The Comoditisation of Education is Bad!

Today is November 30th, strike day across the UK. Universities across the country are being occupied in protest against the ‘reforms’ that are planned to come in next year, public workers are protesting against the changes to pensions that will see them paying more for longer in return for a smaller payout in many cases. As an NUT member, I joined a rally in Coventry, where I live, but the other thing I can do is blog about why this government’s actions are so regressive.

The reasons why the pensions are so important to teachers and other public sector workers have been very publicly and cogently discussed, so I want to write about education specifically, from the earliest years to university. The plans of the government do in fact make sense if you are comfortable with the ongoing comoditisation of education. If it makes you at all uncomfortable, now is the time to speak out and call for a cultural change at all levels of society.

Comoditisation is the process of industrialising education – in the way farming is industrialised, think chicken farm. All that matters in highly comoditised education is the results, the outcomes and grades that are achieved at the end. What matters in secondary education at least is the overall results that the school achieve, it is those grades that to a very large extent determine what assessment the school inspectors, OFSTED, give the school. There is an incentive for schools, in particular the leadership, to not focus on teachers or individual students, except as means to achieving their overall targets.

You might think that the commercialisation of education would bring benefits to students as they gain power as the ‘customer’ in the game. I think that’s a wrong view of things – the customer in this game is not the one you might expect.

You can see this effect at play at Facebook. You might imagine that as a user with a profile at Facebook that you are a customer. Wrong. the advertisers are the real customers who actually are sold a product: you. When Facebook makes changes the site that make life more difficult for you, or change your privacy settings to make more things public than you wanted, you have to ask why. Why are they doing things that upset users, that make it more difficult to do the things that they want? For one, very few of the users are actually going to leave the service, but secondly, the changes are made to benefit the real customers.

It’s the same in education: the real customers are not the students, it’s the big companies that sponsor universities, it’s the government targets and funding that keep schools open. The students are a means to an end, factory-farmed animals that are fed and watered, kept alive and in reasonable health because to do otherwise would undermine their production value. Teachers and lecturers have gone from skilled small-holders to farm-hands to replaceable production line workers in the minds of the DFE, despite struggling to replace the increasing turnover. They seem to believe that the business plan, the curriculum is what will change the results that they demand, they seem to think that the contribution of teachers is minimal – why else would they cut investment. If the students were seen as individuals, as actual people, if teaching staff were the key resource in transforming the lives of those human beings, why would they be cutting them?

Setting a target at the national level seems fine, even appropriate, until they filter down levels to the micro scale. Students are not numbers or points to be banked. They need to be seen as individuals, cared for and cultivated into the successful people they can be by skilled educators given the resources and support that they need. Students are not merely the future of this nation, they are present now, with needs and dreams now.

Taking on massive debt is sold as an ‘investment’ in the future to students, which underscores the production mentality of twenty-first century education. Nothing is done for the now, for the benefit of the student and the enrichment of her life. It is all so that in the future they might be productive. We are creating a generation of students for whom learning is either a luxury or a chore to be endured until they can do something actually important. Teaching is set up as different to doing, inferior and passive – a production line task. Life long learning is rhetoric, unreal and undesirable in the culture that is being created.

The US is often used as an example of the success of high-cost, ‘high-value’ education, with the Ivy League colleges regularly topping the lists of best universities in the world. Yet the high cost of education is one of the key reasons that despite the ‘American dream’, social mobility is lower in the US than in Europe – high cost education means the rich keep on being rich and it is harder for the poor to become rich.

Education is not the only public service to go down this road in the UK, many others are seeing the same process – the health service is another good example. Commoditisation is a dehumanising process, one that we must oppose and suggest practical alternatives to. The strikes and the Occupy movement are a chance to say ‘no’, but we must go on to start exploring constructive ways to change the system.