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ECPR 50th Anniversary Fund

The AHELO Effect: The Role of Private Authority in OECD Education Governance

Policy Analysis
Public Policy
Scott Smith
McMaster University
Scott Smith
McMaster University

How do education policy networks operating through the OECD reflect changing patterns in global governance? The power and influence of international organizations is complicated by the increasingly prominent role of private authority, understood as non-state actors exercising power, influence or decision-making capacity through particular governance arrangements.

This paper draws on recent fieldwork to share insight into the policy processes behind the OECD’s latest student assessment instrument: the cross-national Assessment for Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO). The structure of governance behind AHELO included communities of technical and policy experts cooperating with member states and OECD staff via specialized steering committees and stakeholder groups. The Technical Advisory Group (TAG), located at the intersection of these working committees and groups, emerged as a critical locus of authority in the normative as well as instrumental transfer of education policy in the AHELO study. The TAG not only validated the instruments used by expert contractors to measure learning outcomes in AHELO; but by helping to develop the contextual dimension instrument, which determined what social-economic variables were most conducive to learning, it ultimately helped shape the policy goals attached to AHELO.

Despite the OECD’s influence in international relations its decision-making structures remain somewhat obscure and undocumented. As the OECD broadens its programs in the developing world (including AHELO and the newer ‘PISA for Development’), it is clear that private authority retains an important role in shaping the policy transfer process in transnational education. AHELO reveals at least three important problems with private authority in this architecture: 1) governance arrangements were riven by contractual disputes and issues over proprietary knowledge; 2) authority often appeared blurred, ad hoc, and grounded to informal networks; and 3) country participation in AHELO was balanced in favour of powerful member states, potentially distorting the comparative integrity of the study.
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