Education as Commodity or Vocation?

Just got done reading this article: “Marketizing Higher Education: Neoliberal Strategies and Counter-Strategies” by
Les Levidow. (

I got to it through a philosophy blog centered around a fight against the marketization of education (

Its main emphasis was on the ways in which ‘neoliberal’ (new term to me), policies have made significant inroads in education worldwide, to the extent that the role of the teacher is seen as an hindrance to a more productive society. The more the student is trained in specific skills and ‘trades’ (if I can insert a word of my own) the more equipped they will be for the demanding labor market of today. And so goes the argument.

Of course a tad is a bit of slippery-slope-ism, but there are real and genuine concerns behind it all. In fact, as I read on and on, it seemed to be describing my experience at UW in the Philosophy department. It often seemed relegated as unimportant because it really didn’t produce any valuable workers, but just educated people.

Really what stuck out to me as I read through it was that the main concern of the author was over the relationship between the teacher and the student becoming not a thing of human contact, but one of consumer – producer, a commodity. The striking thing is that we Christians believe that as the bearers of the image of God we need community and relationship. As well, we hold spoken word as extremely valuable (it is the rhythm of creation as well as the rhythm of our life). So, to treat knowledge as something which doesn’t require a commitment on the smallest level reveals in my mind a materialist default; knowledge is an object which can be acquired independent of personhood. To reduce a person as well the knowledge of the world t things does not seem like something we can stand for.

All that said, those are the main things for which I appreciated this article. There is quite of bit of dire predictions, which seem to be more like horse trading than accurate summaries. Nonetheless it does tap in on some key issues on vocation and the image of God. It touches close to home for me, education is my field.

That said, here is the summary of what the article finds wrong in the world of education:

In order to develop effective counter-strategies, it is necessary to analyse the various forms of marketization and their links. While only some forms extend commodity exchange, they all extend accountancy criteria for valuing education and its human products. The ‘investment’ metaphor readily becomes literal. Universities and their staff may be held accountable for delivering the dividends in measurable terms (Demeritt, 2000: 309).

8.1 Marketization strategies
Marketization strategies should be understood as both ideological and material at the same time. As analysed above, here are some key features.

• Efficiency as progress
In neoliberal ideology, employment insecurity is attributed to a deficiency of ‘human capital’ appropriate for the ‘information society’. This problem is cited to justify curricula for adapting students to labour-market needs. Educational ‘reforms’ are presented as universal progress on grounds that they enhance efficiency, extend access, flexibly customize the content for individual needs, facilitate learning through ICT, provide accountability to students and society, yield a better return on state investment, etc. These benefits are to be measured according to ‘human capital’ criteria, or even according to money transactions. Whether they are literal or metaphorical, accountancy methods define the efficiency of educational progress, thus naturalizing marketization.

• Commodification
Prospective students are represented as customers/markets in order to justify commodifying educational services. Knowledge becomes a product for individual students to consume, rather than a collaborative process for students and teachers. Individualized learning both promotes and naturalizes life-long re-skilling for a flexibilized, fragmented, insecure labour market. By standardizing course materials, moreover, administrators can reduce teachers to software-writers or even replace them with subcontractors. Through ICT, neoliberal agendas take the apparently neutral form of greater access and flexible delivery. In all these ways, student-teacher relations are reified as relations between things, e.g. between consumers and providers of software.

• Neoliberal globalization
A global competitive threat and opportunity is invoked to justify commodifying all institutional arrangements. People are actively linked around the world through new market relations – as business partners, competitors, patrons, clients, customers, assessor-consultants, etc. This neoliberal internationalism is promoted within and across countries.

As SAP (Structural Adjustment Program) conditionalities forcibly marketize and standardize higher education in Third World countries, people there may become more willing customers for instructional commodities elsewhere, e.g. through distance education. Perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, this marketization intensifies (or even creates) the competitive pressures from which universities needed protection in the first place.  Moreover, if Western academics fill gaps left by SAPs in Third World countries, then they may collude in re-colonizing the curriculum there, unless they ally with local people who promote alternative agendas.

So, take it for what its worth, but please do comment on these: What is the role in society of disciplines that have little/no monetary value?  What is the Christian understanding of vocation in relation to education?


One thought on “Education as Commodity or Vocation?

  1. Tom Robbins says:

    There are two issues I would like to address:

    First, the issue of somehow placing a value on education in non-technical subjects.

    Second, the question of whether there is a role for in-person education, in an age of computer-aided instruction.

    First: yes, when a private college is trying to help a prospective student (and his parents) justify going into debt for tens of thousands to cover tuition, they will be tempted to couch it in terms of lifelong earning potential of the student.

    Unfortunately, while there is an unsavory aroma around that, there is a grain of truth in the argument, and here is why, in my humble opinion:

    Where else are you forced to write paper after paper and have an intelligent person take the time to critique that effort?

    Where else do you get to spend time with some of the greatest thinkers in human history?

    These experiences develop skills in reasoning and communication that help you to serve more powerfully, whatever your vocation turna out to be.

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