In what ways does research reach policymakers? Do policymakers have the time to back their decisions with research?

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Is Theory Political? – Need for Political Awareness

Does research have leverage on educational policymaking? Yes, increasingly, argue the authors, but the interaction between political challenges and theoretical findings requires new methods.


We are currently experiencing a “fluid society”: rapid changes, new situations, com-plex problems. Societal expectations increasingly rely on scientific analyses, international comparative studies, highly developed knowledge and skills of individuals as well as continuous learning. In the past two decades, a trend towards theoretical outcomes supporting policy decisions can be detected, in particular in the education sector. The interaction between political challenges and theoretical findings requires new methods, both on an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and practical scale. Politically conscious people should enhance the relations between educational theory and political practices.


“That’s only theory” is a commonly applied defensive statement used by decision-makers and practitioners to express that proposals do not meet current practice. Theories are regarded as abstract and general in perspective of the subjective hands-on experience of practitioners. Yet, theories are tools of political analysis (cf. Heywood 2007, p. 18).

Let us briefly consider the conceptual background of the terms ‘theory’ and ‘politics’. ‘Theory’ is derived from the Ancient Greek theorein and originally means ‘look’, ‘contemplate’, ‘observe’. Theory nowadays refers to statements that describe and explain a part of reality, making predictions about the development of the observed. In political sciences, theories may also provide “a systematic explanation of a body of empirical data” (Heywood 2007, p. 20).

‘Politics’, also from Ancient Greek, refers to polis, the community and society. It includes decisions and actions which model our way of living together. In English, the terms ‘polity’, ‘politics’ and ‘policy’ are distinguished, referring to the form, content and process side (cf. Rappenglück 2004, p. 9-10). Politics may be viewed in biased terms, as “political concepts are often the subject of deep ideological controversy” (Heywood 2007, p. 19).

‘Political’ thus refers to the aspect of political action, namely policy-making, and the impact on and of decision-making processes in terms of educational policy. An additional aspect concerns the term ‘political difference’, which has been theoretically discussed in the past two decades as a reaction to an increasingly neo-liberal, post-democratic zeitgeist. It opposes ‘the political’ to ‘politics’ and is an aspect which is specifically addressed in adult citizenship education in German-speaking countries, referring to the politically conscious, critical, reflective and responsible person (cf. Gürses 2011, p. 5-6).

Policy-development and decision-making processes

General remarks

As in other sectors, education is characterised by an interaction between theory and policy. Social problems, such as the inequality in access to education or the integration of migrants, call for theoretical analyses and models that can be put into practice through policy. As a result, grievances shall be resolved and current challenges overcome.

In order to address whether theory is political, we need to take a closer look at the policy process.
It usually takes the form of a cycle with four phases: (1) policy initiation, (2) policy formulation, (3) policy implementation and (4) policy evaluation.

Eventually, existing policies may be improved or new policy proposals developed through feedback processes. The impact of theory seems most relevant in the phase of policy initiation, where academics and researchers develop theories, which are consecutively turned into proposals by politicians. Policies may be initiated from above, for example by political leaders, but also from below, through public opinion, mass media, and also events such as natural disasters or strikes (cf. Heywood 2007, p. 430-435).

To give a practical example, the past has shown that despite the existence of theories referring to certain problematic developments, the political relevance was not given. However, theories might become effective when a problem reaches a critical significance and policy-makers are forced to act. The agenda then suddenly contains topics such as renewable energy instead of nuclear power or the protection for refugees in the Mediterranean rather than indifference.

In the field of education, for instance, the significant rise in youth unemployment in the 1970s led to the pressing need of a first co-operation of member states with re-gards to education, even though education policy was not at all an issue at European level at the time. Similarly, a need for the comparability of qualifications developed in order to allow the free movement of workers and students, which paved the way for later action programmes in vocational and higher education (cf. Görsdorf-Léchevin 2014, p. 57).

In these examples, political action happens as a reaction, mainly due to a politically engaged critical mass uttering protest and decision-makers seeing an imminent need. Education and learning processes which happen in this development, albeit informal or formal, have thus become politically effective.

When it comes to policy formulation, implementation and evaluation, decision-making processes in each country as well as in the EU are triggered. Despite national differences in policy style, a shared characteristic concerns the reduction of actors involved in policy development, making the process subject to criticism (cf. Heywood 2007, p. 433). In contrast to the variety of actors involved in policy initiation, bringing in a wide range of beliefs and value systems (cf. ibid, p. 429), the policy advisers, politicians and civil servants in later phases are criticised for being influenced by interests (cf. ibid, p. 434).

In recent years, a general trend towards empirically-oriented research as a basis for political action can be detected. Hence, the term ‘theory’ is increasingly replaced by research-based or evidence-based, in policy perspective also data-driven decision-making (cf. Marsh et. al. 2006). This is particularly visible in school education, where international comparative studies such as PISA or TIMSS provide data, used to adapt education policies and procedures. New institutions take up their work, such as BIFIE, the Federal Institute for Education Research, Innovation and Development of the Austrian school system.

An example for the wide-ranging impact of evidence-based research on policy making is the publication Visible Learning (2008) by John Hattie. The work is one of the theoretical bases for the quality development initiative SQA by the Austrian Ministry for Education (cf. BMBF 2015). This meta-analysis is based on 50,000 studies in school education research in which the effect sizes of various aspects influencing learning and teaching were compared.

Nevertheless, critical voices put forward that the results provided by Hattie allow for different interpretations, not only because of the methodology, but also due to socio-cultural background and the context in which the results are presented (cf. Waack 2015). The question is whether such critical, non-practical voices are heard as well.

Another discrepancy can be found in the different pace of policy and empirical evidence cycles (cf. Pawson 2001). Policy is required to adapt more quickly than evidence can be produced. For instance, it took Hattie fifteen years to collect, select and analyse the evidence (cf. BMBF 2014, p. 3); in the meantime, the policy cycle moves on and the political landscape changes. This might lead to hasty decisions which do not necessarily correspond to theoretical bases.

Relationship between research/theory, policy and practice

The question whether theory is political leads to relationship between theory and practice. In education history, the ambition of effective practice has a long tradition. In its ideal form, a relationship of interaction is expected, where problems of educational practice lead to theoretical analysis and reflection, in order to implement resulting recommendations for action in practice, which can again give cause to theoretical discussion.

This view was particularly based on the tradition of geisteswissenschaftliche Pädagogik, a very specific German concept of education which remained largely based on reflexion, philosophical discussions and a discourse within the scientific community. From the 1960s, the realistic turn set in: empirical studies as well as documented facts and figures should present the actual conditions in the education system and give impetus to education policy, in order to take measures against evident inequal-ities in education.

Empirical research in education was seen as a theoretical contribution to bringing about political action for better conditions in education. In the field of adult and continuing education in Germany, this has resulted in Weiterbildungspläne (training plans) as well as in a legal basis for public funding of adult education. In Austria, the Adult Education Promotion Act in 1972 allowed the state to promote continuing education, but did not oblige it to do so (cf. Lenz 2005).

In parallel, the economics of education developed. This includes theoretical bases for expenditure, investments, gains and achievements in the education sector. With the increasing importance of human capital for the economic situation of a country, the attention towards the role of the educational system increased.

In the context of the OECD and the EU, international comparative studies made visible how much countries invested with how much efficiency. A new situation for the education system developed, where internationalisation put a stronger emphasis on self-regulation through the market and the personal responsibility of individuals. A market character developed with a focus on efficient management, competition between institutions and the usefulness of educational offers. The continuing education and training sector, which was often equated with LLL, saw the emergence of a market for private providers. Learning was seen as an investment, education for money should be profitable for providers and learners.

An OECD initiative in the 1990s addressed the issue of neurobiology and learning which found international recognition and shows that research and discussion results have political consequences: first, because the authors could present themselves in public and provide relevant publications (cf. Birbaumer 2014; Roth 2011; Spitzer 2012), which also contributes to further financing – a political decision. Secondly, the findings have directed the political attention to the necessity of developing training in early childhood education. Finally, there is an indirect political aspect: knowing about brain research should be a part of teacher training and professional continuing education of teachers. The responsibility of educational policy is to ensure competent teaching staff in order to design and evaluate appropriate training measures. But educational policy controlling not only needs to assess, but also to stimulate and encourage practices. The main objective is to eliminate negative developments and strengthen positive ones.

Education policy development

The development of education policy at European level

At European level, education policy had a difficult start. Reservations to deal with education were due to the high sensitivity of education issues, different education systems in member states and varying opinions on integrating education policy at European level.

In 1993, education and training was officially included in the Treaty of Maastricht, a first legal basis with two articles referring to general and vocational education. Ever since, the main characteristics of the EU education policy have been the voluntary cooperation of member states and the (financial) support for action programmes by the EU, primarily implemented in the form of exchanges and project funding.

Thus, the competence of education remains with the member states, and intergovernmental cooperation is the standard procedure for recommendations or opinions, which are legally not binding. Until today, the legal basis has remained largely unchanged, which means that the EU hardly has any competences in the field of education and training (cf. Görsdorf-Léchevin 2014, p. 55-60).

Nevertheless, a number of institutions and networks have been established in the past 30 years, which are important in collecting, sharing and publishing information at European level, thus influencing policy-development. Examples are Eurydice, a network with 41 national units, as well as agencies and research centres, such as CEDEFOP for vocational education or CRELL for research on LLL (cf. ibid, p. 62-64).

Adult education policy at European level

In 1996, the European Year of Lifelong Learning was proclaimed, officially heralding the era of LLL at European level. Besides its vocational orientation, it explicitly referred to general adult education and transitions from formal (school) education to working life.

However, in comparison to vocational and higher education, adult education has had relatively little impact at European level. For a long time, it was only visible through funding schemes: Socrates included adult education in the 1995-1999 period and only in the follow-up scheme from 2000-2006, Grundtvig was established as a proper programme for adult education, which mainly consisted of cooperation projects, learning partnerships, scholarships and the establishment of networks. Amann (2010) notes that the major problematic for including adult education in policy-making is the lack of participation of adults in educational activities in certain European countries.

Recently, publications have highlighted policies and practice in adult education in a European perspective (cf. European Commission 2011; European Commission 2015). Coinciding with these general reviews, a Council Resolution on a renewed European agenda for adult learning (Official Journal of the European Union 2011) puts adult ed-ucation into the context of the Europe 2020 strategy, now using the economic aspect for legitimising its funding. Adaptability to the labour market, up- and re-skilling and career-transitions are key words in this context, but also “social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development.” (ibid, p. 1). From 2011 to 2013, the working groups dealt with financing and the quality of adult education, since 2014, the working group has focused on basic skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT.

This reveals that adult education policy development only poorly responds to critical orientations in educational theory as policy development follows market-oriented principles.

Three problems can be detected from the current practices of European policy-making in education and training. First, the economisation of education progresses, expressed language-wise as quality learning, learning outcomes, etc., is increasingly present in adult education. Second, despite the importance of exchange and project funding for multiplicators, the risk of the mobility of an elite prevails. Phenomena of mass migration and the recent flow of refugees tend to be less important fields of action (cf. Wirsching 2012). Third, project orientation also leads to a dependence on funding, which again puts pressure on staff whose jobs may depend on projects (cf. Prisching 2005). As a majority of those working in the field do so on a voluntary basis (cf. Lenz 2005), this adds to the social and economic pressure.

In the next chapter we briefly describe the development of a lifelong learning strategy in the authors’ home country Austria. This serves as a recent example of how theory and politics function together. 

Example: Lifelong learning in Austria

The theoretical understanding of an individual as a lifelong learner has implications for political practice. In Austria this resulted in the strategy for lifelong learning, LLL: 2020, adopted by the Austrian government in July 2011 (cf. Republik Österreich 2011). The program is based on principles and standards of the EU, but the political background in Austria with regards to the LLL strategy is remarkable, as one condition for the serious discussion, and ultimately for the political acceptance of the strategy, was the matching endorsement of LLL by the social partners in the economy as well as by trade unions. Their common basis paper Chance Bildung (Die Sozialpartner Österreich 2007) paved the way for the formation of political action by the government.

Another special feature needs to be emphasized: LLL: 2020 is not a coherent approach to implementing a new educational concept, but refers to problematic areas of the Austrian education system from early childhood education to the education of the elderly. Actually, it corresponds to a reform program for the national education system. More importantly, however, theoretical insights from scientific studies and research are included: brain research has influenced the importance of learning in early childhood education. The political aspect consists of hoping that social ine-qualities can be counteracted through early childhood education.

The example of the implementation of LLL in Austria shows how the relationship between theory and politics functions. The starting point was a political decision, namely the accession of Austria to the EU in 1995. As a consequence, educational policy discussions were initiated, in particular the commitment to LLL was a strategy pursued by the EU since 2000. Other impulses came through the membership in the OECD and the participation in special research and development projects.

We can thus see that international organisations have a substantial impact on policy-development in individual countries’ education systems.

The role of universities

In the field of education and research, the concepts of multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity play a major role. The three terms should not be used interchangeably as they refer to varying degrees of involvement of disciplines (cf. Choi & Pak 2006).

Complex problems, rapid changes and easy access to information require researchers of different disciplines to collaborate in order to develop a comprehensive understanding while at the same time allowing for different perspectives of a question, due to respective traditions in research and practice (cf. Lenz 2014).

In view of the interdependence of educational theory, practice and policy, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches are applied to meet the requirements of a complexity which is not confined to individual countries.

The major challenge is not only to integrate different perspectives or develop holistic views between disciplines, and thus between theories, but also to connect them to practice and policy-making. In order to respond to demands for accountability, higher education and research institutions increasingly invest efforts and money into communicating their research to the general public. Keywords currently en vogue are science-to-public, continuing education and LLL, the latter as a synonym for educational activities beyond traditional degree studies. The Austrian Europe 2020 agenda for adult education also explicitly invites higher education institutions to address the general public of adult learners (cf. Official Journal of the European Un-ion 2011, p. 3). 

In order to exemplify this development, we will briefly describe two special projects, one from Austria and one from France, illustrating the link of public and political awareness in the education sector.

Lifelong Learning – College for Doctoral Students

Ten years ago, a doctoral program was established in cooperation between the University of Graz, the University of Klagenfurt and the Danube University Krems in Austria. It should provide an opportunity to people who professionally deal with the issues of policy formation as part of their theses to qualify and deal with a contemporary problem.

The goal was to develop an understanding for the new concept of education and to form competent professionals. So far, about 30 PhD theses have been completed in which interdisciplinary approaches prevail, as one scientific perspective was not suf-ficient to relate to the complex aspects of LLL. The PhD candidates were part-time students, working in their respective institutions or companies, which brought an immediate input of the research to the respective organization and in each practice. Last but not least almost all theses were published in book format in order to extend the discussion to the scientific community (a list of the theses can be found here)

Summer University Cluny

Summer universities as a special format for continuing higher education also show potential for mutually developing theory, practice and policies. At the Cluny Summer University in France, an average of 50 participants from various European countries and with different academic and professional background meet to discuss a current European issue. The participants, mostly students, are required to collaborate in an interdisciplinary, intercultural, multilingual context. Open learning forms shall allow them to put their (mostly) theoretical knowledge into practice and develop competences in decision-making processes, thus gaining practical skills in policy development.

Reconciling the theoretical background at practical level and at the same time experiencing the constraints of relatively fixed policy-making procedures results in reflexive learning, re-thinking previously acquired knowledge (cf. Görsdorf-Léchevin 2014).

Societal challenges

So far, we have argued that science is indeed political. It is important to put both science and the political into the broader context of society and a person’s individual responsibility and learning process.

Social inequality

Current social problems result in the question of how theoretical insights influence policy-makers regarding the design of the education system.

Despite the relative wealth of European countries in a global context, a growing degree of inequality can be detected. Poverty is more visible and the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots, as well as people with and without sufficient educational opportunities is growing, both within individual states and in a global perspective between the so-called Northern and Southern countries.

Resistance against the political mainstream of neo-liberalism and the retreat of the state from social and financial responsibility has begun to form up. Besides general criticism towards prevailing capitalism, three personalities in particular call for resistance and lively political action, based on their theoretical assumptions:

In Fences and Windows, Naomi Klein recognises the campaign against globalisation as a learning project, in particular for adults, who bear responsibility and face the challenge to analyse, understand and stand up for a better world.

In Time for outrage!, Stéphane Hessel, a former resistance fighter and co-author of the human rights charter adopted by the UN in 1948, explicitly demands citizens to not accept neo-liberal policies.

Jean Ziegler, a sociologist, politician and human rights activist, outlines how the poor nations defend themselves against the economic world war in Hate For the West. In the short essay Conscience, he clearly states: “Every starved child is a murdered child!” Being exemplary for humanitarianism, he points out to causes of unequal living conditions and demands individuals to assume responsibility by actively making contributions to fight inequality.

Learning as a response

In recent decades, the demand for reliable and scientifically justified knowledge has increased. We can therefore refer to a knowledge-based society, and possibly even a science-based society. The increasing worldwide threats towards living environ-ments through climatic changes, but also poverty, ask for rational answers. Theoretical insights may explain how optimal living conditions for the world’s population can be created in order to develop an individually and collectively non-violent form of wellbeing.

Several relatively prosperous countries call for a change of living conditions in order to reduce destruction. Changes have become a main characteristic of life, but a novelty aspect in the 21st century is that changes are faster and globally more effective – with a rapidly growing world population. In 1800, one billion people populated the planet, in 1900, about two billion people, and presently, we count more than seven billion inhabitants.

Democratic societies have found an answer to prepare for and respond to change: education, learning, and lifelong learning (LLL). Learning is not understood as merely taking over existing models; we are aware of the fact that new situations require new types of assessment, balanced judgement and innovative solutions. It is essential to engage in reflection, to analyse contexts and interests, to develop own thoughts and beliefs, to strengthen the individual and collective sense of judgment and critique.

This results in a significant consequence for the theoretical concept of LLL. It is political because it requires individuals to enlarge their potential in terms of professional and social skills through learning. It is political because people are able to participate in shaping society more actively, being better-educated

Promoting political awareness

In education, theory and policy are in interaction. Social problems call for theoretical analysis and research – the findings are expected to be put into practice through policy. Within the last decades, an impact of evidence-based research can be noticed which is believed to give a solid and approved basis for political decisions. In parallel, the field of economics of education and international comparative studies has become increasingly important.

Policy-makers, researchers and practitioners who directly or indirectly engage in the further development of (adult) education policy – we may refer to them as “trailblazers” – convey an important message. In order to improve living conditions in the world, to secure our living standards, to reduce social inequalities and to realise more humanitarianism, we need to reflect and develop our individual view of the world. This cannot be conveyed in textbooks, taught in classrooms, lectured at universities or trained in continuing education courses. If we feel affected by the suffering in the world or wish to resolve grievances, we need to take action.

Today we are experiencing a complex world in which we cannot cope with problems in a linear way or the traditional theory-practice ratio (cf. Nassehi, 2015). Therefore scientific disciplines should be released from their corset and take interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary orientation. This means to study one discipline in a well-founded way, but in addition being capable of understanding and communicating scientific results, the jargon and problems of other disciplines.

The mutual influence and dependence of theory, practice and policy is a reality. International developments and European initiatives have a large impact on adult education scene. Action programmes, particularly through financial support, are attractive for the adult education sector, both in research and practice. However, the opportunities for staff through funding are contested by the risks of being dependent from such funds, which translates to meeting requirements set by organisations and institutions and limiting research and practice to administrative tasks.

Despite the recently reinforced efforts to support adult education at European level, the field still faces difficulties. The original idea of adult education, beyond readiness for the labour market and economic interests, corresponds to the claim that adults potentially engage in educational activities anytime, also in everyday, informal activities that are indirectly influenced by policy making. In the future, it will be interesting to see how alternative forms and initiatives such as open online courses will have an impact, and how theories in education and research results will foster educational policy change before an urgent need is detected.

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