Neoliberalism in Education: The Consequences and Pushbacks for Students

By Azra Hirji.

Since the 1970s, neoliberalism has taken over as the dominant ideology of today which whilst becoming more and more favourable amongst the minority, becomes increasingly unfavourable by the majority. To put this into simple terms, neoliberalism works in favour of large corporate interests at the expense of the wider public interests.

In the three-minute theory video on neoliberalism, Stacey Kerr states that neoliberalism is a political philosophy which places emphasis on the freedom of the individual, encouraging one to take responsibility of their own well-being rather than the government taking on this role. Neoliberalism steers towards business interests as it transfers market values into all aspects of life, encouraging privatization, consumerism, and competition. As Sophie Dodge puts it, neoliberalism is a “totality” in that it affects not just the economic, political and social system, but it also causes drastic changes to the mindset behind the education system. Education in its purest form is meant to plant seeds and cultivate critically minded and considerate citizens. Since the shift towards neoliberalism, around the start of the twenty-first century, education has transformed into a concept centred around competition. Its purpose has evolved towards preparing students for democratic life, whereby success is measured merely through revenue and consumerism, oppressing and ignoring the essential learning that stems from creativity and imagination.  Through standardized testing and narrowing the curriculum, educational reformers have created a competitive environment ensuring success for those who would best suit the neoliberalist world. Essentially, the highest academic achievers succeed, leading to the increasing disparity amongst children.

As neoliberalism is standardizing education, it also deregulates education by being pro-privatization, and supportive of charter schools. The privatization of public education gives governors and education reformers the power to control funding towards schools in a more efficient manner. It also allows for schools to be specialized and thus accomodate to certain students needs. However, this privatization can also give rise increased competition and inequality. In her article in The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, an education reporter from the Washington Post states that the American Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, along with support from President Donald Trump, has a mission to change traditional public schools. DeVos and President Trump’s view is that the public school system in America is a “dead-end” and should be privately operated like charter schools. Some could argue that neo-liberalist ideology suggests that education should be publicly-funded but privately-operated. They argue that this gives parents alternatives to traditional public schools for families who have poor educational options in their neighbourhoods. Critics on the other hand, argue that through this privatization, accountability levels and transparency will decrease, which could lead to major oversight and financial or political scandals. According to statistics from the Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio charter schools appeared to have misspent public money nearly four times more often than any type of taxpayer-funded agency in 2015. That is not to say that charter schools are faulty and should be shut down, but their initial purpose was for experimentation of new methods and techniques of teaching. Whilst this is the main purpose of charter schools, they are also formal institutions of education and the students who attend such schools rely on their charter school as their main source of knowledge. These students are not simply “lab-rats” – they must be given equal rights to education and this involves treating charter schools with the same importance as every other educational institution. Charter schools must be strictly regulated, so if all public education were to be privatized it would be logistically impossible, practically speaking, to monitor every school in the country.

The Canadian education system has seen a large transition over the past few decades as neoliberalist thought influences the way that education ministers are handling schools. At the time of the Common Sense Revolution in Ontario in 1996, the former minister of education John Snobelen introduced Bill 160 which created a “useful crisis”, whereby student funding was cut, learning support staff were sacked, and in essence, the power of the teacher’s union was reduced in order to privatize the public education system (Dhali, 2018). As Saltman points out, disaster provides a means for businesses to accumulate profit and by reforming education in such a way, this is exactly what Snobelen aimed to do (Dhali, 2018). In this era of neoliberalism, the recoveries from crises are seen as an opportunity to expand the private sphere – whilst Education ministers should have students and their wellbeing at the forefront of their priorities, Snobelen prioritized the interests of private corporations.  

These large scale issues are present throughout Canada, such as the Quebec student protest movement of 2012, which was said to have been one of the “most powerful challenges to neoliberalism on the continent”. On May 25th, there were an estimated half a million people who marched against the hike of tuition fees in Quebec. Many of the province’s CEGEPs and universities were shut down and the students used aggressive measures to convey their messages – they were banging pots and pans down the streets and as Hallword refers to it – “this was the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history”. The students of Quebec were not only fighting against proposed tuition hikes, but against the neoliberal austerity measures of the government. The tuition hike meant that many working class students would have to drop out of university and it would prevent economically disadvantaged students from gaining access to higher education. For some protestors participating in the student strikes and demonstrations , it was not even about the hikes, but it was merely a matter of principle – the rise of neoliberalism was creating a generation collectively burdened by financial hegemony and unjust social order. The young people of Quebec used social media to build empowerment and spread hope of an inclusive future of justice and equality. During their protests, they argued for higher education to be more sustainable and available to all as a democratic public right that should be in the interests of the students.  

As expected, the government was unwilling to understand the bigger picture and mainstream media sided with the government by downplaying the significance of the tuition hike which consequently aggravated the protest further. Contesting sources cite victory for their respective sides, therefore it is difficult to determine who ultimately won the protest. The government changed – there was a new minority government (Parti Québecois) in power and the planned 75% tuition was cancelled. Needless to say, there are still many in positions of authority who are in favour of this hike – Canadian politician, Geoffrey Kelley, says that the issue is far from gone as “universities need more money”. Students have retaliated to this statement, arguing that if universities are managed better, they would not need extra money. It stands as a fundamental discourse between the neoliberalists and the current generation of young people who face the ongoing challenge of politics that exploit the education industry.

Ultimately, the Quebec student protest movement along with other youth-led resistance movements, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, represent a response to the neoliberalist discourse which is affecting all aspects of our society. Specifically in education, neoliberalism privileges a majoritarian narrative and hence increases the achievement gap discourse, further plaguing marginalized student groups. As evidenced by the rising student debt crisis and increased advocating for free education, this issue remains at the forefront of discussions between educators as it is seen to be shaping education not only in North America, but around the world.

Additional References

Dhali, H. (2018). Neoliberalism and Education. [Powerpoint Presentation] Retrieved from myCourses

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