Questioning the rhetoric: A critical analysis of intergovernmental organisations’ entrepreneurship education policy

Introduction

This study aims to develop a better understanding of how two major actors in global education governance and key intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) – the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – are advocating for entrepreneurship education (EE) (see also Grek, 2014). While IGOs began promoting EE in the late 1980s, the topic gained prominence in many countries’ school curricula mainly in the last years (Morselli, 2018; Ruskovaara et al., 2016; Yemini et al., 2019). Significant resources are being invested in developing, implementing and assessing the effects of EE at the global, national and regional levels. National and regional governments apply customised ways of addressing EE in their educational systems (e.g. Oldham, 2018). However, they tend to rely on recommendations advocated by IGOs (Grek, 2014). Hence, an understanding of how IGOs articulate these policies is critical.

In this study inspired by the work of Foucault (e.g. Foucault, 1995[1977], 2000) and Fairclough (2001) we analyse the discourse on EE taking place within the EU and the OECD as reflected in formal documents that these IGOs released during the past five years. Both these organisations propose EE as a solution to various challenges that they argue their member states are facing, and have developed and advocated solid policies promoting EE. Markedly, the OECD and the EU both compete and cooperate with each other; hence, they develop and promote some of these policies jointly, and others through independent, competing discourses (Barnett and Finnemore, 2005). Moreover, although their stated goals, structure and modes of governance differ, in recent years both the EU and the OECD have expanded and intensified their involvement in shaping education policies in general (Grek, 2014) and EE in particular. In this paper we compare these organisations’ approaches towards EE, examining how despite their diverse initial areas of focus and modes of governance, the two converged around the same policy of encouraging an entrepreneurial focus within education. Specifically, we address the following research questions: How do the EU and the OECD discursively justify and shape the concept of EE? How are their respective discourses characterised? What are the similarities and differences between the EU and OECD in shaping the discourse on EE?

Such inquiry is critical especially in light of the resources that national and regional governments channel into developing EE and assessing its impact. A critical analysis of the discourses and practices proposed for the implementation of EE contributes to understanding the underlying variety of conceptions of education, as well as the ideologies, ambivalence and concerns reflected therein.

As Oldham (2018) and others have argued, EE has become increasingly important in education systems worldwide. Yet critical research is still lacking, as the ‘overwhelmingly majority of existing research is concerned with enhancing the practices of EE’, ignoring the ‘ideological implications’ of the concept (Oldham, 2018: 87). Even the OECD itself stresses that research about EE is scarce: ‘Almost no research has been conducted using a wider definition of entrepreneurship, or the potentially resulting student engagement and societal value creation’ (OECD, 2015a: 19). While promotion of EE is not a new phenomenon, and a number of studies have analysed it on the country level, this article is the first to show how EE policies are being orchestrated simultaneously by the EU and OECD at the global level, highlighting the roles designed for teachers and students in this context.

Theoretical orientation

In this section we provide some background information on the origins and meanings of entrepreneurship and EE, critically tracing EE’s expansion within education. Next, we briefly discuss the theoretical conceptualisation of the role of IGOs in shaping national education policies, before moving on to present the specific context of our study.

Conceptual background on entrepreneurship

The concept of entrepreneurship originated in the business world. No consensual definition of entrepreneurship exists, but most definitions involve elements of innovating, identifying and exploiting opportunities, and establishing a new business or organisation (Miller, 1983; Pozen, 2008; Shane and Venkataraman, 2000). Although the term ‘entrepreneurship’ is hundreds of years old, stemming from economics, entrepreneurship as a distinct field of knowledge emerged only recently (Shane and Venkataraman, 2000). Previously, entrepreneurship was described mainly through the notion of the entrepreneur – a person who conceives of and executes a new business – which made it difficult to study the phenomenon as a whole. Studies have dealt with the character of the entrepreneur as pioneering, charismatic, stubborn, creative and an innovative problem-solver who takes risks and aspires to high achievements (Miller, 1983; Pozen, 2008). Attention has been dedicated to the nature of the entrepreneur’s thought and strategic activity, addressing the environment in which the act of entrepreneurship takes place and the surrounding actors that might play a role in this process (Alvarez and Busenitz, 2001). Entrepreneurs are often described as the major drivers of modern economies, and governments invest substantial funds to encourage entrepreneurship in a quest to boost national economies. Oldham (2017: 93) suggested that the ‘notion that private enterprise is responsible for “wealth creation” was used regularly to justify deregulation and privatisation during the 1980s’, followed by the call to encourage entrepreneurship.

Understanding the growth and evolvement of EE requires contextual reflection on the theoretical development of entrepreneurship as a whole. Previous research on EE has stressed that theories about entrepreneurship are rooted in the capitalist economic discourse (e.g. Pozen, 2008). Before academic interest turned to entrepreneurship in full force, entrepreneurial activity had increased greatly (Pozen, 2008). Indeed, the concept of entrepreneurship expanded from its initial grounding in the business realm and spread across different realms (e.g. social, policy and educational entrepreneurship) and settings. The concept has come to engulf the individual entrepreneur, the entrepreneurship of a small business or a non-profit organisation, and an individual or group working in an entrepreneurial manner within a big corporation (Pozen, 2008).

Entrepreneurship education

In the present study, we deal with EE as the process of imparting entrepreneurial skills to students on the broadest educational continuum, in ways that involve both theoretical knowledge and actual practice. The skills included in EE comprise (among others) negotiation, information technology (IT) skills, flexibility of thought, resilience, creativity and leadership skills (Matricano, 2014; Mendick et al., 2015). In this study, we follow Pittaway and Cope’s (2007) definition of EE as spanning diverse areas such as policy, higher education, school curricula, extracurricular programmes, training, management and organisational issues.

Education systems have offered EE for decades already; however, this field has undergone tremendous developments over time, from its roots in higher education (especially in management and business administration departments) to its current presence also in primary schools and even in preschools (Matlay, 2006), as discussed below. Notably, any discussion of EE touches on the age-old debate regarding whether entrepreneurship is an aggregate of innate traits or can be taught (Henry et al., 2005; Matlay, 2006). The premise of this research, as well as of policymakers in this area, is that most of the skills required for an entrepreneur or characterising entrepreneurial thinking can be taught and imparted.

The interest in EE began in the post-World War II period and intensified with the growing political focus on establishing businesses as a way to create new jobs and spur economic growth. The first documented course in entrepreneurship was offered at Harvard University’s Department of Business Administration in 1947 (Katz, 2003). Over the following decades, thousands of courses and hundreds of academic centres for entrepreneurship studies and training programmes opened worldwide. The expansion of the field was exponential, fuelled by support from governments and IGOs and by the public image of entrepreneurs as modern society’s role models (Bosma et al., 2012). Universities took on an active role in nurturing the image of the ideal entrepreneur who takes responsibility for his/her life, fate and fortune; lives a satisfying life; and contributes to the economic well-being of the nation (Lackéus, 2017). Slowly, EE started to penetrate disciplines other than business at universities and then primary and secondary school curricula.

In the early 2000s, to cope with a decline in economic growth, the EU launched the Lisbon Strategy,1 which identified EE as one of the solutions to the challenges of globalisation and the transition to a knowledge economy (European Parliament, 2000).2 Since then, universities have established entrepreneurship programmes that combine more than one discipline and extend beyond the boundaries of business and economics. This development expresses the general acceptance of entrepreneurship as a discipline and a transdisciplinary skill-set. Reflecting this approach, many universities worldwide offer entrepreneurship programmes in design, engineering and humanities (Kuratko, 2005).

Moreover, as noted above, the discipline has penetrated into school systems and is taught to young children (Draycott and Rae, 2011; Heilbrunn and Almor, 2014; Sukarieh and Tannock, 2009). Programmes advancing education for entrepreneurship at a young age are being instituted on the premise that they promote an entrepreneurial mind-set among children and generate curiosity about entrepreneurship as the students mature (Hessi, 2016). Such programmes’ proponents also argue that entrepreneurship education from an early age improves children’s chances of developing their own business or securing better employment opportunities later in life (Obschonka et al., 2011).

A critical look at education for entrepreneurship

In 2010, the OECD noted the need to introduce to its educational assessment processes (the most prominent of which is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test) a measurement of characteristics related to innovation and entrepreneurship. This decision expresses a key trend in the OECD in recent years; namely, a technical and analytical view of complex issues such as education in general, and, specifically, the desire to quantify and rank countries’ human capital (Auld and Morris, 2019; Sellar and Lingard, 2014).

Indeed, the emerging discourse surrounding education for entrepreneurship focuses on the ability of countries and individuals to compete in the global knowledge economy. From this perspective, the EE skills required to nurture human capital and ‘win’ global competition can be quantified, measured and internationally compared (Hanushek and Woessmann, 2012; Morris, 2016). This narrative of entrepreneurialism and resilience has often been related to an expression of free market values, which favour a model of a ‘lean’ state with minimal intervention that emphasises the market and individual responsibility (Auld and Morris, 2019; Sukarieh and Tannock, 2009). Through this prism, individuals’ freedom of choice and ability to exploit their skills optimally improve both individual and social welfare. As such, EE became especially relevant for advocates of neoliberal governance (Oldham, 2017, 2018).

Critics, however, see this notion as a way for the state to shed most of its responsibility and pass it on to organisations that seek to implement their own agenda or to maximise profits and promote economic, commercial values over humanistic, democratic ones (Lackéus, 2017; Patrick, 2013). Scholars have argued that neoliberalism penetrated politics, society and education through the involvement of IGOs (Lawn and Lingard, 2002; Rowe et al., 2018; Springer et al., 2016). Hence, an economic discourse entered the field of education that refers to education as an item for consumption offered by the school as a service provider to clients (students and their parents). Of course, this mode of governance is not promoted solely by IGOs, but rather is being shaped and reshaped in a complex set of interactions between the IGOs, nation states and other stakeholders. One example of this capitalist conception of education is reflected in the introduction to schools of external programmes offered by for-profit providers and firms, in addition to foundations and non-governmental agencies (Molnar, 2006; Tannock, 2020). The neoliberal approach is also reflected in the increasing pressures to measure, rate and publish school achievements in various areas, so as to compare within and between countries; parents’ ability to choose their children’s school; and the introduction of parental payments at public schools to provide children with ‘services’ beyond the ‘basic package’ that schooling guarantees by law (Ball, 2012b).

Through this prism, individuals strive to improve their individual happiness through economic success, and entrepreneurial skills are supposed to contribute to their ability to do so (Lackéus, 2017). EE is supposed to benefit all by supporting individual rational interests. Yet this orientation might create an excuse to blame those students with poor background conditions or meagre social capital for failing if they do not perform as well as others in school, despite seemingly having been given tools to succeed. Hence, teachers and educators warn of the perpetuation of (or even mere increase in) inequality due to education for entrepreneurship (Yemini, 2018). The concern is that through EE, capitalist norms may penetrate the educational system at the expense of humanist ones (Lackéus, 2017).

Yet beyond issues of distributive justice, the key criticism of EE questions the ability of education for entrepreneurship to influence individual employment opportunities and market growth truly and directly (Kolleck, 2016). Critics question the effectiveness of EE in school curricula and argue that the aspiration to boost economic growth would be better served by focusing on establishing new companies and introducing innovation into existing ones, as well as on improving education levels in general, rather than necessarily stressing EE specifically (Eyal and Yosef-Hassidim, 2012; Hoppe, 2016).

IGOs as global norm setters

Notably, states have become less independent in determining their own education policies in recent years. Instead, they are increasingly influenced by IGOs, which govern policy design and policymaking (Dale, 2000; Gulson et al., 2017; Kleibrink, 2011; Rinne, 2008). For example, despite the declared EU policy that education remains under the independent control of member states, a large number of education policies are no longer formulated by national governments (Lawn and Lingard, 2002). The ‘soft power’ over member states exerted by the EU is exemplified in lifelong learning policies (Kleibrink, 2011) and the Bologna Process (Brøgger, 2016), both of which involved tremendous voluntary reforms in the structure and function of national education systems facilitated by the EU. That said, nation states do maintain considerable autonomy. Moreover, the influences of the EU and other IGOs on nation states are not linear, but rather complex and multidimensional.

Most fundamentally, states reform their education systems to conform with universal, de-contextualised standards that IGOs advocate in reliance on intra-regional and international comparisons, based on sets of indicators they develop. ‘Policy-borrowing’ acts, whereby states import policies implemented elsewhere to enact in local settings, are generally motivated by the continued movement of global capitalism. Such practices often sacrifice inquiry into countries’ specific context and unique characteristics or even take place contrary to states’ own interests (Rinne, 2008; Rizvi and Lingard, 2000; Steiner Khamsi, 2004).

The EU, OECD, World Bank and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) enable countries to ‘borrow’ education policy from one another by creating meetings between policymakers, using the press to advocate certain worldviews, and employing rankings and large-data comparisons to impose proposed solutions for existing problems (Grey and Morris, 2018; Steiner-Khamsi, 2004; Williamson, 2017). Through such ‘borrowing’, IGOs encourage standardisation – producing indices, mappings, ratings and criteria that apply to all member states – that can undermine states’ influence in setting their own indicators and targets (Rinne, 2008). States’ loss of power, alongside the more substantial role played by non-state actors (e.g. corporations) and large IGOs, is an expression of the neoliberal approach that prioritises market welfare over state or individual interests (Rizvi and Lingard, 2000). Furthermore, state autonomy is being lost not only from above (facilitated by IGOs) but also from below, through privatisation that enables external actors to enter the education system. Indeed, these external actors are often the ones responsible for bringing EE to schools (Yemini et al., 2018). Many studies have covered the role of IGOs in educational agenda-setting; yet despite EE’s high prominence in schools, it has not yet been explored in this regard. This study contributes towards filling in this gap by inquiring into the policy documents of leading IGOs with the aim of elucidating how they present and promote EE.

Methods

Qualitative sampling and data collection

Our initial aim in this study was to identify and analyse formal policy documents produced by major IGOs that directly concern EE. We began by including four major organisations that are actively involved in education and are claimed to have substantial influence over national education agenda setting; namely, the EU, OECD, World Bank and UNESCO (Grek, 2014; Rutkowski, 2007). However, our searches revealed no formal, consistent treatment of EE within UNESCO documents (which addressed EE only in the context of local partnerships) or World Bank documents (which made no direct mention of EE). Thus, we focused on the OECD and the EU, contributing to the literature that compares various education policies advocated by OECD and EU (e.g. Grek, 2014; Martens and Wolf, 2009).

Hence, we identified and analysed all major policy documents published by the OECD and the EU between the years 2012 and 2018 that focus mainly on EE (see Table 1). These policy documents reflect the formal voice of IGOs regarding EE. As such, they not only provide formalities and regulations (such as budgets and time-tables for execution of agendas), but also reveal some of the organisational values and priorities of these IGOs.

Table 1. European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) entrepreneurship education documents included in the analyses.

Table 1. European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) entrepreneurship education documents included in the analyses.

Three of the 10 policy documents we analysed were published jointly by the OECD and the EU, as part of their ‘Entrepreneurship360’ initiative. However, although this publication was declared as a mutual venture, we treated it in our analyses as relating to the OECD only. We categorised it as such because it appeared only on the OECD’s website, its opening disclaimer mentions only the OECD, and its visual language is branded as OECD documents are – its colours and graphics match those of other OECD policy documents, in contrast to EU documents that are very formal and lack visual elements. In addition, we analysed one general OECD document that was not directly focused on EE; namely, the new OECD education strategy: ‘The future of education and skills: Education 2030 position paper’ (OECD, 2018), since this document presents the organisation’s general vision on the future of education.

We analysed six EU documents. Five of these solely deal with EE, whereas one is a general EU education policy document. The latter is titled ‘A new skills agenda for Europe’ (European Commission, 2016) and dedicates substantial attention to EE.

Data analysis

In our analysis, we applied constructivist grounded theory (CGT) as developed by Charmaz (2006) combined with elements of discourse analysis (DA) according to further critical elaborations of the later work of Foucault (e.g. (Foucault, 1995[1977]; 2000)) and Fairclough (2001). In this regard, one might argue that the two approaches chosen have strong theoretical, ontological and epistemological differences and even involve fundamental epistemological contradictions.3 Indeed, older concepts of grounded theory (GT) in particular have often been associated with post-positivism, assuming that knowledge or even ‘truth’ can be found in data alone. DA, on the other hand, is usually associated with more critical analyses and is sometimes classified as a post-structuralist approach (see e.g. Ball, 2012a). In recent years, however, scientists have made fundamental contributions that have further developed GT, so that combinations of elements of DA with GT are now common (see e.g. Charmaz, 2014; Clarke, 2003; Clarke et al., 2017).

One example is the classical situation analysis conducted by Adele Clarke (2003), in which she confronts GT with the postmodern turn, thus providing an extension of GT by merging Strauss’s elaborations with critical DA (Clarke et al., 2017), while focusing on the interpretation of specific situations (Clarke et al., 2017: xxvi).

Hence, in our study, CGT and DA are both subjectively positioned. While CGT is based on the assumption of a socially constructed nature of phenomena, DA adopts critical considerations of practices of power (Johnson, 2014). From this perspective, CGT can be regarded as a postmodern turn of GT, originally developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and later substantiated and concretised by Corbin and Strauss (1990), who began reconceptualising the methodology through a relativist ontology and subjectivist epistemology (Kassam et al., 2020). In doing so, the authors initiated a process of methodological development, loosening GT’s positivist original roots and moving it towards an imperative inquiry arena while preserving its pragmatic worldview (Charmaz, 2006). Therefore, our choice of CGT to analyse and interpret policy rests on our identification as researchers with Charmaz’s assumptions about the social construction of knowledge from a relativist ontology and a position of subjective epistemology. In so doing, we follow an emerging trend of using CGT for critical policy analysis. This method was already applied in studies covering fields such as health policy and digital mental health (Mills et al., 2006), vulnerable populations (Kassam et al., 2020), accountability in education (Khanal, 2018) and the UK’s old-age health policy (McGeorge, 2011).

The DA we employed builds on the work of Fairclough (2001) and its further elaborations by others (e.g. Kolleck, 2019; Lukes, 2005; Taylor, 2004). We understand discourses as the entity of signs, announcements and statements that refer to a system of formation. In this sense, discourses result from regularities of discursive formations or fields of knowledge (Foucault, 1971). These notions provide us with techniques that help to analyse how complex normative concepts (such as education) are understood, and how actors try to shape these concepts (Taylor, 2004). Applying this stream of DA allowed us to concentrate on the expressions of the text being ideologically shaped by relations of power (Fairclough, 2001). By combining CGT and DA in the data collection and analysis of our study, we applied an iterative, flexible approach marked by self- and peer-reflection.

Initially, the data was openly coded, meaning that it was examined qualitatively without using codes with the aim to identify individual phenomena and subjective perspectives in the data. We followed the principles of inductive CGT (Charmaz, 2006, 2014); that is to say, we read all the texts multiple times and carefully coded sentence-by-sentence, labelling and conceptualising recurring patterns of meaning without imposing any interpretation on it (Charmaz, 2006). At a later stage, we continued by employing a focused coding, allowing us as researchers to interact with the data and elicit its meaning by connecting patterns and creating categories. This process was performed for each document, each organisation, and in the end in comparison between the two organisations. To get a profound understanding of the materials, we read and coded the documents several times, using a shared Excel sheet, adding and amending codes according to a different analytical aim in each reading.

Findings gathered in this first analysis step were re-analysed using the technique of axial coding, which helped us advance them from categories to themes (Saldaña, 2009). As suggested by Søreide (2007), during the first couple of readings of policy documents they are seen as impenetrable and it is only through further readings and coding that meanings emerge. Based on CGT and DA, the emergence of meaning is not an objective one, passively revealing itself from the data; rather, it is actively created by the researcher’s interpretation and comparison process (Mills et al., 2006). In the final coding stage, the theoretical coding, we integrated all findings from past coding stages, interpreting relations and proceeding to create an analytical story with a theoretical direction (Charmaz, 2006: 2014). This stage overlapped with DA and included critical considerations of the modes of communication for each of the organisations, applying DA concepts (e.g. storylines, as explained below). Furthermore, we actively sought out omissions of stakeholders, rationales and ideas as presented in each set of documents (Braun and Clarke, 2006). The two IGOs’ understandings of EE became evident over the course of this coding process.

In the following sections, we present results of our analysis along three discourse dimensions:

  1. Storylines, which ‘connect discursive elements, characterize discourses, and give meaning to social phenomena’ (Kolleck, 2017: 5). Hence, with this concept we can also analyse how actors are interlinked though shared storylines (and build discourse coalitions): ‘Analysing discourse coalitions and storylines can bring to light how discursive complexities are reduced by constructing issues as “impossible,” thereby revealing the ideas and norms that discourses are based on (Kolleck, 2017: 10). Storylines relate how the IGOs build and develop a narrative to position themselves in relevant discourse coalitions and identify the notions and constructions of truth or possibilities they wish to promote (Anshelm and Hansson, 2014; Hewitt, 2009). These storylines emerged in inductive analysis of the documents.

  2. Communication strategies are the way the storylines are framed so as to convince the reader of the story’s authenticity.

  3. Omissions are oversights: the lack of mention or discussion of a specific topic or actors, which we claim to be meaningful. Our ‘reading’ of textual absences is inspired by the deconstructive approach, originating from Derrida. By identifying the missing actors or neglected subjects, we offer an alternative reading and significance of the text (Mumby and Stohl, 1991).

In the following section, we present the storylines, communication strategies and omissions for each of the IGOs and then conclude with a general discussion.

Conclusion

In this article, we have analysed major policy documents produced by the EU and OECD dealing with EE. These documents present EE as a key policy solution to contemporary ills, which member states are urged to implement in the quest of achieving or sustaining economic and social prosperity.

Our analysis revealed the two IGOs’ similar agenda of taking part in (or even leading) ‘discourse coalitions’ (Hewitt, 2009). Yet despite the comparable solutions they offer, the OECD and the EU use slightly different wordings and divergent emphases; both reinforce an economically oriented discourse, but they create different organisational images. Specifically, the OECD seems younger, more updated and universal, while the EU generates a formal, national and competitive self-image. Both agencies seek to convince states to implement EE as a major solution for a long list of diverse and distinct problems. We relate to the EU and OECD advocacy of EE policy as a discursive practice aimed at conveying a certain realm. Hence, we sought to reveal the particular strategies that allow policy documents to be read without being challenged, understood as unproblematic and as offering statements whose validity can be taken for granted.

While several critical academic studies examined the neoliberal notions espoused by the OECD and to some extent the EU (e.g. Fischman et al., 2019; Grek, 2017), these IGOs’ turn towards advocating EE represents a relatively unexplored and significant development in this field. Grek (2014) noted these two organisations’ convergence of policies (which intensified with the EU and OECD’s joint initiative, Entrepreneurship360) and its effect on national education systems. Here, we illuminate some of the nuances of this process by projecting the rhetoric involved and highlighting how similar solutions can be legitimised differently, in light of differing target audiences, organisational structures, rhetorical structures and constraints.

As Oldham (2018) and others have argued, EE has become increasingly important in education systems worldwide. While critical research remains lacking, the ‘overwhelmingly majority of existing research is concerned with enhancing the practices of EE’, ignoring the ‘ideological implications’ of the concept. Indeed, even the OECD stresses that research about EE is scarce: ‘Almost no research has been conducted using a wider definition of entrepreneurship, or the potentially resulting student engagement and societal value creation’ (2015a: 19).

While previous studies have highlighted different ways in which IGOs and nation states promote neoliberal governance through education systems (Fischman et al., 2019; Grek, 2017; Lackéus, 2017; Oldham, 2018), we contribute several novel insights. First, beyond showing that the EU and OECD are orchestrating an EE agenda simultaneously, we offer a nuanced analysis of how this is done in practice. Thus, we underscore the roles designed for teachers and students in this context, as well as the assumptions made about who the students are and what the teachers’ attitudes, stereotypically, tend to be. While these IGOs have promoted EE for years, their action-focused involvement in EE policies has intensified recently, making such communications more potent. Second, we contribute to the contemporary discourse on the meanings of EE and show how various agencies promote their different interpretations. Lastly, while previous studies analysed EE at the national level (Bergman et al., 2011; Oldham, 2017, 2018) or within an organisation (Sukarieh and Tannock, 2009), we offer a novel comparative analysis of IGOs’ policies in that regard, thus helping to sharpen the ‘big picture’ and assisting future studies that might delve further into the particular situations within specific nations or organisations.

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