Yes, the marketization of education is still a bad idea

by Alexander Beunder

This article appears in Krantje Boord #9 Oktober 2011

The “Strategic Agenda” of the Dutch Ministry of Education, approved in July 2011 by the government, is to pursue more marketization of education and stimulate intensive cooperation between education and business. Is this so bad? Do we have to discuss this again? Are there alternatives? Yes, yes and yes.

The “strategic agenda for higher education” – a long-term vision on Dutch higher education – was written under state secretary of Education Halbe Zijlstra. It’s approval in July 2011 by the government and the national
council of higher education institutions gives Zijlstra a mandate to translate the Strategic Agenda into concrete
legal reforms, which will probably be presented to parliament little by little.

The philosophy behind the Strategic Agenda is pretty obvious: higher education is to be subjected to market forces. The agenda includes plans to

  1. differentiate tuition fees, thus allowing schools to charge fees above the legal maximum,
  2. allow selection – and thus exclusion – of students by schools,
  3. abolish the student finance for the Master-phase,
  4. stimulate a specialization of schools – thus abolishing certain disciplines – according to their core business, and the involvement of businesses in carrying out this specialization and
  5. the further attraction of private capital into (now semi-) public schools.

It all sounds very plausible: let markets rule education, submit schools to the rules of competition, supply and demand, and you will see they’ll become more efficient, innovative and dynamic (there’s no shortage of buzzwords). But there’s one huge flaw of markets, recognized by all economists, which is that they don’t take into account “social costs and benefits”. Let’s name a few of these costs and benefits related to education, which are ignored by Zijlstra’s Strategic Agenda. There’s no need for us to formulate these ourselves, as there is already a huge amount of literature on the topic.

The Indian economist, Jandhyala B. G. Tilak, argued that allowing tuition fees to rise will inevitably lead to “the exclusion  of the poor from the consumption of education [which] will result in a loss of overall equity as well as efficiency in the economy.” The benefits of having a sufficiently “educated citizenry” are simply too big to ignore; from higher productivity, to better democracy, equity and lower crime rates. The benefits are often non-measurable, but definitely exist, Tilak explains. When access to education is left to the market, too few people will enter education as it becomes too expensive for them.

Other social costs arise when education becomes dependent on corporate sponsors – a tendency encouraged by the Strategic Agenda. Firstly, corporate funding of research leads to a sort of “knowledge capitalism” which treats knowledge as a commodity and restricts the dissemination of it, explains Tilak. Indeed, corporate sponsors tend to patent knowledge or even prohibit the publication of research results when it’s in their private interest to keep it from the public – or it’s competitors. What’s more, even when new discoveries are made, they often don’t reach the public because of what law professor Michael Heller called the tragedy of the anticommons; to bring a new product, for instance a new medicine, to the market often requires the impossible task of negotiating with dozens of patent holders. Another problem is that corporations want results from researchers tomorrow, not in twenty years. Unfortunately, the most significant scientific breakthroughs are believed to stem from long-term research which no private sector will ever finance.

Secondly, ‘the market’ will not sponsor students’ education without asking something in return. The private sector prioritizes education which prepares students for the labour market and raises their future productivity. However, as economist Ha-Joon Chang says, “education is valuable, but its main value is not in raising productivity. It lies in its ability to help us develop our potentials and live a more fulfilling and independent life”. This value of education is  obviously undervalued by the market.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to the Strategic Agenda. We could learn from the German students who managed to abolish tuition fees in certain states through persistent campaigns. Laws and funding schemes can be designed to disseminate knowledge publicly, instead of allowing private ownership and control over it. Students can try to regain their lost influence over the governance of their schools. Zijlstra’s Strategic Agenda is just a political one, and politics can always be resisted.

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