Neoliberalism and the commercialization of higher education

Cuts in spending and the replacement of academic staff by technology are not the only pressures faced by British academia. Increasingly, education is fashioning students into a productive labor force rather than teaching them more traditional academic ideals.

Last year’s plans to raise tuition fees in Britain to a maximum of £9000, $13,731 at today’s exchange rate, were coterminous with cuts of £2 billion in funding for education. Universities’ lack of funding caused them to compensate for lost income by hiking up tuition fees. This is perceived as disastrous for Britain’s progression up the global league tables, which, conducted by the Times educational supplement, rank universities by teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. With increasing competition from universities around the world, the UK’s University and College Union warns that Britain is at risk of being left behind.

The neoliberal turn to privatization and the commercialization of education is an area of concern for British universities. Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has been expressing itself in university syllabi. Abandoning previous values of critical-thinking and challenging basic assumptions, the focus leans towards teaching vaguely defined “skills” such as “teamwork,” “communication” and “leadership.”

Such effects are evident in the recently “enhanced” course guides at the London School of Economics (LSE). The LSE is a private university that specializes in the social sciences and ranks third in the university league tables for the UK. The university’s new course guides include ‘skills’-sets that lecturers have to tick off as they incorporate them into their lessons. Such an approach propounds an entrepreneurial attitude over the goals previously associated with the social sciences. As sociologist Stephen Ball claims, in such institutions students as commodities transforms education into a “big business” rather than education for education’s sake.

What is neoliberalism?

In the 1970s, responding to a period of stagflation (inflation with rising unemployment), former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan were the first to advocate the creeds of neoliberalism. This involved political-economic practices of privatization and deregulation besides the promotion of free markets and free trade. Neoliberalism rapidly spread across all G7 countries (the seven wealthiest countries on earth, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan) before being imposed via violent military coups onto many countries in the ‘developing’ world, including Iraq, Poland and most of South America.

According to geographer and anthropologist, David Harvey, proponents of neoliberalism hold positions of incredible power in university think-tanks as well as in financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The main intent of neoliberalism is to generate wealth by opening up countries to free trade, trade between countries that is not regulated by the government, allowing for deviance from ethical practices. However, studies such as those by economists Duménil and Lévy indicate that the primary effect of neoliberal strategies across the world has been for wealth to become increasingly concentrated within the richest strata of society. According to these studies, neoliberalism does not even improve economic growth, with global growth falling by almost 3% last year. In contrast, countries such as India and South Korea, spared from certain aspects of neoliberalism, saw rapid growth thanks to investment in industry.

Other implications of neoliberalism include the reduced power of organized labor, increased productivity paralleled by declining wages in order to extract more value, and most poignantly, as analysts such as David Harvey have found, the pumping of wealth from the poorest to the richest members of society via transfer pricing and cheap migrant labour.

Neoliberalism and higher education

Many academics are against the reforms in education taking place, whilst others argue that it is a necessity in a time of economic crisis. Doctor Jason Hickel, lecturer in Economic Anthropology at the LSE explains, “This seems like a relatively innocuous change, but to me it’s a sign that the way we think about higher education is changing for the worse.” Some might reject this, claiming that teaching career-orientated skills are crucial in order to bolster students against the current economic climate. “Of course, students need to get jobs upon graduating. I am sensitive to that.

The proponents of the New Enhanced Course Guides argue that students will be able to use the language from the skills section to fill out their CVs and to convince employers to hire them.” Nevertheless, as Hickel argues, “The kinds of skills that the New Enhanced Course Guides [at the LSE] include, reflect the language of the corporate world and the ethic of entrepreneurial self-management. Even if they didn’t, they would still send students the wrong message, namely, that education is designed to equip individuals with marketable skills, and that the ultimate end goal is productivity.”

Furthermore, the way people are taught will have transformative effects on the world as a whole, as generations of students progress into the jobs market and foreign students return to their countries of origin, carrying with them the neoliberal articles of faith. After coming home with neoliberal values, many American-educated students led military coups in which the pursuit of commercial ideals implicated the death of hundreds of thousands. This was the case for Chile in 1973, where the insurgent government was led by US-educated graduates. More recently, in 2009, a coup in Honduras was led by graduates taught at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a US training ground based in Georgia, which has been linked to to torture cases, dictatorships and military coups. Countries that experienced such coups, according to data gathered by the CIA, are among the most economically unequal in the world. With an intake of students from 145 different countries, spanning from South America to the South East Asia, the global impact of education at universities such as the LSE will be equally significant.

Besides the circulation of powerful neoliberal ideologies throughout academia, tuition hikes also become subject to marketization, the treatment of education as a business and students as a future labour force. Evidencing this, one year into its term in office, the British Conservative Party held meetings to discuss how universities could help contribute to growth in the economy.

In this process of marketization, austerity measures have led to increased tuition fees, which students find increasingly difficult to pay and applications to universities are declining. In 2011, there was a decrease of 20,000 applications. This implicates the bursting of the tuition bubble which has led to a further neoliberal assault on education through managerial-imposed readjustments of academic faculties as well as closures of poorly achieving departments. This in turn has led to declining moral and increased strategic competition between academic staff.

Education has also become increasingly quantified via standardized testing, as universities and departments are ranked by performance in a way that brushes over divergences in opinion, steering the control of curriculum and organization of departments. With layoffs as well as cessations of entire disciplines in certain universities, underachievement is blamed upon the teachers rather than the effects of reduced funding.

For example, the closure of Exeter University’s chemistry department in 2006, determined principally by financial motives, was met by vociferous resentment on the part of the chemists as well as students, academic unions and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The department was shut down due to its low position in the university ranking, the high cost of running its laboratories and in order to attract further grants. Students and teachers alike responded with letters and emails of complaint. Nevertheless, the university’s director, Steven Smith, persisted in this profit-making tactic.

What are the viable alternatives?

Neoliberal techniques involve the commercialization of education, focusing principally on preparing students for the world of work. As Hickel argues, “Those of us who teach in the liberal arts and social sciences generally reject this approach. We encourage our students to value learning for its own sake, and we try to sow in them a passion for asking difficult questions about the world and equip them to think critically about taken-for-granted assumptions.”

From the start of the 21st century, academics and institutions have started calling for a revival of the cosmopolitan ethic (‘an injury to one is an injury to all’), which provides tangible alternatives to neoliberalism. Others advocate Democratic Learning, which, in drawing on the views of the educator, John Dewey, provides a framework for teachers, involving methods influenced by the students themselves and, takes a humanist approach to teaching, concerned with human welfare. So doing, lecturers will supply students with the tools necessary to become fully active democratic citizens. As Hickel claims, “We need to be empowering students to resist this kind of commodification of everything rather than encouraging it, especially given that all indicators seem to suggest that it’s leading our society down a dead-end road. For us, higher education is more about learning how to challenge the status quo rather than simply learning how to climb the ladder.”

On the other hand, some take a less optimistic view of British education. As Tarak Barkawi, lecturer in Politics at the New School for Social Research explains, “For many years now in the UK, faculty have been forced to put things on their syllabi (like learning aims and outcomes) so that battle was lost some time ago.” Barkawi also introduces yet another side of the debate: “For what it is worth, the neoliberal modernizers are bad, but so too are those who cite traditional academic values to protect cosy jobs, or to not do their jobs, or to carry on doing what they always have done. So you have to be a little careful at taking everything at face value.”

As broached by Barkawi, the commercialization of British education is not a black and white issue but a more nuanced matter of much contention. There are those who advocate a profit-orientated education, others such as Hickel who plead for a return to critical engagement and a humanist outlook, and finally, those such as Barkawi who have a more tentative view. However, as the league tables demonstrate, for British universities not to lag behind the rest of the world there must be a reassessment of the purpose of education.