Co-branding in National and International Policy Assemblage in Education

Christian Lundahl

In a recently finalised project called From Paris to PISA – governing education through comparisons 1867-2015, I, Sotira Grek, Martin Lawn and Joakim Landahl used Sweden as a case study with the aim to explore and analyse the ways in which national systems and their innovations were influenced, constructed and traded through the use of education comparisons. By focusing on Sweden, a country considered a leading education state for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, we examined the workings and effects of international education comparisons, and the logics of comparison, its main actors and its techniques and effects.

Traditionally there has been an emphasis on using domestic histories of education for the construction of national myths, which has resulted in missing out on substantial evidence from political science research which suggests that, not only at present time but also historically, learning from and with others is one of the primary tools in the policy making assemblage. The recent trend however has been to maybe overemphasize the influence of the European, or even the global, on the national education policy making apparatus. We have read numerously papers on Neoliberalism, New Public Management, the Global Testing Culture, GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) that often with references to Foucault, Rose, Ball, Biesta, Porter etc, stresses the emergence of a culture of performativity, accountability regimes and increased standardization leading to the loss of local multiplicity, the loss of teacher professionalism and in the end reduced learning for the pupils.  As pointed out however by Radhika Guror (2017, 2018) this kind of criticism hasn’t managed to curtail the influence of in particular large-scale assessments over national policy. The problem she states is not just that we as researchers had little political influence but also that we haven’t advanced our epistemology in understanding these movements. 

Also, Antoni Verger et al have stressed in a recent article (2019) that we need to look at howthese global movements are connected to specific countries, because they are adopted, for so many different reasons. I would also say, that sometimes we see nothing else then a local movement that looks like, or are disguised to look like, a global movement. In addition to this we can also assume that there is an influence of the national in shaping and steering international trends, that we often have neglected. 

It is exactly this co-construction between the international and the national in educational policy that I like to talk about today – and the role that educational scholars can play in it. However, I will begin with the parallel case of how IKEA and its founder Ingvar Kamprad (1926-2018) used Sweden to construct itself as a global and multinational company and how Sweden has used IKEA in the country’s own nation branding. IKEA very well illustrates the complexity in the assemblage of national and international influences on say a company, organisation or institution.  

IKEA and Ingvar Kamprad

What is inside a flat-pack from IKEA? Not only a furniture waiting to be assembled by you, but also a set of values and ideas – of which some has a long history. IKEA is a global brand that markets Scandinavian home furnishing styles and Swedish social and cultural values. In her book Design by IKEA(2014) Sara Kristoffersson asks how this strong relationship between design and national identity has come about. 

IKEA is based on a design ideal called ’the Swedish modern’, a term coined in the 1930s, to describe a gentler version of a modernist idiom: wood instead of metal tubing, organic forms rather than hard and angular forms etc. (Kristoffersson, 2014, 5). But as rather well known, this design ideal was actually first displayed in the USA by American designers. However, it became a narrative in Sweden connecting the nation with a particular design ideal. 

Pic 1.IKEA logotypes. (

This design ideal, and the idealistic view of modern Sweden paved way for a very successful co-brandingand in 1983 IKEA changed its red and with logo into the colour of the Swedish flag (pic 1). When IKEA published a book in 1995 called Democratic design they wrote:

It [IKEA] grew up in Sweden and its heart remains there to this very day. And as everyone who has grown up in Sweden has learnt – either from their Dad, or from the society in general – people who are not all that well of should be given the same opportunities as people who are. It is hardly surprising that, as a Swedish company, IKEA espouses Swedish values. (IKEA 1995, 9 in Kristofferson 2014, 58)

IKEA links this notion of Swedishness to a practical, simple, and restrained design that becomes closely linked to ideas about mentality and morality. The peaceful, light, and practical home creates a setting for open, harmonious, and rational minds (Löfgren 2014, 468). Here for example the idealised image of the country side of Småland was used (here in an award winning ad) – ‘the Soul of IKEA’ (pic 2). 

Pic. 2.The soul of IKEA (

Also, the founder of IKEA Ingvar Kamprad became part of the branding. Kamprad has been described by colleagues as a genius working extremely hard but also with a very clever set of leadership skills that borders on manipulation. He visited as a rule 45 stores a year and met with people at ever flor of his businesses (Stenebo 2018). The lessons learnt he passed on, as a former close colleague wrotes (in a critical book on IKEA):

What most people find hard to understand is how Ingvar manages to keep such a large company together. The answer is simple. Through his actions he lets good examples speak for themselves. Everywhere he goes he over and over again refers back to discussions he has had with a head of department at a store in Germany or with the boss of a factory at a supplier’s or with a colleague at a store in China. He is capable of quoting his co-workers’ thoughts and ideas as well as problems in a concrete way. (Stenebo 2018, 22)

This factory-floor strategy, travelling around in the real world, is rhetorically brilliant. How can a product developer in Älmhult ever express disapproval of a discussion where all arguments are taken from reality? 

At the same time, he was ‘marketed as a simple man that with poor education (not really true since he had at least an upper secondary degree in business), that had dyslexia, was an alcoholic, never flew business class, preferred public transportation instead of company cars, and rather took a hot dog at his store than had lunch at an restaurant. This thriftiness became an important part of IKEA’s image as a cost-awareness company (Kristofersson 2014, 29-33; Stenebo 2018, 12-49). 

The ideals of design and mentality that is linked to Kamprad, Småland and Sweden was also intentionally used in the marketing of IKEA in other countries. For example, in Germany: 

IKEA did run a famous ad campaign in the 1990s that showed parodic versions of “German” interiors, in depressing brown and beige with dark and clumsy furniture side by side with light-hearted, sunny and simple Swedish interiors asking the German readers: “Do you want to sleep on or may we wake you up?” (Löfgren 2014, 468)

IKEA loves Sweden but Sweden also loves IKEA. A government report on Swedish trade and investments from 2011 concluded:

Certain major Swedish corporations like IKEA and Volvo Cars have long made use of their Swedish origins in their marketing. As a result of the enormous resources that help to promote Sweden as a brand, Sweden is widely associated precisely with these companies (despite the fact that Volvo Cars has not been a Swedish-owned company for the last ten years). The value to the Swedish image that these companies contribute with their marketing can scarcely be calculated. (DS 2011:29, 123 in Kristoffersson 2014, 84) 

We clearly see here that it is not just IKEA that makes use of values embedded in the brand of Småland and Sweden. It also goes the other way around, Sweden uses IKEA for the county´s own reputation.

The Swedish Comprehensive School and Torsten Husén

The kind of co-branding that we see between IKEA and Sweden has up until lately also been the case between Swedish education and Sweden. Here the famous educational scholar Torsten Husén (1916-2009) was one important reformist as well as Ambassador for Swedish education (Pic. 3 and 4).

Pic. 3.Torsten Husén meets Japanese Crown Prince (Husén 1983, 84ff)

Pic. 4.Torsten Husén meets US Presiden Lyndon B Johnson (Husén 1983, 84ff) 

Torsten Husén was born in Lund 1916 where he also later came to take his Phd-degree at Lunds university in 1944. His supervisor John Landquist was a famous scholar and cultural personality. The closeness to Germany and Landquist’s connections made it natural for Husén to visit and study in Germany during the 1930s. There he learned how to construct and conduct psychological aptitude test. In the 1940s he was employed by the Swedish government to produce, inspired by the German military, test to get ‘the right man at the right place’ in the army.  Here the famous American Army Alpha and Army Beta test also became influential as well as working with the statistical factor analysis. Husén came to work with testing for the government for ten years. He continued working on testing for various Swedish organisations and at the Stockholm Techer collage throughout the 50s and 60s. During the 50s and 60s he also spent several semesters at American universities (e.g. Chicago, Stanford and Aspen). 

From the mid 50s and some years onwards the UNESCO-institute in Hamburg arranged yearly conferences for educational scholars representing just about 12 countries. Husén represented Sweden and when this group of scholars decided to form IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) Husén was chosen to become its chairman – a position he held for 18 years.  IEA is today famous for constructing the TIMSS and PIRLS test.

Meanwhile in Sweden the government had to decid how to move forward on a suggested reform on comprehensive schooling. Husén made valuable contributions and could for example show with results from his military testing that quite a large group had the intellectual capacity to study much longer than they at the time had the chance to. He called them the ’reserve of talents’ (begåvningsreserven). Husén, in line with the Swedish social democratic party, believed that more children should be included and given the opportunity to reach secondary education. In 1962 Sweden got a comprehensive school system.

One of the earlier analyses carried out on IEA material during the late 1960s was to compare countries with tracked school systems with comprehensive school systems. Husén writes in his biography, An incurable academic:

The IEA project (see p. 83ff), which I led for many years, provided unique opportunities to compare various national educational systems with special regard to organisational differentiation. Some of these systems, for instance the British or the German, made an early differentiation between pupils with a more “theoretical” and those with a more “practical” inclination; while others, like the Swedish or the American, then differentiated into streams at a later stage. We were able to establish unequivocally that social class differences between different educational programmes were greatest in the former and smallest in the latter type of system. (Husén 1983, 74)

Clearly this is a good argument both to be used at home to show that Sweden had chosen the ‘right’ path, and abroad to put pressure on other countries to do the same.

In much of his international writings, and probably also in his meetings and lectures he often came back to what was so particular to Sweden and Swedish education where he makes connections between the welfare state and an inclusive comprehensive school system. Here he also made claims for the role of the researchers’ ideological basis: 

Over some twenty years I have been involved in policy-oriented research related to school reforms. In recent years I have been conducted international surveys focusing on policy problems of cross-national relevance. Since 1945 social scientist in many countries, not least in Sweden, have increasingly been called upon to put their competences at the disposal of government commissions and agencies in studying social problems empirically. Studies of the quantitative, ’political-arithmetic’ type gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s and were to provide policy makers and planners with an extended knowledge base for their decisions. /…/ The over-all ideology which permeates this book could be labelled social liberalism in the tradition indicated above of commitment to the Welfare State.The emphasis is on individual self-realization within the framework of the common good and on social control exercised by the State that calls for the establishment of institutional checks aimed at preserving the common good. (Husén 1979, 4-5)   

Here is not the place to more fully describe also the work Husén did for the developing countries through the Institute of Educational Planning (IEEP) that he became chairman for in 1970, or how he to position an inclusive perspective on education when editing the massive and the influential International Encyclopaedia of Education in 1984 and 1995. These were two important channels for the dissemination of his social liberal ideals at a global level. 

Husén made a brand of himself but not least of the idea of comprehensive and inclusive schooling. Here the good reputation of Sweden as a middle way country, not socialistic not capitalistic but a mixture, seemingly was very helpful. Husén can, however, in many ways also be considered as good for Sweden. He invited many famous scholars to visit Sweden to give lectures and disseminate their knowledge on Swedish ground. He also managed in 1969 to move the IEA head office with its financial resources for a long period to Stockholm, Sweden. And not least, with him as the chairman of IEA, we can assume that their test was made valid to Swedish curriculum, assuring Sweden reaching good results.  When I worked at the National Agency for Education during the 1990s, we had several visits from abroad and they were often fascinated that the Swedish comprehensive school was at the same time so inclusive and informal, and still managed to produce good results at international assessments. This ended with the poor PISA scores in 2006 and onwards. 

Conclusions and reflections

To sum up, what is common traits in both of these stories? What can we extract from them about the role of researchers in the interplay between national and international policy movements?

Well, I would say that both stories illustrate the importance of individuals, with the capacity to use present ideas for own gaining but at the same time having the ambition to change the society. The stories illustrate the importance of the interplay between national regions and the international. We also learn that national and international training can intersect – Husén and Kamprad both learned a lot from abroad where they picked up international knowledge and experiences, but they also got a lot of practice through hard and tedious work back home. Further we learn that we can’t underestimate the importance of techniques – the flat pack of IKEA, and the factor analysis of IEA. Overall, we see that it is difficult to separate the international from the national when we try to understand societal and cultural movements.

In a time when internationalisation and globalisation dominates so many discourses and practices, where does this leave us as educational researchers? Which relationship, or responsibilities, do we have towards the national level? When retiring at the age of 65 Torsten Husén had over 900 publications. Most of them in Swedish and most in non-scholarly journals. He admits working close to the social democratic state apparatus, but in his memoirs also refrains from getting to close into relations with the government. It is important to uphold autonomy as researchers. Since the 60s and 70s Swedish educational research has in general taken a more critical path and close collaboration with the government has been rarer when it comes to school reforms. When it comes to for example the uses of large scale assessments this critical research does not get involved in how to interpret the results or make sound reforms of them. This distance position, regardless if it is motivated or not, makes educational research seemingly less interesting in public debate. 

In a recent study carried out by me and Margareta Serder we found that PISA was mentioned several hundred times a month in Swedish press 2017 (forthcoming), whereas educational research was mentioned one or two times even though a vast amount of peer reviewed papers were published during the same period. We also found that when scholarly comments on PISA results were requested, the journalists turned to economists and psychologists rather than educational scholars. 

So, what could be our role and how can we contribute to the understanding of the national and international relationship in policy making? 

I would say that we first of all need to reflect over our own situation and use these reflections in our analyses of educational policy. The demand on us, for example, to publish mainly in international journals makes writing of textbooks and public comments less attractive. This also goes for national and regional conferences.

I also think that we better need to make use of regional variations in understanding how international trends ‘hit’ a country. We would also need to dig deeper into local contextual factors, such as local politics, local governing, school structure, curriculum, classroom culture. It doesn’t help saying that PISA might have negative effects on education, we can go further and actually show how policy effects teaching and learning in various ways under various conditions.  

We need to make sure that we use our national insights well to problematise our understanding of international movements, and that we use our international experiences and knowledge to contribute wisely to national policy. 

  • This is originally a presentation held at ECER 2019, September 6 in Hamburg, at the MOOT: Education and the Return of the Nation: Nationalism in the era of Global Education Policies.


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