A Review of “Global Neoliberalism and Education and its Consequences”

Madhu Prasad

Dave Hill and Ravi Kumar (ed), Global Neoliberalism and Education and its Consequences, Routledge, 2008.

This is an important collection of articles which focuses on theoretical issues and policy analyses to bring life and meaning to the facts of the crises facing educational institutions the world over.

Neo-liberalism has resulted in the merchandization of knowledge under conditions that subject its content, structures and modes of accessibilty to the pressures of a global market. The impact on the entire gamut of educational policy and practice has been devastating. As Nick Grant states in the ‘Foreword’ (xv-xvi), the “essentially social and cooperative ethic derived from a natural model of child development, which has informed most educationalists in most countries for centuries, is now challenged by a highly personalized and competitive model of education derived from modern business methodology.” Ravi Kumar and Dave Hill’s ‘Introduction’ outlines the significant social repercussions of this shift from pedagogical to market values. In conditions of increasing socio-economic disparities and loss of opportunities for the disadvantaged sections of society, the state is rapidly retreating from its earlier role as provider and guarantor of ‘welfare’ services, including education, that had ensured the ‘massification’ of skills required by the productive capitalism  of the 20th century until the ’70’s. Cuts in public expenditure have since facilitated dependence on markets and opened up avenues for privatization of the education system. As a consequence, fundamental concepts like equality have been called into question. This remains an abiding concern throughout the many contributions to the volume.

Hill and Kumar (‘Neoliberalism and its Impact’) further demonstrate through an account of the British experience of systemic degeneration induced by neo-liberal pressures, how the ‘philosophical incompatibility’ between the demands of capital and the demands of education is increasingly being resolved byhill-ravi governments on terms that are more and more favourable to capital. In an ideological and economic reproduction of the dominant Thatcherite conception of social development, critical thought has been replaced by an instrumentalist rationality driven by market values. The loss of academic autonomy has led to an undermining of the role and status of the educator, a feature that is becoming characteristic across societies as the World Bank-IMF inspired structural reforms, pressing for withdrawal of the state from education and other services, are imposed on developing countries.

Henry Giroux (‘Neoliberalism, Youth and the Leasing of Higher Education’) identifies the youth as the worst sufferers of this “market ideology… reaching into and commodifying all aspects of social and cultural life.” (p 30). With the state no longer assuming responsibility for a range of ‘social needs’, agencies of government are carrying out policies of deregulation and privatization that are undermining the once “non-commodified public spheres that serve as the repository for critical education, language and public intervention” where democratic values and social relations “are learned and take root”. (p31). Giroux forcefully argues that the “death of the social, the devaluing of political agency, the waning of noncommercial values, and the disappearance of noncommercialised public spaces have to be understood as part of a much broader attack on public entitlements….” (p 46). All social safety nets having collapsed, a neoliberal Hobbesian ethic prevails in which all public concerns are “understood and experienced as utterly private miseries… (and) the losers vastly outnumber the winners.” (p 32)  Since neoliberalism sees youth as a commodity, and young people only as consumers – otherwise they are a ‘social problem’ controllable only by a “rhetoric of fear, control and surveillance” – today’s youngsters represent the broken promise of capitalism in the age of outsourcing, contract work, deindustrialization and deregulation.

The market has no way of dealing with social inequality or civil rights. It has no vocabulary for addressing respect, compassion, ethics, or what it means to recognize antidemocratic forms of power. Giroux advocates struggle for a re-assertion of higher education as a public or social good, for democratic principles of inclusiveness and non-repression provide citizens with the critical tools necessary for investing public life with vibrancy and expanding the base of freedom and justice. As such, faculty resistance against corporatisation would certainly mean struggles for job security and academic freedom, but it must also mean the dynamic of “engaged academics” and “public intellectuals” interacting with student protests for peace, greater freedoms and against exploitation and oppression.

The ‘democratic deficit’ of neoliberal institutions like the WTO and trade regimes like the GATS, is also focused by Pierrick Devidal (‘Trading Away Human Rights?’).  The global regulatory systems of neoliberalism are marked by the conception of a right to education as a utility, whereas the socialist-democratic perspective projects education as a non-utilitarian empowering right. “The normative arguments advanced for the protection of human rights are deontological: they focus on principles about how people are to be treated, regardless of the consequences”. (F.J. Garcia, Protecting the human rights principle in a globalizing economy,2001. Quoted p 92).

Hill, Greaves and Maisuria (‘Education, Inequality and Neo-liberal Capitalism: A Classical Marxist Analysis’) provide an account of the class systemic nature of the increasing inequalities resulting from neoliberal economic conditions and educational strategies. They point to the inherent tendency within the system to segregate the privileged in ‘good’ institutions, while relegating the poor, minorities and other disadvantaged sections to sub-standard multi-track schools without adequate resources or infrastructure. Markets only serve to exacerbate existing inequalities: “the poor have less access to pre-school, secondary and tertiary education; they also attend schools of lower quality where they are socially segregated. Poor parents have fewer resources to support the education of their children, and they have less financial, cultural and social capital to transmit.” (F. Reimers, Unequal schools, unequal chances. The challenges to equal opportunity in the America, 2000. Quoted p 119). Only policies that explicitly address inequality, with a major redistributive purpose, could make education an equalizing force in social opportunity.

Tristan McCowan’s critique (‘Higher Education and the Profit Incentive’) of J. Tooley’s neo-liberal opposition to state intervention in education identifies and elaborates “seven virtues of the profit motive” at the core of Tooley’s approach. Therefore McCowan sees his own argument as a “moral and not simply a pragmatic one… for the ability of states to defend their public education system, and for the notions of equality of opportunity and democratic control on which the systems in principle rest.” (p 55).

The claim that under neoliberalism successful modern economies “will be those that produce the most information and knowledge – and make that information and knowledge easily accessible to the greatest number of individuals and enterprises”, is examined by Nico Hirtt (‘Markets and Education in the Era of Globalized Capitalism’). Is it higher education, he asks, or the scarcity of it, the competition for it, that makes it so profitable for individuals and firms? Isn’t a flourishing economy the condition for boosting higher education and drawing investment into the area? ‘Unleashing the potential’ of those who have been unjustly left behind in a stratified, unequal society does require providing them with the weapon of knowledge and organizational capacity. But is this what our schools provide? And is this what we expect of them? Hirtt exposes the neoliberal claim of promoting a ‘knowledge-economy’. Given the volatility of the economic, industrial and technological environment, knowledge has become “a perishable product”; the important activity in education is not learning but “learning to learn”, that is, the acquisition of an ensemble of knowledge skills that are less institutional and more informal. Such “modular qualifications” (know-how, personal behaviour and development) are essential to be able to adapt to the evolution of, and the upheavals in, the job market.

Edwardo Domenech and Carlos Mora-Ninci (‘World Bank Discourse and Policy on Education and Cultural Diversity for Latin America’) provide a historically contextualized view of World Bank functioning.  Co-opting a range of governmental and nongovernmental organisations, it ensures that their functioning remains complementary to the market, acting to make its functioning better and correcting its flaws.  Together with international agencies and national governments, the Bank “seeks to gather together public officials, academics, designers and beneficiaries of nongovernmental programs, with the aim of revising its strategies and policies in search of new agreements and political support for its economic and social reforms. In this process, the WB procures the involvement of all public, private and nongovernmental agencies that are seen as complimentary to the optimization of the programs to reduce government expenditures. It is also important to note that the relationship between the WB and these international, governmental and nongovernmental organizations is not linear or unilateral… The WB was compelled to modify its discourse during the 1990’s due to heavy criticism and opposition from various social and political entities, especially the so-called new social movements.” Consequently, the “Bank’s discourse has become an odd mixture of decontextualisation, generalization, distortion and omission… as if the WB itself were not one of the key international actors that has engineered the so-called new international order.” (p 156-7).

Propagating the theory of human capital and education as investment, WB relies on an individualist perspective that promotes personal challenge over structural conditions of inequality, making each individual solely responsible for their own successes or failures. However, neoliberal individualism differs from classical liberalism in that it has lost the social component. Compensatory and targeted policies substitute the idea of equality for that of equity, the notion of common interest for particular interest, an ethics of personal gain that sees itself as being in contradiction with, and threatened by, the search for the well-being of society.

Such policies of assistentialism consolidate the segregation and fragmentation of education circuits, neutralizing the pedagogical function rather than complementing it. For example, the marginalization, asdisadvantaged groups, of indigenous communities and diverse minority groups, results in strategies for maximizing enrolment and ensuring retention, but fails to question the ability of the system itself to prove adequate to the pedagogical value and challenge of pluralism. This results in the “deterioration of pedagogical practice at the level of elaboration of pertinent strategies, as well as at the level of representations and expectations that allows generating actual learning in children”. (p 158)  A pedagogy centred on the political critique of identity and difference, exposes the assimilative attempt as reinforcing the actual structures of power and domination by its understanding of socio-cultural diversities as the nonconflictual or unhierarchical coexistence of different communities/ groups. Societies are not homogenous and the specific power structures within their great social variety require to be uncovered.

The final contribution of the volume, Curry Malott’s ‘Education in Cuba: socialism and the encroachment of capitalism’, looks at the Cuban experience to see what can be learned about resisting the contemporary phase of capitalism. Cuba allocates over 10 percent of GDP to education, has one of the finest life-long teacher training programmes in the world, and has achieved universal school enrollment and attendance. Despite the hardship imposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continuing illegal US economic embargo, the quality education the system provides to all “makes it first amongst all countries in the world… (and) we are sharing this immense human capital with our sister nations of the Third World without charging a cent.” (Fidel Castro, 2002). This ‘globalization’ stands out in stark contrast to neoliberalism, but is also subjected to global market pressures. Cuban state capitalism, the basis of its great provider role which still has the support of the majority of the population, is being forced to reprivatise and open sections of its economy to foreign investment to provide employment for the “best-educated and healthiest population in Latin America”. Education is the site of an inherent tension between learning as empowerment, the great egalitarian leveler, and learning as the social reproduction of labor power. While Cuba remains an inspiration as to the magnitude of human progress that can be achieved by resisting neoliberalism, it also serves to emphasize the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of value production under capitalism.

This is also the message and the understanding conveyed by the volume as a whole. Covering a wide range of concerns about the process of education, perhaps the most significant social activity apart from production itself, it is obvious that many issues taken up in this collection are debatable, that statements and arguments can be controversial or better framed, that many theoretical concepts and positions could have been included or explored in greater depth. However, given the stimulating achievements of the volume, these questions are best left to continuing debate and discussion.


Madhu Prasad
 teaches in the Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi.

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