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INVEDUC Report Summary

Project ID: 311769
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Germany

Final Report Summary - INVEDUC (Investing in Education in Europe: Attitudes, Politics and Policies)

The INVEDUC project (“Investing in Education in Europe: Attitudes, Politics and Policies”) has investigated the role of public opinion in the politics of education reform in Western Europe. More precisely, we analyzed under which conditions public opinion matters rather than party and interest group politics in influencing policy-making. We found that two factors condition the role of public opinion: the salience of a particular issue and the degree of coherence of citizens’ attitudes and preferences on that issue. When the salience is high and attitudes are highly coherent (“loud politics”), public opinion indeed has a strong impact on policy-making in education. Vice versa, when salience is low and attitudes are incoherent (“quiet politics”), the role of public opinion is marginal and interest groups and bureaucratic actors take over in shaping policies. Many issue in education reform, however, fall into the domain of “loud, but noisy politics”, which occurs when issues are highly salient, but attitudes are not coherent or even conflictive. In this case, policy-making follows the logic of party politics, i.e. the balance of power between different political parties matters with regard to the design of policy reforms. In this case, public opinion still matters, but in a rather indirect manner by shaping the positions of political parties rather than directly influencing the policy-making process.

In order to provide an empirical foundation for these theses, the project gathered data on public opinion about education policies in eight Western European countries in its first phase and performed qualitative case studies in these countries in the second. Regarding the first phase of the project, we conducted a representative and original survey of public opinion on education policy in Denmark, Sweden, the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. This was necessary because existing international comparative surveys do not cover the policy field of education in a satisfactory manner. The survey addressed issues such as public preferences regarding education spending relative to other parts of the welfare state, the distribution of resources across different sectors of the education system from early childhood education via schools and vocational education to higher academic education, the division of labor between public and private providers, tracking in secondary education and the decentralization of decision-making powers to the local level.

The findings from the analysis of the survey data inform the case studies of reform processes undertaken in the second phase of the project. Relying on more than 70 interviews with policy-makers, policy experts and other stakeholders, we reconstructed policy reforms in education, focusing on four main cases (Sweden, the UK/England, Germany and Spain). These case studies yield strong support for our expectations that the role of public opinion varies depending on the salience of a particular issue and the coherence of citizens’ attitudes on that issue.

The most important findings from our empirical analyses can be summed up in the form of four theses: First, there is indeed strong support among European citizens for increased investments on education, relative to other parts of the welfare state, and our survey data show that citizens are willing to a large extent to accept higher taxes in order to finance additional spending. Second, European citizens are particularly keen on supporting general schools as well as vocational education and training; early childhood education and higher education rank lower in terms of priority. Third, we find significant cross-national variation in public opinion: One common pattern is that citizens support public investments in sectors of the education system, which are currently underfunded in particular countries, in particular when the problem pressure is high. For instance, citizens in France and the UK are keen on expanding spending on vocational education in the face of high levels of youth unemployment. Fourth, European citizens largely support comprehensive and inclusive education, parental choice in schools and the decentralization of decision-making authority to the local level, but they are skeptical of expanding the involvement of private providers in education.

To sum up, the INVEDUC project has made two important contributions: First, it provided a wealth of new data and empirical insights on the political dynamics of education reform in Western European countries. Education has been and remains a crucially important policy area in the transition towards knowledge-based service economies that many European countries are going through. Our project’s empirical findings provide the empirical foundation for more informed public and scholarly debates on this policy field. Second, the INVEDUC project also contributed to developing a better understanding of the relative influence of public opinion, party politics and interest groups on policy-making. In principle, these insights framework are applicable to other policy areas besides education. This extension of our conceptual framework to other policy fields would be a particularly fruitful avenue for future research.

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