Depoliticization as a discursive tool for digitalizating education

Guest commentary by Anders Sonesson & Marita Ljungqvist, Division for Higher Education Development, Department of Educational Sciences, Lund University, Sweden.

Both digitalization and education are often identified in policy as enablers for change and innovation with regards to contemporary global “wicked problems”. Education is not only expected to play a leading role for the digitalization of society but also to utilize the opportunities offered by new technologies in order to improve student learning. Our research focuses on how ‘digitalization’ and related concepts are constructed and promoted in Higher Education policy, and aims to uncover underlying ideology, imaginaries, and hidden tensions in relation to welfare values, pedagogy and the role of HE. We are particularly interested in how depoliticization is used as a discursive strategy in policy texts that propose changes that could have far-reaching consequences for the educational sector and society at large. We argue that depoliticization of fundamental socio-economic conditions for education in educational policy discourse facilitates the promotion of a neoliberal political agenda by placing the responsibility for achieving social inclusion on individuals – especially individuals within marginalized communities – rather than on governments.

Policy represents normative choices that are based on hegemonic practices, while depoliticization can be defined as a “the set of processes (including varied tactics, strategies, and tools) that remove or displace the potential for choice, collective agency, and deliberation around a particular political issue” (Fawcett, Flinders, Hay, & Wood, 2017). Depoliticization, therefore, offers a way of excluding certain issues from political discussions and decision-making by “placing them outside politics” (Fairclough, 2010, p. 241). This allows policy to deny political antagonism and emphasize rational consensus among stakeholders rather than opening up for ideas that challenge the prevailing hegemony. Depoliticization is a common feature in neoliberal governance and allows the state to cooperate with a large number of actors, from the private as well as the public sector, in an informal way, in order to drive change without parliamentary debate and democratic negotiations (Clarke, 2012; Foster, Kerr, & Byrne, 2014).

Private actors and corporations have high stakes in the promotion of digitalization of education and are able to influence educational policy through their involvement in complex national and supra-national policy networks. Especially in countries like Sweden, that still holds onto an identity as a traditional Nordic welfare state, this could possibly create ideological conflicts in policy discourses on digitalization. We have, in a previous publication (Ljungqvist & Sonesson, 2022), shown how Swedish policy depoliticizes various potentially contentious aspects of digitalization and its social and political context, such as the financialized constructions of knowledge, learning, educational institutions, teachers and students. Depoliticization is partly accomplished through ‘responsibilization’ and ‘educationalization’ (a particular instantiation of the former), i.e. the delegation of tasks and problems to citizens, groups, and institutions, as well as to education, teachers and students, that are beyond their mandate, role or power to solve. By emphasizing choice, individual responsibility and the need for a more skills-based educational system, the policy directs attention away from structural inequalities that might prevent large groups of individuals from participating in and/or benefitting from education. For example, the school of the future is described as challenge-driven and entrepreneurial, and students are represented as highly motivated, self-regulated, socially adept individuals expected to take responsibility for their own learning and able to, through problem-solving exercises “discovering what knowledge they need”. Furthermore, the policy defuses potential objections that could be raised in relation to traditional Nordic welfare ideals, such as universality, solidarity and market-independence, by framing its proposals with just these ideals, thus stretching their conceptualizations.

Also in policy at the European level, depoliticization strategies are used in order to mitigate tensions between welfare values and the paradigm of late capitalism, and we suggest that its employment has come to be intensified in tandem with the widening of social inequalities, and a growing pressure on policy makers to (superficially) address such issues, for example social inclusion (Mikelatou & Arvanitis, 2018). Here, the discourses on ‘lifelong learning’ are particularly interesting for critical research on the digitalization of education, both because this concept is often narrowly framed in terms of economic growth, productivity and skills-orientation, and because of the political emphasis on digitalization as a means for realizing national and European lifelong learning objectives. Recent EU education policy initiatives put a strong focus on equity and social fairness but places the responsibility for achieving these objectives largely on the individual, or rather, as the European Commission’s fact sheet on Individual Learning Accounts and Microcredentials states: puts them in “the driving seat”. The fact sheet emphasizes the importance of European citizens “having a strong skillset” in order to achieve social inclusion (besides being “good for the competitiveness for the economy”). It identifies “motivation, time and funding” as the main barriers for “upskilling and reskilling”, thus depolitizing the unequal social, cultural and economic conditions that may prevent people from engaging in educational provision (regardless of how attractively that provision is packaged). It also reduces education and training to quick, flexible and personalized “stacking” of skills and competencies rather than a deep, slow and meaningful collective experience.

In our current research, we explore depoliticization as a phenomenon in transnational educational policy processes in relation to discourses on digitalization. This is especially relevant in the wake of the covid-pandemic. The pandemic has led to a stronger influence of EdTech industry over educational practices and politics, but also pushed governments and educational institutions into an ‘unfreezing’ (Lewin, 1947) process that includes ‘attempts to thoroughly embed public education systems and practices, at international reach, in increasingly powerful technological systems’ (Williamson, Eynon, & Potter, 2020, pp. 107-108). This further stresses the importance of critical research on how the influence of policy networks may affect policy discourses in relation to national and supranational efforts and projects that aim to digitalize education.


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