How to compare during global emergencies and uncertainties?

Earth over East Austin

Image Source: “Earth over East Austin” by Lars Plougmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It seems to be an easy question. From Jullien’s time to the 21st century, from travellers’ tales to large scale survey, ethnographic fieldwork and more specific trend such as feminism, comparing education at an international level can go back a few centuries. In a BAICE funded two-year thematic forum series, we are seeking to bring everyone’s attention to this question again with multi-stakeholders’ perspectives and experiences. We are looking at Comparative and International Education (CIE) as a field, a subject, or a course title which is facing epistemic, methodological and pedagogical challenges owing to the uncertainties and emergencies in the current global political economy including Brexit, COVID-19, and more recently, the Ukraine war.

We gathered thoughts from university students and scholars studying or researching CIE as their main field or a part of their study in our first two virtual forums. In the first event in November 2021, a Student Forum, we looked at what has happened in the frontline of the CIE teaching and learning. The Covid-19 was a starting point for the discussion. During the pandemic, students’ learning experiences in the field of CIE have been compromised by various restrictions. Fieldwork, placement and exchange activities that were essential in CIE have been significantly compromised. The knowledge mainly accumulated in-person has been increasingly taught remotely or in a hybrid way at many higher education institutions. There is also a need to update course structure and teaching materials– for instance, contents on the economic contraction and social inequalities triggered by the pandemic and the consequences in the pursuit of the education targets.  The situation has also led to new opportunities for learning and teaching innovations within CIE such as increasing online participation by global speakers, virtual placements, and enhanced secondary research methods. Two keynote speakers, Dr. Rafael Mitchell and Dr. Michael Fertig, shared ideas with a group of taught degree students from the UK, China and Zambia in a two-hour discussion. There was a common understanding that CIE itself is promoting critical thinking based on its international nature and ethical complexities of study. Just as Mitchell said, it ‘de-centres’ the students and encourages students to rethink their experiences. This was echoed by the five students’ presentations, ranging from comparative education case studies to personal reflection based on their pursuit of international education as a school teacher, educational counsellor and postgraduate student in different contexts. Phuong Tu Nguyen from UCL explored the colonial legacy in his journey from Vietnam to the UK and found CIE proved ‘the chance to promote equality via reimagining knowledge production’.

To move the conversation further, in the second event held in June this year, we brought British and Chinese scholars together for an East-West dialogue on some timely thoughts about CIE. Over 60 participants from over ten countries and four keynote speakers shared their reflections on globalisation theories, their experiences from researching ‘others’ to examining ‘self’ and presented findings of a large-scale project on the impact of covid on global higher education. How CIE could adapt to changes is a key concern shared by the speakers.

The first and most important matter is the global context, which according to Professor Andy Green, is ‘increasingly characterised by authoritarian-populist nationalism, economic inequality and geo-political polarisation’. We can never avoid talking about these global trends and features when we look at the mission of Comparative Education, but we should be aware that there is not a taken-for-granted context – globalisation is not a direction, and it can be reinforced or reversed by political forces. As Green pointed out, CIE ‘as a field grew in influence during the era of intensified globalisation, but it is facing the signs of de-globalisation today. This means that an in-depth critique and up-to-date examination of the social economic structure and power relations is aways needed when we discuss ‘global’ and its influence to education. David Held’s three perspectives of globalisation and his highlight of transformationalists came to us again when Green mentioned that there was never one way of development, and we could see less signs of convergence rather than divergence across national education systems: nation-states are not always going to be like each other and perhaps no one should impose a wholesale socio-economic convergence. This contrasts the very convergent way of measuring global targets in international agendas and their indicators: how do we critically look at the localised globalisation and globalised localisation in the new geo-political polarisation during the post-pandemic era?

These contextual questions help us keep reflecting on what to study or compare in CIE. As Dr. Xin Xiang pointed out, even at the very international environment of the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she studied and worked, she found the ‘the United States is the default frame of reference in nearly all settings’. Differently, in China, there has been a long time that CIE as a research area and university course focuses primarily on policy borrowing and learning Western countries’ education policies and practice. Professor Teng Jun emphasised the role of CIE in the contemporary China, that is to help answer questions emerged from ‘the relationship between domestic and international, sovereignty independence and the transfer of consensus, humanities and technology, theory and practice, and so on’. Although CIE in developing contexts including the emerging powers such as China, the field still needs to depart from a methodological nationalism. We could see growing voices from the South demonstrating the multiple roles of CIE, which do not marginalise CIE (as Xiang’s concern) but embed CIE in social practice tackling national and global problems. Moreover, Jun mentioned the importance of experience sharing in the fast-changing societies. CIE can play a role to enhance two-way sharing rather than one-way prescription. During the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen an inescapable global connection, both visibly and invisibly, and a shared future is increasingly essential. This reminded us of the cross-disciplinary nature of comparative education: the teaching and learning practice and research topics in CIE are driven by a wide range of social issues and contextual factors. CIE is not just about a country, and not limited to ‘education’.

Professor Richard Watermeyer’s cross-national empirical study well demonstrated the timely mission of CIE in this changing world. Students and staff health and well-being issues are under the spotlight during the lockdown and school closure, and it is also the case in higher education. Watermeyer revealed the urgent need of ‘an ethic of care’ across multiple international higher education settings, especially in this highly competitive, pandemic-reinforced global higher education market. We come back to ‘education’ itself while education serves a lot in culture, politics and economy. This is related to changes but also related to what cannot be or has never been changed (i.e. history, norms, fundamental structure and mechanisms), which may lead to the ultimate goal of CIE study – for social and global justice. The teaching and learning practice should also inform students that, CIE is not just about compare, but what do we compare for and examining how comparative education study can inform and enable critical reflection and positive changes crossing borders and contexts.    

Visit our CIE forum website to find out more and register for future events.

BAICE Thematic Forum Grant (2021-23): Multi-stakeholder perspectives on Learning and Teaching of Comparative and International Education during Global Emergencies and Uncertainties. PI: Tingting Yuan, University of Nottingham; Co-I: Ming Cheng, Edge Hill University; Co-I: Jun Teng, Beijing Normal University; Namrata Rao, Liverpool Hope University; Vandana Singh, Bath Spa University.


  • Tingting Yuan

    Dr. Tingting Yuan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. Tingting has completed her PhD at the University of Bristol and has been lecturing Education Studies and International Education at Liverpool Hope University and Bath Spa University. Her broader research interests include globalisation, public goods and education, international aid of education, China-Africa educational cooperation, and other educational issues within the complexities of the global political economy.

    View all posts

BAICE is a charity, registered in the UK. The BAICE Media Hub supports BAICE's charitable objective of stimulating and disseminating knowledge and research in the field of international and comparative education. Views expressed in outputs hosted on the BAICE Media Hub are those of the contributors. They do not necessarily represent the views of the BAICE Executive Committee or the wider BAICE membership.