Blairism and the commercialisation of education

Much of the current political discussion is dominated by economic matters and the election that offered little more than a limited array of bad, worse or truly awful outcomes. However, the course of education policy is worthy of a great deal of attention and tells us much about the prevailing ideology that grips the main political parties of the UK. We may be aware of policies to introduce the private sector to schools by way of ‘academies’, the upward creep of university tuition fees and the growing calls for education courses to be ‘relevant’, but rarely are these individual policies considered collectively for their overall direction.

It has been all too frequently claimed that our public services and institutions must become quasi- businesses, sub-contracting and achieving targets in order to achieve ‘efficiency’ and ‘value for money’. The dogmatic belief that the methods of the private sector are supreme in achieving these goals has led to policies that seek the maximum inclusion of business without losing taxpayer funding. Of course, for some of the proponents of PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schools in particular, the less heralded element of this thought-process is more avaricious: Why keep a service in the public sphere if someone can make profits from it? Some may like to refer to this as ‘privatisation by stealth’, but this term does not illuminate the underlying desire to capture the very soul and meaning of education in society. Education is now fast becoming on the one hand, an object that is ‘consumed’ by the individual, investing in the betterment of their labour so that it is worth more in the marketplace. And on the other hand, it is increasingly invested in by business as a facility for the production of a workforce tailored with precisely the right skills and values to suit their needs. Its value is becoming measured in the economic benefits we can derive from it, to the detriment of the values with much deeper meaning; benefits of the cultural richness, social engagement and awareness, and feelings of self-fulfilment that it can bring.

New Labour’s flagship education policy has long been its introduction of City Academies into the schools sector. Business has been quick to move in on this opportunity, realising the potential for healthy returns on their investments. The Financial Times last year estimated that the British taxpayer is committed to spending £215 billion over the course of its PFI contracts in all sectors. Many of these schools, such as the City of London Academy, have introduced their own curricula, focussing on business and enterprise, which specifically “aim[s] to equip pupils with the necessary skills and experience to develop careers in these areas” according to their website. This ability to shape the curricula goes beyond the initial claims in favour of PFI initiatives which were related to cost-savings, giving a great deal of control over children’s futures to bodies who the public are less able to hold to account.

Meanwhile, higher education policy has seen the introduction of slowly growing tuition fees, which have often been justified by portraying them as an ‘investment’ that will be repaid by higher salaries in later life. There is a significant chance that the tuition fees cap will go up again on the reccommendation of the review headed by Lord Browne, a panel that notably contains no representation of student views and interests among its members. Some Vice-Chancellors have advocated a free-market system, where ‘elite’ universities would be able to charge fees in the tens of thousands for their popular courses. This review is itself being conducted at the behest of Lord Mandelson, whose Business, Innovation and Skills department produced their own recommendations for the higher education sector. The report is redolent of Mandelson’s own ideological preference for merging business, governmental and cultural matters for economic gain. It seeks to create a consumer-led approach by prospective students when picking universities and courses; universities are to provide information to “help students choose courses that offer the greatest returns in terms of graduate opportunity [read: pay packet].” Announcing its publication in the House of Lords, Mandelson stated his intentions in uncharacteristically forthright terms that:

“We will look to business to be more active partners with our universities. We want employers to be fully engaged in the funding and design of university programmes, the sponsorship of students, and offering work placements.”

Business, of course, has long contributed in many forms to the research, funding and graduate opportunities of universities across the country. Mandelson’s intentions were clearly to greatly increase the intimacy of this relationship in the coming years. When we see these elements as a totality of the past thirteen years’ policy direction, the pattern that emerges is clear. New Labour sought an education sector of business, for business and by business that would have shaped our economy and society in the future.

If we are to preserve education as something other than a production line for the private-sector, we must begin to act. Of course, this will not be remotely simple, as to truly challenge it is to challenge the dominant discourse of our time. At heart, education policy has taken a direction demonstrative of the way in which ‘Blairism’ and its likenesses have facilitated the broadening of neo-liberalism from its economic roots that saw perfection in unhindered markets and a limited state, to a totalising social project where we are moving towards the measurement of value almost exclusively in pecuniary terms.

Nearly fifty years ago Herbert Marcuse warned that a culture of consumerism which exists in the western world could result in mankind adopting a uni-dimensional form of society and behaviour. His warning is now as stark as it is unheeded, as commodification and commercialisation, inherent to the neo-liberal practice, have accelerated and deepened the trends he identified. Politicians have long felt beholden to economic growth figures above all other social indicators, but under the neoliberal doctrines advocated by Thatcher and Blair business and economic performance have infiltrated much of society. Clearly, the fixation with growth meant that politicians dismissed the risks associated with the astronomical growth of the financial sector and housing market, the negative consequences of which will affect our society for a generation.
In the pharmaceutical industry profit margins often dictate which kind of research is prioritised, meaning that in many cases baldness cures and impotency medicine take precedence over vaccines and medicines for serious diseases. Recently, the government’s highly publicised call for action on climate change in the Stern Review chose not to give primacy to the moral or geo-political cases for action, but rather the financial one; that to act later would be more costly than to act now. This ethos expands across to many cultural forms also, where the mass commercialisation of professional sports is an excellent example. Football fans will be all too aware of the increasing sponsorship deals, scramble over TV rights, tours of faraway lands to ‘exploit new markets’, and the steady creep of corporate seating areas that are on the march across clubs in the higher leagues.

These trends reflect the central ethos not only of New Labour, but of the ‘compassionate’ Conservatives of Cameron and the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg. The latter two filled our media with promises of something different, yet taking education policy as a microcosm we can see quite how hollow this was. For all their promises to let ‘the big society’ take control of education, or even the Lib Dems’ ambitious claim to phase out tuition fees, we can only realistically expect increased maladjustment of the education sector into a simple economic tool. A new path for education in this country would not only require new policies, it requires a new politics and even the coalition…

Ben Waite

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One Comment
  • Daniel Cooper
    11 August 2010 at 01:15
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    Luckily the threat of marketisation *might* just be averted. Increasing fees would increase public spending as the government would need to find more money to loan.

    Given the aim of the government is deficit reduction there is (oddly) a right-wing argument for introducing a graduate tax as a method of HE financing rather than increase public spending.

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