How has neoliberalism infiltrated UK education?
Neoliberalism has become the dominant ideology in the UK and has had profound effects on education. Although there are many ways in which the effects of neoliberalism can be seen in educational institutions, this essay focuses on just two ways in which neoliberalism has infiltrated UK education. Firstly, it is argued that, by the commodification of further and higher education, a real risk to academic standards is being created. Secondly, neoliberalism in education creates a culture of performativity across all aspects of education which is to the detriment of effective teaching and learning.
Neoliberalism is distinguished by several key themes: the withdrawal of the welfare state; privatisation of, and consumer choice in, public services; the rule of the market; and free market competition (Furlong, 2013). Paradoxically, although the amount of public spending is reduced under neoliberalism, along with the de-regulation of markets, neoliberalism still demands a strong state by which its interests are served (Kumar and Hill, 2012). Ball (2003) argues that de-regulation processes seen within UK educational policy should really be viewed as processes of re-regulation.
As the dominant ideological paradigm in the UK started to shift from the Keynesian model of centralised state intervention (Harvey, 2005) to the neoliberal model commonly associated with ‘the rule of Thatcher’ (Radice, 2013), so the UK education system has been slowly transformed through the application of neoliberal ideals. Before neoliberalism, the purpose of education was linked to the socialisation process (Apple, 2004). Now, students are components in an economic market (Apple, 2004) which utilises them as consumers, and moulds them as future economic capital. As Kumar and Hill (2012) argue, the capital class have a business agenda for, and in, education. According to this argument, the business agenda for education is to produce social labour power for capitalist enterprises. Thus, education is devalued by being reduced solely to the means through which economic advantage can be achieved (Giroux, 2014). This is evidenced by the marginalisation of those academic disciplines associated with intellectual knowledge in favour of others which more directly meet the needs of corporations (Giroux, 2014). The business agenda in education utilises the educational market for profit-making corporations such that they can compete on the global stage through the creation of standardised testing which can be sold to educational establishments as a way of enabling the latter to also compete in global league tables. Often referred to as edu-businesses, they are examples of how profit can be made from a public service. Other examples include the academisation process in England, where corporations can sponsor failing schools, purportedly for philanthropic reasons. Thus, the responsibility for educating children is shifted from the state, but not to corporations, rather, to private individuals, since the corporation will have directors or trustees who retain a duty to the shareholders. Again, although one facet of neoliberalism is less reliance on the state for public services, the state still serves the academy market, as is evidenced by those academies which have failed, being assisted by government intervention.
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The commodification of further and higher education
As a provider of education, it has been seen that the state is retreating (Kumar and Hill, 2012). The consequence of state withdrawal is that education is then treated as just another service which the market delivers (Lynch, 2006). Since market forces are subject to supply and demand, with market access being enabled by an individual’s economic resources, this process would appear to be antagonistic both towards improving social mobility, and toward the creation of a more egalitarian society. Particularly within the context of university education, it has been noted that there is a contradiction between pursuing a business-oriented approach, and promoting inclusion for economically-disadvantaged students (Lynch, 2006). The apparent solution to this problem in England is offered by Student Finance England, whereby students can enter into a type of buy now, pay later contract with the Student Loans Company. However, this approach leads to the commodification of further and higher education, where students become consumers and colleges and universities become competitors on the open market. Rather than empowering students through the availability of choice, the system traps students through high tuition fees and ‘debt bubbles’ (Goodnight et al., 2015, p.75). Further problems are created for educational establishments as, to attract students, they must show their worth in the market. Discerning consumers will be influenced by statistics regarding the success of educational institutions, so if the continuation of a university as a business relies upon satisfied customers, the academic integrity of the courses may be compromised in pursuit of those high pass rates which will generate more consumers and hence more income. Such corporatisation serves to undermine the place of universities within the public sphere, by limiting their potential to provide the arena through which the critical thinkers of tomorrow can engage with important social issues (Giroux, 2015). Instead, young people are increasingly being treated as ‘human capital’ who need the education system for training which will enable them to enter the workplace (Beckmann et al., 2009, p.311). Arguably, education should enable young people to thrive, but being trained to adopt a role in society which will lead to their own economic independence is only one crucial part. Education should also enable children and young people to develop as individuals. If this is ignored, then human worth is reduced to economic performativity.
Culture of performativity
Standards have been regulated in the UK through performativity testing, with an integrated curriculum and assessment systems to drive up educational standards for all. As Torrance (2015) explains: ‘content, including knowledge and skills, is defined, subject by subject, and assessment methods are then aligned with such content’ (p.6). Teachers can then be held to account for their students’ performances in tests, and ‘quasi markets’ are created within and between schools via performance indicators and league tables (Torrance, 2015, p.6). In the UK, changes to standardised testing are continually being made through governmental policies. For example, the format and marking system for Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) was overhauled in 2016 in favour of National Curriculum levels. The most recent furore, ‘in the face of widespread hostility from many teachers’ is the proposal to ‘test’ four-year-olds in their first weeks of schools to establish ‘baseline assessments’ in reception class (Weale, 2018, n.p.).
Ball (2003) argues that when there is a culture of ‘performativity’, there is an ensuing loss of critical thought, and teachers’ integrity is compromised such that they experience a type of ‘value schizophrenia’ (p.221). Indeed, teachers report a tension between their own judgements of best practice and students’ needs, and the rigours of performance (Ball, 2003), where they feel compelled to teach in a way which will satisfy the requirements of Ofsted, rather than to teach in a way they feel will most benefit their students. There is a conflict between the ideals which motivates individuals to become teachers (Kyriacou et al., 2003) and the demands of the performance related matters, not least of which is the contentious matter of teachers’ performance-related pay. These performance mechanisms impose external priorities on teachers which are in addition to the internal priorities they have within the classroom. For example, to compete on the school league table, a school’s senior leadership team may use comparative data regarding expected levels of student achievement when deciding which teachers receive performance-related pay increases. Yet this may not be an entirely accurate system of rewarding teachers, as it will be those teachers who teach to the test, rather than those teachers who teach the child, who will benefit from this system. Ultimately, there is the possibility that social relations are usurped by judgemental relations such that all individuals are valued for their productivity (Ball, 2003). Where such productivity is measured by external pre-ordained standards, there is a risk that teaching will become less child-centred, and therefore less effective in achieving an inclusive society.
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Throughout all educational stages in the UK, from childhood education to higher education, the effects of neoliberalism can be observed. Much of the recent scholarship focuses on critiquing neoliberalism’s effects on education. As has been shown here, through an examination of how neoliberalism has transformed education into a commodity, with the associated development of a culture of performativity, such critiques are vindicated. The question then is, how should these negative effects of neoliberal policies upon education be rectified? Radice (2013) argues that if universities are to become more ‘universal’ institutions which are accessible to all, a new model of social engagement must be developed with ‘an alternative conception of society as a whole’ (p.416). Furthermore, Giroux (2015) argues that any analysis of higher education should be situated within what he refers to as ‘the broader crisis of democracy’ (p.102). Perhaps, regarding education generally in the UK, the growing body of scholarly critiques of the effects of neoliberalism will itself be able to infiltrate education, specifically through initial teacher training, thus enabling a critical and counter-hegemonic discourse to occur.
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