Quick-start guide to the Privatisation of Education in the 21st century

Soft drink ad
Soft drink advertisments in a school cafeteria

When someone talks about privatisation of education the first picture that comes into my mind is a school that, to overcome budget cuts, has installed big advertisements of a famous soft drink in classrooms.  Although the possibility this happens tomorrow is very small, there are several hidden forms of privatisation happening right now in European education. These characterisations are less striking than advertisement, but at same time way more sneaky and dangerous: they risk undermining the impartiality of education by reducing it to an exploitable commodity at the service of the labour market.

To better understand the whole process, we first need to distinguish the concepts of privatisation and commodification of Education: during the last decades, these two notions have become two sides of the same coin.

Privatisation of education

The term privatisation usually refers to the process of transferring ownership of certain aspects of education such as financial responsibility, administration and curriculum development, from the public sector (usually the government) to the private sector, either to a profit or a non-profit organisation. This phenomenon has been quite limited in Europe, especially concerning primary and secondary education, since there is historically the predominance of state-run education. This model was theorised during the age of the Enlightenment and it is based on the principle of equal accessibility and decentralised control of education.

The situation is slightly different for higher education, where in the past two decades the role of the private sector has seen an exponential growth. Some recent changes in higher education such as the introduction of the common credit system, the rising cost of the annual tuition fees and the general contraction in accessibility have narrowed the differences between state run and privately run universities. The factors that are leading to privatisation of higher education are varied and awareness of them is useful to understand what might happen, or is already happening, in primary and secondary education.

The very first thing to legitimise private education is to improve its reputation in the public opinion: people have been persuaded that the private service is higher quality, provides a better environment and facilities, and gives better opportunities in terms of employability. The second step is to undermine the competitor, namely the state educational institutions. The latest cuts to public expenditure in education in most European countries, widely excused with the current economic crisis, are becoming the worst threat to state run education and are leading to a progressive impoverishment of entire educational systems.

School budget cuts are paving the way for privates in the governance and provision of Education.

When schools’ budgets are suffering to the extent where schools are uncertain of their ability to pay salaries and ensure the full coverage of school services, the possibility of discharging some activities from the budget through private sponsorships sounds like a great idea. In this way, budget cuts are paving the way for private entities in the governance and provision of education and damaging the image of public education, which can then make the general public to be more in favour of the so-called “healthier” private system.

Privatisation of education therefore is a process that will never work without being backed up by a wide consensus in public opinion. Once again higher education serves as emblematic example: while attending school is still – luckily - perceived as a right (and obligation) for young people, access to higher education is reserved to a limited number of people. Still in many European countries, considering the cost of tuition fees, only if you have solid financial possibilities or you graduated with excellent grades at school, can you afford to attend higher education. The shift from “education as right for all” to “education only for those who can afford it” is yet another factor which can be seen as both a cause and a consequence of privatisation.

Commodification of Education

Knowledge is not the only purpose of education: especially in education that takes place at early stages of life, since it entails several long-term objectives which are more focused on the development of personality, encourageing for example a sense of belonging to a community, and so forth. On the contrary, secondary and tertiary education is more focused on the development of skills and capacities. The objective of knowledge transmission has received more and more attention in the last twenty years.

The profound transformation from classic industrial paradigms based on mass production to a knowledge economy, and the advent of digital technology, have determined a radical shift in the role of knowledge in the economy. Whilst in the past the worker had to execute repetitive manual tasks to produce material goods, nowadays work is mainly intellectual, done through computers and for the production of intangible goods. Knowledge, from being a prerogative of a limited number of engineers or scientists, has become the wrench of today’s worker.

digi picture
A photo is digitalised in pixels in order to be processed. This process is called quantisation and results in a loss of information. A similar thing happens to knowledge when it is standardised.

In a society where data, information and knowhow have become the greatest asset for businesses, it is not surprising that knowledge, and consequently education, have started to be potentially regarded as a commodity. This has led to a process, started in the early nineties known as cognitive capitalism, where knowledge becomes the good for exchange with the highest value.

In education the obsessive focus on the certification and recognition of learning outcomes is a reproduction of the same attempt at standardisation. Just like the field enclosures of the past centuries, with modern intellectual property, portions of knowledge are enclosed in order to profit from their exchange. In modern education these portions are being replaced by ‘skills’.

Tuna can
A useful representation of a set of skills.

 “New Skills for New Jobs” was the name of the strategy published in 2008 by the European Commission, that formalised the idea that the only valid education today is the one that provides young people with the skills valued in the labour market. Today there is a striking tendency in Europe to only consider education in the light of numerable, certifiable and assessable skills, or in other words, concrete qualities young people can put on their résumés for employers to take into account. We constantly hear about basic skills, STEM skills, ICT skills, soft and hard skills, vocational skills and so on. These skills count for standardised tests such as PISA and PIIAC that drive the policy reforms and, in many cases, provide evidence for strategic investments. These policy guidelines are, however, unreliable: first of all they are driven by “economic growth” as the overarching objective, secondly they are drawn from indicators that asses only numerable skills, thus they capture a distorted reality. The surrounding critical objectives of education, such as the capacity of contextualising information, the capacity of living in a community, active citizenship and civic consciousness, are simply not considered because they do not give an economic return.

The main factor that is leading us to consider education as a commodity is not the strong focus on certain kind of skills instead of others, but the unquestionable and categorical urgency to superficially certify, benchmark and compare various aspects of education and classify them as skills.

To conclude, being ready to exploit knowledge and knowhow in the labour market is certainly one of the objectives of education, especially in vocational and higher education, but it is definitely not the only one. Rediscovering why education cannot be treated as a commodity might help each of us in understanding how Education can develop. A long term and holistic vision is better than any statistical survey or comparative table or rank list.

Written by Daniele Di Mitri for the OBESSU campaign Education we Have a Problem, published 18th November 2013 on the OBESSU website.

Published by Daniele Di Mitri

Daniele Di Mitri is a research group leader at the DIPF - Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education and a lecturer at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, Germany. Daniele received his PhD entitled "The Multimodal Tutor" at the Open University of The Netherlands (2020) in Learning Analytics and wearable sensor support. His research focuses on collecting and analysing multimodal data during physical interactions for automatic feedback and human behaviour analysis. Daniele's current research focuses on designing responsible Artificial Intelligence applications for education and human support. He is a "Johanna Quandt Young Academy" fellow and was elected "AI Newcomer 2021" at the KI Camp by the German Informatics Society. He is a member of the editorial board of Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence journal, a member of the CrossMMLA, a special interest group of the Society of Learning Analytics Research, and chair of the Learning Analytics Hackathon (LAKathon) series.

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