The market agenda and its [negative] consequences on voc. ed. & training


Educational institutions – and this includes universities, who are supposed to be beacons of truth and critical thinking – become purveyors of spin, image-making, manipulative marketing, organized boasting and sometimes more toxic forms of deceit. The education system as a whole comes to stand, not for the common interest and self-knowledge of the society, but for ways to extract private advantage at the expense of others.

An exclusive education is a corrupted education.

To think of education as the development of capacities for practice is also to put a strong requirement on educational relationships. They must be calibrated to reality.

Social exclusion is antithetical to the inclusive character of educational relationships.

Respect and trust are undermined by the jockeying for position in competitive markets.

Yet the slide towards market dominance is well advanced.

But education itself has a resilience, has a grounding in social needs, that cannot be suppressed – and that will be heard.

Education needs coalitions of social groups able to create the spaces in which educational invention will work. Those requirements are clear enough. How they can be turned into practice, we still have to discover.

by Raewyn Connell (2013) The neoliberal cascade and education: an essay on the market agenda and its consequences, Critical Studies in Education, 54:2, 99-112, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2013.776990

Extracts and guided reading.


In the last few decades, education systems all over the world have been impacted by the rise of neoliberal ideology and practices of government. Education is not alone: businessfriendly governments and market-driven agendas have re-shaped all areas of public life and many areas of private life too (Braedley & Luxton, 2010). Education is, however – for reasons I hope to make clear – particularly troubled by this impact.

We now have a valuable body of research on neoliberal changes in school systems and higher education, and their consequences for teachers’ working conditions and subjectivity, pupils’ experience and family education strategies. We have not yet, however, fully assimilated the profound consequences of the neoliberal turn for the basic project of education.


Neoliberalism broadly means the agenda of economic and social transformation under the sign of the free market. It also means the institutional arrangements to implement this project that have been installed, step by step, in every society under neoliberal control (Connell, 2010; Harvey, 2005). Neoliberal governments have set about ‘freeing’ businesses in many ways. Controls over banking, controls over currency exchange and controls over capital movement were all loosened or abolished.

Gradually a fast-moving global arena of financial transactions, consisting of a network of national and international markets in shares, bonds, financial derivatives and currency, was brought into being. This arena is the core of what corporate executives and financial journalists mean by ‘globalization’. Through its linkages, the Wall Street financial crisis of 2007 was turned into a global slump. Neoliberalism seeks to make existing markets wider, and to create new markets where they did not exist before.


The commodification of services and the privatization of public sector agencies demands institutional and cultural change. The profit-seeking corporation is promoted as the admired model for the public sector, and for much of civil society too. Schemes of organization and control are imported from business to public institutions.

At the same time, an emphasis on labour market flexibility produces a growing workforce of part-time and casual and contract labour at the bottom of the organizations. Applying market discipline to the labour force has meant sustained pressure against unions. There has been an irregular but insistent roll-back of entitlements and security which the organized part of the working class had historically won.

The Australian case: the neoliberal cascade in education

Australian neoliberalism, typically for a country of the global periphery, turned away from local industrialization towards primary export industries, especially mining. The local economy has again come to resemble the colonial economy of the late 19th century. In the search for ‘comparative advantage’ in world markets, Australian wages are not low enough to compete in manufactured goods with Mexico, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and especially China. This has undermined skilled trades and working-class youth employment, with effects clearly visible in TAFE and public schools. Once a neoliberal policy regime had been established, around the mid-1980s, a cascade of ‘reforms’ followed which brought every institutional sector under the sway of market logic. Education is a major example. Increasingly, education has been defined as an industry, and educational institutions have been forced to conduct themselves more and more like profit-seeking firms. Policy changes across the sector have been introduced by different governments, state and federal, and in different forms. But the policy changes all move in the same direction – increasing the grip of market logic on schools, universities and technical education. Some of these changes are highly visible to people working in the universities (for an excellent short survey see Marginson, 2009). The re-introduction of university fees in 1988–89 was a key starting point, because that action redefined higher education as a commodity not a citizen right.

It was soon followed by the redefinition of higher education as an export industry, extracting income from overseas students, rather than educating them for free as development aid by a rich country. With the introduction of fees came the abolition of the old two-tier higher education system, not by planning, but by an astonishing competitive free-for-all that saw university administrations as entrepreneurs hunting for take-over targets. And as competition between university managements deepened, a new multi-tier system has emerged, certainly meaner and arguably as hierarchical as what had existed before.

Funding mechanisms in Canberra have been repeatedly adjusted since the 1980s to force universities to compete with each other, for budget funds as well as student fees. These are little-publicized moves with powerful effects, driving the growth of managerialism in universities. The growth of managerialism in turn has undermined academic democracy (power of central managers and deans rising, departmental decision-making declining, students redefined simply as customers). Management’s search for a cheap and flexible labour force has had a dramatic educational effect: though universities do not advertize this fact, around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia is now done by casual labour.

Even so, these developments are less drastic than the changes in the technical and further education sector. Here, as Australia de-industrialized, and the old apprenticeship system crumbled, the conditions for extensive marketization were created during attempts to modernize and expand technical training. These laudable goals were interwoven with a corporatization of public sector TAFE institutions, and a growth of managerial power at least as formidable as in universities (Clark, 2003).

A sustained attempt to create competitive markets in modularized training services meant that both public and private institutions became simply ‘providers’, competing with each other for fees and subsidies. More entrepreneurs moved into this very substantial market. A study of the situation in 2003 found about three thousand private registered training organizations in Australia, and estimated they had nearly half a million full-time students and about 1.7 million part-time students; and this does not include the unregistered providers (Harris, Simons, & McCarthy, 2006).

Meanwhile the public sector TAFE workforce was ruthlessly restructured. The public education rationale of further education was sidelined into a separate user-pays market regarded as hobby courses. As technical education too was integrated into a global market and became, from the Australian policy perspective, another export industry, a lucrative and substantially unregulated market in training overseas students emerged. Plagued by scandals, student complaints and accusations of being a backdoor visa mill, the private college sector was then rocked by a series of corporate collapses in 2009–2011. Sterling College, Melbourne International College, the Meridian Group colleges, GEOS language school and others suddenly closed their doors when profitability fell or the authorities made belated audits.

The concept of education Neoliberalism has a definite view of education, understanding it as human capital formation. It is the business of forming the skills and attitudes needed by a productive workforce – productive in the precise sense of producing an ever-growing mass of profits for the market economy. ‘Human capital’ is a metaphor, and in itself too narrow. But this economistic idea does catch an important feature of education, that it is a creative process oriented to the future. In this respect, the neoliberal model is superior to the view widespread in other areas of social science, including the sociology of education, that education is a process of social reproduction.

There are both bland and critical versions of this idea. The bland version is that society’s existence requires training up the young in the values and languages of their elders, and then sorting them into appropriate social roles; and that school systems have been created to do these jobs. The critical version observes that the sorting is an exercise of power that reproduces the privileges of dominant social groups through time. This is an important observation, and one of the keys to what has been happening in Australian education. But without another dimension, any concept of social reproduction is static, and leads either to complacency or despair. The missing dimension is history, the creative development of social practice through time. Bringing history more centrally into the frame, we arrive at an understanding of education as the social process in which we nurture and develop capacities for practice. That may be done in a way that re-generates privilege and poverty; it may be done in a way that increases privilege and poverty. But it need not be.

To say that education involves nurture is important. Education involves encounter between persons, and that encounter involves care. Learning from a computer is not education; the machine does not care. Learning from a person behaving like a machine is not education; that person’s capacity for care is being suppressed. It is care that is the basis of the creativity in teaching, at all levels from Kindergarten to PhD supervision, as the teacher’s practice evolves in response to the learner’s development and needs. Encounter between persons implies people capable of encounter; that is, people with significant autonomy. The more that power relations impinge on a situation, the less scope there is for encounter and therefore for education. Military training is not education. Power of course exists in many forms, and one of the tasks of educational research is to explore the many ways power in and around educational relations can be diagnosed and contested. Encounter implies respect and reciprocity, a degree of mutual engagement by learner and teacher. And despite the distinction between learners and teachers, that mutual engagement requires a strong kind of equality, an equal citizenship in the educational situation.

Mutual respect is the condition required for the complex communication through which complex learning occurs. Trust is easily damaged, indeed easily stopped – by violence, by threats, by arbitrariness, by privilege and by economic exploitation. Considerable work, then, is required to institutionalize education, to create learningand-teaching settings where equal citizenship is normative and where trust is sustained. This work is social labour, in real-life situations involving large numbers of people in the institutional settings where education is hoped for. The conventional models of education as human capital formation and social reproduction absurdly over-simplify these settings. The complexity of school teachers’ daily work is well documented in the research literature on teaching.

Educational encounter is always multiple, in terms of the numbers and diversity of people involved and the number of structures shaping educational relationships: not only class structures, but also gender structures, ethnic and race relations, connections with region and land, generational relations and more. Trust and citizenship cannot be limited, cannot be made a privilege of specific groups. Education is inherently socially inclusive; any failure of inclusion signals the presence of power.

An exclusive education is a corrupted education.

To think of education as the development of capacities for practice is also to put a strong requirement on educational relationships. They must be calibrated to reality.

We are not free to teach lies to children, and call the result ‘education’. That is propaganda, and a violation of trust. We are not free to imply lies, for instance by omission – denying an encounter with reality that learners need, and could have. (A sad example: the refusal of knowledge about contraception and abortion that is needed by teenagers and young adults.)

To say that educational encounters are calibrated to reality is to emphasize the cognitive side of education, alongside the emotional – the dimension of intellectual excitement, at every level from basic language learning onwards. Learning involves discovery, realization and engagement with the truth. The inner fire of education is the same as the inner fire of culture in general; education does not involve a watered-down reality. At the same time, anyone who has been involved with research, whether in the natural or human sciences, knows that establishing truth is not easy, and that our collective knowledge is constantly in a process of transformation and growth. Because of this, respect for the learners requires that the curriculum must itself be historical, always be open to debate and change, rather than fossilized by institutional mechanisms.

Commodifying the education world

In human services, as neoliberalism has shown in other cases, to create a market you have to restrict the service in some way. In this case you have to ration education. What you sell, then, is a privilege – something that other people cannot get. (The argument in this section draws on the pioneering work of Marginson (1997), though I place more emphasis on the organizational dynamics of neoliberalism.) Provided there is a rationing of educational resources it is possible to commodify access to institutions, and to particular services within institutions. Importantly, the rationing itself can be marketed.

The marketing brochures of private schools, and the mass media advertizing in the case of richer schools, create an image of an orderly, disciplined, clean and uniformed little world, which the parents are invited to contrast with the undisciplined, dirty and dangerous world outside – ‘outside’ being understood to include the public schools. There need to be known losers, if people are to be required to pay to become winners. A spectacular example of this was the vilification of a public high school in a very poor community, Mt Druitt, in 1997 by the Sydney newspaper Daily Telegraph, on the grounds of its students’ failure in the Higher School Certificate. It is not by accident that the newspaper that conducted this campaign is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Murdoch being one of the international promoters of neoliberal politics.

The Mt Druitt High School affair created a political panic, and was followed by a reorganization of schools in the area. Nothing was done to change urban poverty. The losing has to be legitimated, and not appear a matter of unfair discrimination or pure bad luck. The neoliberal takeover of education has been accompanied by a revival of competitive testing. Not too long ago, competitive testing itself was in disrepute. Intelligence-testing results that purported to prove IQ was mainly hereditary had been shown to be faked. There was increasing evidence that conventional achievement tests were culturally and socially biased, and that competitive testing was of little practical use in classroom teaching. All this has been officially forgotten. Australia now has not only state-level competitive testing (e.g. for entry to selective schools and then at high school graduation) but also national competitive testing, the NAPLAN system. The results are duly displayed on the MySchool website, in fact they are the central feature of MySchool. These displays in turn are processed by the mass media into league tables, ranking schools in order of NAPLAN test performance (Sydney Morning Herald, 2012). International league tables are compiled from the PISA testing system administered through the OECD.

Australia’s competitive position vis-a-vis Finland, Singapore etc. is the subject of media exposures and policy angst. Meanwhile, universities are being named and shamed according to their annual rankings in international league tables, which have even shakier methodological bases, but seem to be regarded as holy writ in public discourse. The difficulty is that the creation of this elaborate system of sorting sheep from goats, winners from losers, top students from bottom students, is deeply corrosive of education.

Social exclusion is antithetical to the inclusive character of educational relationships.

Respect and trust are undermined by the jockeying for position in competitive markets.

Educational institutions – and this includes universities, who are supposed to be beacons of truth and critical thinking – become purveyors of spin, image-making, manipulative marketing, organized boasting and sometimes more toxic forms of deceit. The education system as a whole comes to stand, not for the common interest and self-knowledge of the society, but for ways to extract private advantage at the expense of others.

Consequences for teachers

The market agenda implies an insecure workforce. Neoliberal politics weakens employee unions and tries to turn employer/employee relationships into individual contracts – individual on the part of the employee, that is. The strategy is international, as teacher unions have found (Compton & Weiner, 2008). In the name of flexibility – for employers – casual, part-time and temporary employment has increased. Australia currently does not have the huge informal labour force that most developing countries have. But the collective protections for workers resulting from, for instance, the 35-hour week, and limited hours of opening for shops, have been weakened as neoliberalism has dominated policy. Average hours at work have increased in Australia in recent years; the leisure society much discussed a generation ago is further away, not closer.

Effects on the knowledge base of education

Parts of the knowledge system on which contemporary education depends have already been strongly commodified. Public sector funding for research intended for the advancement of knowledge has been increasingly replaced by market-oriented private sector funding. This is especially true of biomedical research, a sector now largely funded by drug and medical-equipment corporations. This connection has already produced a series of corruption scandals in the research world…

…That points to the wider effect of neoliberalism on the knowledge base: an increasing technicization of knowledge and knowledge production. What can be most readily marketed is patentable knowledge: the design of new equipment or new drugs, or techniques for which access can be restricted and therefore charged for. It’s not surprizing that Intellectual Property has become an active concern of university managements in Australia as overseas, and that many universities have set up offices to patent and sell discoveries by university staff or to market the expertise of university staff. There is a stark irony that universities set up for the advancement of knowledge now seek to restrict knowledge to extract a commercial benefit from it.


Totalitarianism of the market is not yet an established fact in Australia, nor in most of the world. A public sector survives, and an ethos of public service survives within it (Connell, 2011).

Commitments to knowledge, and to principles of justice and equality, are still found widely, however much they struggle for institutional presence. Yet the slide towards market dominance is well advanced.

The Australian Labor Party, which lost its mass membership in the 1980s and 1990s, is now part of the neoliberal coalition, not part of the resistance to the corporate takeover. The public school system is still large, but has been under attack by right-wing ideologues for about 30 years and is significantly eroded and residualized.

The universities are now controlled by a thoroughly neoliberal managerial regime. The organized groups most likely to push for alternatives, the public sector teacher unions, were certainly in the midst of educational invention and debate in the 1970s.

Since then, they have been organizationally on the defensive – unions being one of the prime targets of neoliberal politics, given the need for an insecure workforce – and have been frozen out of the educational policy-making milieu.

Under neoliberal rule, education is displaced by competitive training, competition for privilege, social conformity, fear and corruption, while protest and rational alternatives are marginalized.

It is easy to despair about the current scene.

But education itself has a resilience, has a grounding in social needs, that cannot be suppressed – and that will be heard.

As Shakespeare put it, in the direst time, stones have been known to move and trees to speak. Resources can be found. Education needs invention, and there are certainly enough lively minds in the teaching workforce to be confident that invention will come.

Education needs coalitions of social groups able to create the spaces in which educational invention will work. Those requirements are clear enough.

How they can be turned into practice, we still have to discover.




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