Yang, W. (2023) Multidimensional Perspective on Governing the Life Course through LLL

Author: Weishu Yang, PhD researcher, Doctoral programme of school, education, society and culture, University of Helsinki


We live in times when education governance is changing radically. Managing the future has become one of the main focuses in the global governance of education (Mertanen et. al., 2021). The governance of education with a view to the anticipated futures of society is a global phenomenon. Presentations about how the future education should look like are offered by national, supranational, public, and private policy agencies (Säntti et. al., 2021).

In Communication Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning (LLL) a Reality from 2001, the Commission of the European Communities (CEC) defined LLL as: “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective”. As its purpose, the Commission sees “personal fulfilment, active citizenship, social inclusion and employability/adaptability” . Since then, this definition of Lifelong Learning (LLL) has oriented a host of strategies and policies at European and national levels.

For young people, it offers—in principle—a complex conceptualization that is well in line with the many facets of growing up in Europe; that is, it fits well themultidimensionality of the life course. Despite this conceptual richness, more recently, LLL policymaking further specified a number “key competences for lifelong learning”—as agreed by the Council Recommendations of 22 May 2018, Council of the European Union—focusing more closely on specific functions and targeting particular groups of young people.

In general the life course, and the educational trajectories of young people in particular, comprise a high degree of complexity as they take place in iterative, recursive and interactive negotiation processes in which numerous actors, institutions and discourses are involved. In the article (Marcelo & Jenni, 2020), the complex relations among governance, discourses and structures of opportunity that impact the governing of the life course, particularly educational trajectories, are discussed.

An attempt is made to combine two conceptual discussions—Life Course and Governance—bringing them to bear on the examination of how LLL has been used to govern young people’s life courses. As will be argued, the combination of life course research and governance perspective enables the analysis of the governance of lifecourse along the discursive, institutional and relational dimensions, as well as of the social interactions, decision-making processes and processing mechanisms that precede and/or underlie educational processes and, thus, favor or complicate them. In a critical vein, the implications of viewing the life course from a governance perspective are also considered, in particular when local contexts are considered.

In concluding this section, the article questions the extent to which life course de-standardization processes have served as a governance occasion with LLL policies seen as an attempt to (re-)standardize and (re-)regulate the life course of young people. In a second section, the article shifts the analytical lens and offers a multilevel and multidimensional perspective on the governing of the life course. The contribution starts by introducing life course research and the governance perspective. It briefly presents the central features of both of these conceptual frameworks and deliberates on the added value of this combination.

Here, a discussion of three types of opportunity structures—institutional, discursive and relational—focuses on the main features impacting the governing of young people’s life courses across Europe. The article is rounded out with some concluding remarks and an outlook to open questions.

The rise of precision education

Mertanen et. al., are already witnessing a shift from education to learning and from knowledge-based to skill-and emotion-based behavioural governance (Brunila et al., 2019). This behavioural governance is filled with promises to provide individuals to reach their full economically driven potential and vitality.

These changes in education would be impossible without the marketisation, privatisation and commercialization of education alongside the strengthening transnational networks and new powerful partnerships and agendas influencing and transforming education. Particularly, The three ‘lines’ of changing education governance as following (Mertanen et. al., 2021)are in our interpretation parts of so-called ‘future-proofing’ education in response to predicted future.

global governance of education;

privatisation, marketisation, and digitalisation of education;

behavioural and life sciences in education

The management of the future calls for education that realises every individual’s potential in the changing world. The future-making of education promising this realisation of individuals’ potential can be characterised as precision education (Hart, 2016; Kuhl et al., 2019). Precision education is a rapidly emerging form of education, one in which education equals more efficient individually tailored and personalisedbehavioural management, optimisation, teaching and learning. By promising evidence-based, scientific, tailored and individualised learning, precision education can be seen as a universal solution to the perceived detriments and problems of ‘traditional’ schooling and education (Ideland et al., 2020; Williamson, 2019).

Precision education takes its inspiration from the key principles for precision medicine, in which the ambition is to find individualised treatment for illnesses tailored for patients’ behavioural, emotional, neurological, biological and genetic fabric (Hart, 2016). Thus, precision education can be defined by modifying the definition of precision medicine by Ferryman and Pitcan (Williamson, 2019) as an effort to collect, integrate and analyse multiple sources of genetic and nongenetic data, harnessing methods of big data analysis and machine learning, to develop insights about education, teaching and learning that are tailored to the individual.

Precision education thus answers calls for measurable and evidence-based education from IGOs such as the OECD, UNESCO, the ILO, the World Bank and the EU (see Dahler-Larsen, 2017). A good example of enabling and supporting precision education is the alliance of globally growing EdTech industry and behavioural and life sciences (Saltman, 2020; Williamson, 2020). Policies and practices derived from behavioural and life sciences have helped to legitimise scientific, behavioural, psychological, neurological and personalised management of children, young people and adults.

From precision education to precision education governance

The three lines combined with precision education form a starting point from which Mertanen et. al., are developing the conceptualisation of precision education governance (PEG). PEG is seen as a new way for conceptualising both the ongoing changes in education governance, and the future predictions, aspirations and hopes for education promoted by actors in global and local level. They suggested that these changes are not only a way of arranging education and individual behaviour, nor simply a way to ‘future-proof’ education. Rather, the rise of precision education is connected to the lines of education governance. As a form of governance, PEG refers simultaneously to the arrangement of governing in education policy and policy enactments, and to the rationalities, discourses and values circulating within these arrangements. Hence, PEG encapsulates the emerging dynamics between policy, practices, knowledge, agency and citizenship defining and exploring the options for the management in education.

PEG operates and articulates in global and local situations and this calls for understanding of assemblages defining new material, collective and discursive encounters and relationships (eg., Ong and Collier, 2008). Consisting of global, national and local network of educational institutions, governing bodies, private and public stakeholders, edu-tech bio-companies, NGOs, programmes, initiatives and projects, PEG both shapes and enables education assemblages.

The changes in both policy and knowledge production in education governance are connected to the careful and disseminating of behavioural and personalisedgovernance throughout these international, national and local assemblages. For example, in our two on-going research projects’ results, Mertanen et. al., have shown how the knowledge concerning young people’s education is circulated through various organisations and IGO’s, and how that knowledge becomes self-evident ‘truths’ in both national policy-making and everyday practises in youth education, counselling and guidance (Mertanen et al., 2020a, 2020b).

This knowledge and ‘best practises’ for youth education are circulated within these global assemblages, and they mainly derive from the fields of behavioural and life sciences. Knowledge especially from psychology and psychiatry has become the common denominator in education targeting young people, where the stress is on individualised guidance, promoting good self-esteem and nurturing a healthy and happy mindset.

Also, the prevalence and calls for precise recognition of individual young people is evident in both policies and practices of youth. In addition to policy-actors, various private and third sector organisations are entering the ‘markets’ for youth education in Finland by building various automated systems to detect young people in need for education, provide services for youth education and evaluate the effectiveness of education (Andersson et al., 2019). These developments are not unique to Finland, but they follow larger global trends where young people’s education is becoming more individualised, privatised, behaviourised and datafied than ever.

As illustrated in our previous results concerning youth education, the promise in PEG is an enhancement of the efficiency of education through individualisation and ‘precision’ through which it becomes possible to assess, control and calculate individuals’ learning, and thus shape human subjectivity as its outcome.

PEG promises a seemingly neutral framework and tools for comparing and analysingthe effectiveness of education, in which issues surrounding the various contexts can be resolved through developing better measurement (Mertanen et al.,). In other words, PEG promotes a very particular understanding of policy relevant and evidence-based knowledge, in which knowledge produced in randomised controlled trials is deemed as scientific, and other forms of knowledge are deemed as either subjective or toocontextual.

Thus, power in PEG is formed in the interactions between the parts of the assembled arrangements, in which some discourses as constitutive and normative forms of language gain the position of being ‘right’ and ‘sensible’, and some as ‘impossible’ or‘unrealistic’. The aim of mapping the ‘lines’ of policy assemblage is to show not only prevalent discourses and/or power relations but also to look at voids and discontinuities. In other words, following the ‘lines’ that run through assemblages enables us to see the processes de- and reassembling the assemblage without reducing the assemblage to a simple list.

Governance Perspective

Although no consensual definition prevails, governance may be best understood as an

analytical concept used to indicate important changes in the political field by shifting the perspective from actors to institutions. That is, it focuses on actions within frameworks and on forms of steering and regulation. This shift of perspective entails addressing issues of “government”, “management”, “coordination” and “regulation” among the various stakeholders, sectors and levels involved in non-hierarchical and network-like structures (Benz et al., 2007).

As such, the governance perspective allows a differentiated examination of policies by accounting for the intersections of policy sectors, policy field crossings, anddifferent modes of governance (Schuppert, 2011). Governance is understood, in the social sciences, for instance, as an interdisciplinary “bridging concept” (Schuppert, 2006). that links various academic discussions on forms of collective decision-making and implementation in political, legal and administrative sciences, in sociology, and more recently also in education science. Renate Mayntz refers to governance as comprising all forms in which public and private actors, separately or jointly, aim to produce common goods and services and solve collective problems.

“Governance means the sum of all concurrent forms of collective regulation of social issues: from the institutionalized self-regulation of the civil society, through the diverse forms of cooperation among state and private actors, up to the action of sovereign state agents.” (Mayntz, 2004). Governance research focuses on “mechanisms and strategies of coordination adopted in the face of complex reciprocal interdependence among operationally autonomous actors, organizations, and functional systems” (Jessop, 2004). Departing from issues such as steering, steering capacity and governability, Mayntz and Scharp focus on actor-centered institutionalism, meaning “how the interaction between micro- and meso-level actors and institutional factors shapes the possibilities of effective governance” (Jessop, 2011).

These ideas are a response to a changing understanding of statehood that, in turn, implies a change in forms of coordination of social actions and structures. Affected by these transformations is not only the coordination between different actors and sectors, but also within organizations. Therefore, as an analytical concept, governance puts the focus on structures and processes of regulation . The governance perspective helps us to address issues of coordination of action among the different agents within the state, the economy, the labor market, civil society, and not least young people. In short, governance offers us a conceptual instrument to understand the interactions of different actors at different levels and with different mandates, competences and with different degrees of leverage power at their disposal.

The following section discusses how changes in the life course are taken up as an occasion to intervene in the regulation of educational trajectories of young people.

Multidimensional Perspective on Governing the Life Course through LLL

This section synthesizes different discussions of the complex relations among governance, discourses and structures of opportunity that impact the governing of the life course in general and educational trajectories in particular. It suggests that the combination of life course research and a governance perspective enables the analysis of the governance of educational trajectories along discursive, institutional and relational dimensions of opportunity structures (Parreira & Jenni, 2022).

Opportunity structures represent collective and individual responses to situations facing us. In short, our responses to these situations are fundamentally framed by the kinds of opportunities for thought or action that we have at our disposal, the range of both construals and constructions of the nature of the problem/issue we are facing, and the scope and types of responses from which we might select (Parreira, 2019). The next paragraphs discuss discursive, institutional and relational types of opportunity structures.

Discursive Opportunity Structures

Discursive Opportunity Structures (DOSs) may be seen as setting the boundaries of“the political-cultural or symbolic opportunities that determine what kind of ideas become visible for the public, resonate with public opinion and are held to be ‘legitimate’ by the audience” (Kriesi, 2008). DOSs set limits on how we may describe and understand particular situations, texts, experiences and such. They may be viewed as a set of meanings, rules and practices, and they are manifest in language use that orients the social construction of political and social relations and institutions as well as cultural identities, which has practical consequences for the social world (Parreira, 2015). At the European level, DOSs can be seen as functioning as the common discursive “context of contexts” (Brenner et al., 2010). For instance, in the field of education, it has become difficult to justify any education policy without some reference to the Knowledge-Based Economy.

LLL or New Public Management (Jessop et al., 2008; Verger & Curran, 2014). It is amidst these global hegemonic discourses that most current education policy options originate and are discussed anchored largely in arguments around the need to develop more effective and efficient education systems and enhanced human capital, which will allow European societies to keep pace with the “quantum shift resulting from globalization and the challenges of a new knowledge-driven economy” .

As Parreira do Amaral and Rinne (Parreira, 2015) argue, the impact of these common discourses is that governance reforms have been attempted, which aimed, though to differing degrees and with different foci, to optimize the coordination and the outputs of education, thus, better preparing pupils for a putative knowledge-based economy through lifelong learning. Of course, these discourses play out substantially differently at the national and subnational levels; indeed, these differences can change the meaning of the discourses themselves.

Nevertheless, in terms of DOSs, these discourses fundamentally set the limits to what the aims and objectives of national policies could be. To be sure, these discourses do not determine policies, but they do set common limitations on their stated purposes and objectives providing powerful DOSs that operate proscriptively and on a basis of exclusion rather than inclusion, that is, to rule out policies that do not conform to the LLL discourse instead of prescribing particular policies. Though these policies may be contested at national and other levels, the contestation takes place within the opportunity structure provided by the discourse itself, rather than providing alternatives. While national variations may be substantial and lead to rather different conceptions, framings and implementations affecting access, coping and relevance of education, these variations remain broadly within the common discursive opportunity structure.

Institutional Opportunity Structures

Institutional Opportunity Structures (IOSs) impact the governance of educational trajectories and transitions by intervening in the structures, policies and practices that frame a specific education system. These complex and multi-layered features limit, but do not completely control or shape, current or future policies and practices (Dale; Parreira, 2015). IOSs entail deeply ingrained and characteristically implicit conceptions about how education systems are set up, the functions they are deemed to fulfil and how they are “work” and how they get things done, that is, the set of structures and rules through which the system is organized. Suchinstitutional/organizational frameworks powerfully channel and frame what it is possible to achieve in and through education systems.

The purposes, forms, structures and procedures of national educational administrations set fundamental limits to states’ capacity to shape policy and set limits to what could or should be done. Abundant evidence of this can be found in the varying regulations of entry, progression and further destinations in primary and secondary schools, but also to higher education, across countries, and in the different degrees of selectivity they offer, as mentioned above (Tikkanen et al., 2016). Here, we might also notice that the IOSs also modify the broader DOSs in particular ways, most especially as it reflects and embeds conceptions of the nation(al) as it is expressed through arrangements for formal education. They also help us understandhow arrangements at local level play out, for instance, whether or not a particular type of school is available or not.

In terms of common IOSs, research has clustered countries according to the different regulations and institutional/organizational frameworks that frame educational trajectories and “that provide varying levels of access (and accessibility) and display differing degrees of selectivity:

_ high-level comprehensive systems (FI, SI) where organizational differentiation and degree of selectivity is low and no transitions in compulsory education exist;

_ low-level-differentiated systems (UK, IT, PL), where there is a medium degree of organizational differentiation, a low degree of selectivity and the existing transitions are ‘smoother’ compared to those in:

_ high-level differentiated systems (FR, DE, NL), where there is a substantial organizational differentiation, a medium to high degree of selectivity and transitions exist which represent a medium to high threshold from one education level to the next (Biggart et al, 2015).”

Although such classifications do not hold for, or explain, all characteristics of education systems, they do serve as a useful heuristic device for the distinction of different degrees of selectivity in the education systems. Further, they help “to highlight systems with more inbuilt transition points which, at least in principle, bear the potential to produce frictions related to access and inequality issues”. In sum, IOSs offer insights in understanding the governance of life courses at morestructural/institutional/organizational levels.

Relational Opportunity Structures

According to the opportunity structure theory (Parreira, 2019), the interaction between structuring agents, such as family background, education and the labor market, creates blueprints or career routes within which different groups of young people are required to make their career choices while adjusting themselves to the opportunities available for them. Thus, these structuring agents frame the configuration of—selective and unevenly distributed— possibilities and constraints for thought and action of young people constructing their life courses by producing discursive and institutional opportunity structures (Dale; Parreira, 2015).

However, there is an ongoing debate (e.g. Atkins, 2017), which problematizes the limitations of focusing only on DOSs and IOSs and criticizes the opportunity structure theory’s view that, in life course transitions from education to the labor market, individual agency operates ultimately within pre-determined material and cultural possibilities, and that, while exercising their agency, young people tend to adapt their aspirations to pre-built pathways and trajectories consolidating them. Benasso and colleagues (Benasso et al., 2022) highlight the value of this line of criticism as it emphasizes the importance of considering the interactions between opportunity structures and individuals as a less rigid and pre-determined process, and calls for acknowledging the nuances of agency in life course construction by takinginto account how macro-level processes, such as globalization and family changes, are filtered through the meso-level of national and local institutions to the micro-level, where they interact with individual agency.

In their theoretical elaboration of opportunity structures and particularly the relationship of structure and agency within them, Dale and Parreira do Amaral (Dale; Parreira, 2015). argue that while discursive and institutional opportunity structures frame young people’s life course possibilities, they do not rule out the existence of alternative legitimate courses of action or competing framings. Following this line of thinking, a concept of relational opportunity structures (ROSs) has been introduced (Benasso et al., 2022), adding a third dimension to the opportunity structure theory that enables further reflection and investigation of a individuals’ relationality,interaction, negotiation and adaptation in the context of opportunity structures. Thus,it highlights the structure of interactions whereby people negotiate what opportunities they choose, aspire to, reject or do not perceive as opportunities at all. By doing so, the concept of ROSs “helps emphasizing the active character of the subject, whereas discursive and institutional opportunity structures mainly look at structuring agents and their impact on individuals’ possibilities of choice” (Benasso et al., 2022). Thus, ROSs complement the more established approaches of the discursive and institutional opportunity structures as it enables analyzing the consequences of individuals’ different interaction patterns in their structural and discursive contexts. The perspective of ROSs sheds light on the relevance of the processes of negotiation of individual aims, strategies, and solutions—in other words, the link between the formation of the “lists of possibilities” and the choices made by individuals within them. The argument is that, while relationality and interaction take place within the frame set by IOSs and DOSs, their results are not necessarily pre-determined in the strict reproduction of rules and ideas as also negotiations, flexible adaption, selective appropriation of meanings and even construction of alternative pathways are possible for individuals who are able to exercise their agency to build and foster micro-level relations with relevant, often street-level, actors in their key institutional and policy contexts(Benasso et al., 2022).

According to Benasso and colleagues (Benasso et al., 2022), the unfolding of relational opportunity structures includes a range of outcomes. At the level of structures, outcomes may include a selection of a course of action within the list of possibilities, an exclusion of some options, and a creative opening of new opportunities; they can reproduce but also modify previous institutional and discursive opportunity structures. ROSs impact the amount and nature of opportunities achievable by individuals often by broadening them. Therefore, at thelevel of the subject, outcomes may include consequences of choices on the individual life course and impacts on identity construction. Indeed, research has shown the importance of the ROSs as the construction of positive relations with actors participating in a given field can aid the individuals to question or even overcome structural rigidities or the limits reinforced at cultural level and, thus, foster individuals’ self-reflexivity, self-confidence, and life-plan revision.

Recent research on young adults’ participation in different LLL policies across Europe (Pandolfini et al., 2022) has shown the relevance of exactly this kind of relational dimension of opportunity structures to young people’s life course construction in the context of a range of policy interventions developed to tackle the challenges they face in their transition to adulthood, particularly through education into the labor market. These studies shed light on the importance of the above-mentioned micro-level relations some young people are able to actively form with relevant street-level professionals or other key policy actors to widen the scope of available opportunities, thus introducing changes in the range of “visible” opportunities shaped by the discursive and institutional opportunity structures (Parreira et al., 2022). For instance, some young adults are able to customize policy offerings and find individualized leeway even in rather rigid and pre-determined LLLpolicy contexts through positive relationships that they foster with policy actors, which is something potentially very impactful for their life course construction, but which would go unaccounted for by acknowledging only the discursive and institutional opportunity structure dimensions. Furthermore, for some young people, the interactions in the context of ROSs provide them, through the relations, with more access to “informal”, network-based sources of information and, thus, enable them to expand their aspirations and consider a wider set of options for the future. In short, this line of research has shown that “different relations contribute both to bridging the gap between structure and individuals’ choice, therefore impacting the institutionaland discursive opportunity structures faced by youths in their contexts, and to creatingmore room for their agentic capacity” (Benasso et al., 2022).


The article set out to discuss a governance perspective on the life course. It presented briefly the central features of both conceptual frameworks and deliberated on the added value of this combination. The article also offered a multilevel and multidimensional perspective on the governing of the life course by discussing three types of opportunity structures—institutional, discursive and relational. Furthermore, it asked to what extent life course de-standardization processes have served as a governance occasion with LLL policies seen as a policy attempt to (re-)standardize and (re-)regulate the life course of young people. Beyond academic debates about whether changes in life course amount to societal processes of de-standardization or pertain to a differentiation of life courses, it was argued that, from a governance perspective, these are seen as an occasion for intervention, in particular on those groups defined and targeted as “vulnerable”.


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