PISA project has
occasioned a signicant change in this respect. Debating national policies in a global context
and utilising the same transnational discourses regardless of the country in question has
been with us for a long time; globalisation is not a recent phenomenon.14 In that respect,
the PISA project appears to be an example of a global phenomenon that can be detected
in all policy sectors.
However, there appears to be a global trend for national policies to be debated increas-
ingly oen through appeals to models, recommendations and policy advice tendered by
IOs. In other words, such references seem to be part of a global trend that has pervaded
parliaments and policy discourses throughout the world. It seems that the supply of policy
models and recommendations has increased in recent years. It can be hypothesised that
the use of international recommendations and policy models as policy justications is
attributable to IOs and to their endeavours to be more policy-relevant. From this angle, it
could be speculated that, instead of producing mere statistics and comparisons, IOs have
started to package their messages into ready-made policy recommendations and concrete
policy models. On the other hand, the demand for such knowledge production appears to
have increased: models and recommendations are increasingly invoked in national political
argumentation because they are convenient. Recommendations issued by IOs carry ideas or
scripts that may have already existed in the minds of the domestic decision-makers citing
them, yet when packaged by an organisation perceived as an authority, they lend more
authority to eorts to convince others of what is deemed a desirable or acceptable way of
organising domestic policies and practices.
e fact that IOs have become more active in formulating concrete policy models and
recommendations to be adopted and enacted in national contexts does not mean that they
now have more power to wield over nation-states. Yet actors wishing to inuence domestic
policy-making give the impression that IOs have actual control over (and indeed the com-
petence to intervene in) domestic politics. Paradoxically, the inuence of IOs on national
policy-making has increased because they are believed to be powerful. Increased references
to the alleged expertise of IOs also enhances these organisations’ authority – aer all, as a
relational construct, authority is built on belief and credibility, and it increases through use.
1. PISA is a triennial international survey administered by the OECD aimed at evaluating
education systems worldwide by testing 15-year-old schoolchildren’s knowledge and skills
in core subjects: reading, mathematics, and science. More information about the survey is
provided on the OECD’s Web site at http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/.
2. ese developments, where national education policies are claimed to be increasingly
informed by the international comparisons such as those the OECD produces and the
reference societies thereby constructed are in the scholarly work oen labelled as ‘rescaling’ of
national education policies (Lingard and Rawolle 2011; Sellar and Lingard 2013a; Winstanley
2012) or ‘respatialisation’ of educational governance (Lingard and Sellar 2014; Ozga 2012).
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 17
3. e OECD draws as its members nation-states in which the political elite shares similar
political interests (typically sympathy towards neoliberal thinking and free market ideas).
e fact that the Organisation in its activity advances such interests is thus no wonder. is
is the very basis of the OECD as of any IO; to produce information that can be used by its
members. e OECD grew out of its predecessor, the Organisation for European Economic
Cooperation (OEEC), which was founded in 1947 with the support of the United States and
Canada to co-ordinate the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Western Europe aer
World War II. e OEEC served as an IO for co-operation in Europe, its mission being to
help countries damaged by the War to make a new economic start. When by the end of the
1950s the standard of living and the economic activities of Western European countries had
achieved or even surpassed the level preceding World War II, the European and the Northern
American countries decided to establish a completely new organisation focusing primarily
on economic cooperation. On 30 September 1961, the Convention on the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) came into being, and so was born a
unique forum in which the governments of 35 market democracies now work together to
address the economic, social and governance challenges of contemporary societies. (for a
history of the OECD, see e.g. Aubrey 1967; Pal 2012; Woodward 2009).
4. is also applies to the OECD’s country reviews. roughout its history, the Organisation
has been active in conducting country reviews in all areas on which it conducts research. In
the eld of education, the Organisation provides Member Countries with detailed country-
specic evaluations (oen referred to as country notes) of the status of their education systems.
For example, in relation to PISA, the OECD publishes country-specic reports that discuss
in more detail the status of a national system and proposes recommendations. Such country
notes (which draw in part on the existing PISA data) seem to especially attract countries in
which the central government does not publish its own national PISA report. Yet, as with all
OECD country reports, these reviews are conducted at the request of the country concerned.
5. In the OECD research reports the unit of analysis is traditionally a nation-state and its overall
performance. In recent years several sub-national entities such as municipalities and single
schools have expressed their interest to be addressed individually in the OECD reviews. is
has spawned a group of OECD assessments in which the units of comparison are not nation-
states and their overall performances but national sub-systems and their performances, such
as performances of individual regions or schools. e OECD PISA-based Test for Schools is
one such assessment, the aim of which is to provide individual schools with information on
their own pupils’ learning performances (OECD 2017). Although the decision to participate
in such assessments in not taken at the national governmental level but at the municipal
level or school level (depending on how basic education is organised in an individual nation-
state), it does not mean that such new programmes arise and evolve contrary to domestic
actors’ interests (cf. Rutkowski 2015). Quite the contrary; it seems that in countries with big
geographical area and school-specic dierences in learning outcomes, local decision-makers
and, for instance, school principals have begun to campaign for region and school-specic
review results. e PISA-based test for schools is an outcome of such political campaigning.
Aer being institutionalised, the results achieved in such assessments can be used by dierent
regional actors to advocate specic policy reforms at the nation-state level (for a discussion,
see e.g. Lingard and Sellar 2014).
6. e Assessment of Learning Outcomes in Higher Education (AHELO) is one example of the
OECD-driven research programmes that did not, despite Member States’ initial interest in
the programme, materialise. e main purpose of AHELO was to provide data for national
governments and higher education institutions on what students at the end of their rst
bachelor’s level degrees know and are able to do. All in all, 17 countries participated in the
AHELO feasibility study. However, by the end of the feasibility study, in 2013, the OECD
Education Policy Committee decided to discontinue the programme. is was because the
costs of the study for participating countries had increased more than expected. Further,
the creators of AHELO lacked the adequate knowledge capacity to build the generic skills
component of the assessment framework and faced several challenges in constructing the
18 M. RAUTALIN ET AL.
instrument. Due to these problems, among others, related to AHELO’s preparatory work,
it has been claimed that the study did not resonate suciently among the Members States.
Consequently, the programme was abandoned (for a discussion, see e.g. Altbach 2015; Morgan
and Shahjahan 2014).
7. e increasing adoption of international learning assessments as part of national education
policy-making has been explained, for instance, by the fact that in world society there is a
shared belief that one can discover scientic methods to improve student achievement in
dierent subjects and that these techniques are valid across educational systems (Kamens
and McNeely 2010; see also Smith 2016). Yet, the theory emphasises, the global adoption of
educational testing would not have occurred without IOs actively promoting such a testing
culture. According to the theory, the OECD, the World Bank and UNESCO in particular
serve as the main carriers of international testing and assessment culture in the modern
world (Chabbott 2013; McNeely and Cha 1994).
8. is categorisation is indebted to the work of Weber (1978) and to the scheme proposed
by (Avant, Finnemore, and Sell 2010), with ve bases of authority for global governors –
institutional, delegated, expert, principled and capacity-based authority. Avant et al., however,
deal with individuals and treat organisations as one single basis for authority, so their
classication scheme makes it dicult to ‘unpack’ organisations as authorities.
9. e data-set was compiled by the Tampere Research Group on Cultural and Political
Sociology. For a more detailed discussion on how the data was collected, the criteria guiding
data collection and some external dierences among the data collected, see the Appendix 1.
For earlier studies based on the data used here, see (Alasuutari 2014, 2016; Tiaynen-Qadir,
Qadir, and Alasuutari 2018).
10. e per-capita gross domestic product of each of the selected countries in 2012, in international
dollars, was $44,298 for Australia, $42,612 for Canada, $30,666 for Trinidad and Tobago,
$37,286 for the UK, $1,839 for Uganda, and $51,384 for the USA (World Economic Outlook
11. For countries that have participated in PISA, see http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/
12. Civic policy is not included in this gure since the debate related to civic policy in our sample
made no reference to the OECD.
13. For the data-set, the body of parliamentary discussions on education policy consists of 57.
Of these discussions, 36 are from the years 2001–2013 and 21 are from the years 1994–2000.
14. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss when referencing other countries and their
policies started in national parliamentary rhetoric or what factors potentially underlie the
intensication of such referencing. It is obvious that invoking the global community in
national parliamentary rhetoric has been with us for a long time. For example, our earlier
study examining the references made to the global community in the British Hansards during
1803–2005 showed that in the British Hansard data, references made to other countries and
their policies were already very common at the beginning of eighteenth century (in fact,
more common than ever aer). On the other hand, the same study showed that referencing
concrete policy models in the national parliamentary rhetoric began to increase from the
1950s onward (Alasuutari, Rautalin, & Tyrkkö, in process).
We are grateful to the two anonymous referees for their insightful comments on earlier versions
of this paper. We also thank members of the Tampere Research Group for Cultural and Political
Sociology and those of the World Society mini-conference held in Seattle in August 2016, who gave
us valuable feedback on the text.
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 19
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
is work was nancially supported by the Institute for Advanced Social Research, University of
Tampere (project no 250971) and the Academy of Finland (decision no: 307755), whose assistance
Notes on contributors
Marjaana Rautalin, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Tampere, Faculty of Social
Sciences. Her research centers on global and transnational sociology, as well as sociology of educa-
tion. Her current postdoctoral research project, funded by the Academy of Finland, examines the
mechanisms by which policy models and recommendations promoted by international organisations
rise and spread. e role of the OECD will be studied as an example of this process.
Pertti Alasuutari, PhD, is Academy Professor at the University of Tampere, Faculty of Social Sciences.
His research interests include global and transnational phenomena, media, social theory, and social
research methodology. His monographs include e Synchronization of National Policies (Routledge
2016), Social eory and Human Reality (Sage 2004), Rethinking Media Audience (Sage 1999). He has
a total of 176 scientic publications, including 46 peer-reviewed articles and nine books in English.
Eetu Vento is a Doctoral Student of Sociology at the University of Tampere. His research focuses on
the historical changes in the international political culture, with a special interest in the development
of human rights as a global ideal.
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e parliamentary debates used as data in this paper are quite similar in form due to the inuence
of the former British Empire. Five out of the six countries (the exception being the United States)
analysed follow a similar pattern when it comes to debating dra legislation, which consists of three
readings of the bill in question. When collecting the data, we concentrated on the second readings of
these bills, as that is the stage at which the majority of the debate on the bill takes place. In the United
States, the data was collected from the debate stage, which is very similar to the second reading in other
countries. Although dierences between countries are discernible in how the debates are organised,
they largely follow a similar pattern. Basically, all debates start with an introductory statement from
someone who is in favour of the bill in question, oen a cabinet minister. Aer this the members
of parliament start to debate the bill (and oen also things unrelated to it), typically starting with
speeches from the opposition. In many cases possible amendments to the bill are also suggested and
debated. To control the length of the debates we included in each case only the debates on the rst
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION POLICY 23
day that the bill in question was debated. In the Australian parliament the introductory remarks are
oen made days before the actual debate, and in these cases we included these remarks with the rst
day of debate in order to keep the data from dierent countries as comparable as possible.
e median of all debates was 14,119 words. Across countries there were some dierences in the
average length of the debates. For example in the Ugandan (median 9,332 words) and Canadian
(median 8,642 words) data, the debates were signicantly shorter and the debates from Trinidad &
Tobago (median 18,203 words) and the United Kingdom (median 26,251 words) longer than the
average. Our investigation also revealed that the length of the debate had a bearing on how oen the
global community was invoked in an individual debate: longer debates included on average more
references to the international community than did the shorter ones. However, such discrepancies in
the lengths of debates are not signicant when scrutinising how making references to the international
community developed during the period of interest. As emphasised earlier, the aim of this paper is
not to study cross-national dierences in parliamentary debates, but to investigate how common-
place referring to the international community was before and aer the PISA study in the dierent
policy sectors analysed and whether and how education policy debates diered from other policy
debates in this respect. As our analysis shows, temporal changes in the frequency of references to
the international community in a national parliament occur across the board, regardless of dierent
national traditions of parliamentary debate.