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19 Sep 2013

Business, As Usual, Distorts Education (Part II)

By Steven Klees, University of Maryland.


In Part I, I argued that neoliberalism’s narrow focus on business and the market system has distorted education through:  blaming education for not meeting the needs of business; marketing entrepreneurship instead of creating good jobs; relying on a very limited human capital framework; and making an unrealistic connection between education and economic growth.  Part II further elaborates neoliberal distortions.


Direct Investment.  Business does not only influence educational discourses, as discussed previously.  Education itself has become big business.  It is estimated that the private market for education is worth at least $50 billion worldwide.  Private schooling continues to be a significant part of primary and secondary schooling around the world and, in the neoliberal era, an ever more significant part of post-secondary education.  Organizations like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, while created in 1956 to invest in private companies in developing countries, grew precipitously in the neoliberal era.  Education was initially a small area of investment but has grown to where IFC in 2012 has over  $850 million in commitments.  Direct foreign investment in education has also been promoted by the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).  GATS encourages countries to open their economies to foreign investment in education (and other services), raising questions of accountability, control, and sovereignty.


Privatization.  Direct private investment in education did not begin under neoliberalism but was greatly facilitated by it.  As said above, neoliberalism brought an ideology that deprecated government and exalted the private sector.  The privatization of public services was encouraged and, in education, private schools, vouchers, charters, user fees, and the like were recommended as solutions to problems of educational quality and even educational inequality.  This marketing of privatization was pure ideology.  There was only trumped-up evidence that these approaches improved some narrow version of educational quality and there was overwhelming evidence that they exacerbated inequalities.  Moreover, the recognition of education as a public good, that had been so strong in the 1960s and 1970s, got short shrift in discussions of education policy. 


Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).  An outgrowth of this neoliberal obsession with the market and its promotion of privatization are PPPs, along with a belief in the need for increased corporate philanthropy in education and other sectors.  The argument is that the know-how and resources of business, on its own or in partnership with government, can be applied to improving education.  This follows directly from neoliberal ideology, made more salient by the vast shortfall of public resources to achieve EFA and the MDGs.  However, business has little to offer education as a recent Brookings Institution study of U.S. corporate philanthropy and PPPs made clear;  the resources offered were “small change,” and efforts were self-interested, uncoordinated, small in scale, and misdirected.  I had a business school professor who once wrote a paper entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business and Other Pollutants of the Air.”  He was very pro-business; his point was that the business of business was business, and we shouldn’t want or expect them to help solve problems that are fundamentally government’s.


Business Approaches to Education.  As part of privatization ideology and the promotion of PPPs, ideas from business and business leaders have been marketed as important to the improvement of education.  This is ubiquitous and has given most educators a lot of headaches.  Primary, secondary, and higher education have suffered from the call for business plans, strategic plans, performance budgets, right-sizing, impact evaluation, and the like.  Evaluations of teachers have multiplied, usually tied to a few very narrow indicators.  School district superintendants  and university presidents are now called chief executive officers, and too often selected with a business background instead of an education one.  And, most common, is that task forces and commissions on education routinely give pride of place to business executives, as if business strategies translate to education strategies.  Nowhere is this more visible globally than in the World Economic Forum’s task force on education.  They have been a major voice in global education reform such as the post-2015 discussions.


Post-2015 Directions.  EFA targets and MDGs will not be met in 2015, and there is lots of activity, around the world, examining potential post-2015 directions.   Perhaps the most comprehensive and influential is that done by the U.N. appointed High Level Panel (HLP) which sets out 12 goals and 54 measureable targets.  Goals such as the elimination of poverty and hunger — as well as the others — are laudable, as is the ethos of sustainable development that underlies the whole report.  But unfortunately, the report is based on an ideological commitment to a neoliberal context.  For example, the report acknowledges that the eradication of poverty has been “promised time and again.”  But there is no recognition of the causes of the repeated failure to achieve this goal — causes that are built into our economic system.  Poverty is not a failure of our economic system;  inequality and poverty are the result of the successful functioning of our economic system. 


At one point, the report does recognize the need for “structural changes in the world economy,” yet, throughout,  the HLP report just calls for more of the same.  It takes almost a religious fundamentalist view of a market system and a pro-business ethos.  It calls for an “enabling business environment.”  It argues that “business wants, above all, a level playing field,” and is willing to pay “fair taxes” and “promote labor rights.”  What nonsense!  No business wants a level playing field.  Wasn’t it Lee Iacocca, former chair of Chrysler, at the time of his government bailout, who said, “Socialism for me, capitalism for everyone else.”  Profit-maximizing businesses naturally want any advantage they can get.  If they can get away with it, and many do, they want to pay no taxes.  And they certainly do not champion labor rights.  The history of capitalism is one of struggle, where business has been dragged kicking and screaming to give concessions to workers.


This is not particularly a criticism of business, it is simply a description of its natural state in a market system.  Our market system has been eulogized and subsidized for a long time, most especially for the past 30 years, yet inequality, poverty, and unemployment remain rampant.  Why would we expect the market system to perform any better between now and 2030?  Where are decent jobs supposed to come from?  How will “no person be left behind?”  The best that the HLP can come up with is the by now shopworn idea of a global partnership.  But this is a false partnership; we are not all in this together.  We live in a world full of conflicting interests, there are debates that permeate every aspect of policy.  The report touches on none of this.


Engaging post-2015 goals while neoliberalism operates business as usual will not get us very far.  Many would argue that EFA and the MDGs have not gotten us very far.  For example, the international community has been promising Universal Primary Education for 50 years.  By the time it is reached the payoff to primary education in terms of jobs and access to schooling will be considerably reduced, and the disadvantage of not having primary education will be replaced by the even bigger disadvantage of not having secondary education.  It could be argued that, despite good intentions, EFA and the MDGs were not serious efforts.  Instead, they were there to legitimate a fundamentally unfair system by promising education and social improvement but delivering little.  


We have endured 30+ years of a Great Experiment.  With no evidence whatsoever, government was attacked and, in many ways, dismantled, and business and the market were put forth as saviors.  However, in education and elsewhere, the results of this Great Experiment have been dismal.  It is time to end this experiment with neoliberal capitalism.  Whether this means trying to move beyond capitalism entirely or whether it means the development of a new kind of welfare state is worth discussion.  What it certainly means is to re-establish the legitimacy of government. What needs to be front and center is the call for a large, vibrant public sector that puts limits on the market, that promotes and creates decent employment, that provides for the production of public goods, that develops an adequate and fair system of taxation, that redistributes wealth, not just income, and that is run as a very participatory democracy. 


Steven J. Klees is the R. W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland. Email:


This blog first appeared on 10th September 2013 on Education International’s ‘Education in Crisis’ Blog

Disclaimer: The views given in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be attributed to NORRAG or its members. Readers are invited to comment below.  

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