The Commodification of Education
In a world of changing relationships between state, people and business, what value do our education systems truly provide? As our lives become more and more entrenched in market mechanisms, understanding the aims and incentives behind what we learn is key.
Often, the ‘education system’ is seen as a way to level the playing field, allowing individuals to learn skills and qualifications irrespective of their background. The promise of greater social mobility draws millions of students across the world towards higher education; yet, with its cost experiencing significant increases over the past decades alongside inflation, this begs the question – why is a degree so valuable to the point that young people take on hundreds of thousands worth of debt? Critics highlight the effects of neoliberalism on not just the education industry, but the very nature of education itself to the extent that knowledge has become a commodity to be traded and consumed. But what are the implications of this on the way we learn? What is the point of our education systems now and what good or bad behaviours do they incentivise?
As both a historical and political-economic phenomenon, neoliberalism seems to hold different meanings depending on your perspective. Interpretations can vary from economic reform centred around deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation, to a broader philosophical explanation for capitalist free market ideology. However, the concept underpinning all these perspectives is that of “freedom of choice across all domains of production and consumption”. After the series of economic crises in the 1970s, the prevailing belief is that free economic exchange fulfilling the needs of the market leads to societal welfare – any student of economics can testify to how early on they are introduced to concepts like allocative efficiency as a perfect equilibrium between supply and demand etc. In terms of education, the crux of the issue lies however with the incentives and motivations that our system produces. Arguably, what motivates students and universities now is increasingly the market value of higher education rather than the content itself, especially in the UK and US, where students worldwide are blasted with advertisements and sold the vision of a college degree from early on in their academic lives. Is this necessarily a bad thing though? Well, a big red flag in my view is:
The Overabundance of Stakeholders
Stakeholders of education are not just students or teachers anymore, but external parties. Take for example, governing boards, investors and university partners – a common organisational structure seen in most universities in the UK and US. In this way, educational institutions are not held accountable by the intellectual development of their students, but by the demands of upper management and the institution as a whole. What problems does this manifest? On a broader level, the market of education becomes a place where schools and universities compete to gain reputation and funding, in order to increase student intake and thus better sell the product of higher education. In the UK, university performance is measured with indicators using the yearly number of applicants, their grades on entry and subject types as benchmarks. This way, students become reduced to a statistic contributing to the competitiveness of their university, rather than being the sole benefactors of their education. While in general education is regarded as a public service, the corporate-esque relationship between a university and its stakeholders places much greater emphasis on the institution than its students, incentivising increasing profitability and size over better quality learning. The increasing number of students admitted to universities by the year, at least in the UK and US, isn’t a good indicator for the increased accessibility of education. More students admitted does not consider the wider context of university entrance, such as one’s financial situation, citizenship; as such, it is more an indicator of a university’s ability to attracting and accommodating greater volumes of potential students, as well as the market value of a degree. This also has further implications on the experience of university staff, dealing with overcapacity as well as underpay for the increased workloads they must deal with. Overall, there appears to be a changing agenda of universities, from education providers to merely fulfilling the market demand for degree qualifications. While valuable knowledge has historically been passed down through university networks, as educational institutions continue to grow, the more significant concern appears to be institutional management and development, rather than the original purpose of education – to enrich and educate young people.
A Changed Learning Experience
On a more individual level, a student’s learning experience also changes. Out of this need to quantify performance, education becomes modularised in order to meet standardised benchmarks in the form of grades and qualifications. In the same way that institutions measure their competitiveness with business metrics, it is a student’s ability to meet predetermined standards and norms that determines their value to future employers and wider society. In such a system, the incentives produced are not for an individual to strive for intellectual development, in broadening their holistic understanding of the world or even in developing a balance of hard and soft skills. Instead, when the end qualification is the only significant measurable outcome, what becomes important for most is the efficiency at which individuals progress through the education system to ultimately gain their degree. The knowledge that an individual is taught throughout their academic lives thus becomes tailored and limited towards this purpose, rather than providing students with holistic understanding of how their education may be applied to real life. In this sense, the UK government’s 2021 interim report announcing a move towards greater modularisation further highlights this trend, pushing students faster and faster towards post-education employment without taking into account the scale of educational reform necessary.
Both the report and the way education systems have changed show a detachment from reality. A strange contradiction is created between the individualisation of the student and the need for uniformity; that in line with the idea of human capital, we as individuals become similar to both a company and a commodity. On one hand, it is implied that everyone gains greater returns through investing into their own education and self-development, whether that is money or time. On the other hand, while enabling efficiency in judging overall competency, individual ability is only valued in relation to others based around averages and performance benchmarks. So, our education systems are increasingly designed for en masse teaching aimed at satisfying stakeholders outside of the classroom, incentivising competition based around tangible metrics for something that is inherently intangible– an individual’s learning and skill. As a result, students are left increasingly unsatisfied and unfulfilled by formal education, boxed into requirements and standards which don’t place their own interests at the centre.
The core purpose of education appears to have been lost. The marketisation of education, and society in general, disproportionally shifts the focus towards unrestrained production and consumption of knowledge, and the subsequent management of institutions over the interests of students who should be the key stakeholders. As populations and the demand for education grows, what can we do? Is it possible to return to a state where we learn for the sake of learning, rather than pander to the demands of the market? Given that the knowledge economy is already an established part of society, what will be vital as we move forward is the re-centring of students and teachers as individuals, not statistics. Enabling individuals to think above and beyond and providing outlets for critical thinking outside of the silo of education. In this sense, the aforementioned report did hit upon an important point – as the nature of work and education changes in a post-COVID society, change is only possible through the rethinking of structures. Perhaps the formal institution of full-time university study is no longer suitable for a rapidly changing economy, and more flexible learning methods such as part-time tailored courses are required. Regardless, it is the duty of employers, universities and schools to remember that the purpose of education is for the people, to think not bigger but better.
Melvyn Tang is a student at the University of Warwick (UK) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China), with a background in History, Politics and Sustainable Development. Growing up throughout a unique time in West-China relations, Melvyn is passionate about cultural diversity and the intersections between inequality and global development.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 01 — March 2022