The perils of neoliberalism in education


  “Businessmen are the one group that distinguishes capitalism and the American way of life from the totalitarian statism that is swallowing the rest of the world… Businessmen are the symbol of a free society – the symbol of America.”

Ayn Rand, a novelist, playwright, philosopher, and a “founding mother” of neoliberalism


Are you sure, Ayn? Is this misogynist, racist, and insatiably greedy “dude” really the symbol of freedom who will save your country from totalitarianism?

Joking aside, neoliberalism has dominated the western politics for a few decades now, and has had a dramatic effect on all aspects of life, including education.  It looks at all social endeavours as motivated by economic efficiencies and advocates for managing all institutions as corporations, trying to maximise short-term profits.  This approach to education management in the USA has been widely criticised as the main cause of the poor state of the American system of education.  With neoliberal ideology gaining momentum in Kazakhstan’s education – competitiveness and commercialisation are the words du jour in the latest policies – I would like to point out some repercussions of neoliberalism in the US higher education as a lesson for the local enthusiasts of the university-as-a self-governing-business model.

In accordance with the neoliberal principle of minimum government involvement, and favouring privatisation, government funding for universities has plunged in the past few decades, leaving the universities on their own to solve the cash shortage problem.  As businesses, they naturally tried to get more money from their customers (students) by increasing their numbers and raising the prices (tuition fees), and to cut costs.  So the most obvious thing that happened in the past 30 years or so, is a dramatic rise in tuition fees that is likely to continue.

Cost cutting could not be done at the expense of the facilities, as that would not allow them to attract more students, so the burden fell on the teaching staff.  As a result, American academia is now facing what they call the adjunct crisis: most professors in US universities are now adjunct professors, i.e. part-time contract workers with no benefits and no office, but with a possibility of losing even this low paid (some report $15K/year) job at the end of school year.  Even then, a large portion of the teaching at undergraduate level is done by graduate students.  So far, the cost has gone up, the quality down, and the labour ethics towards Walmart.  This, by the way, has started happening in Kazakhstan: in a staff optimisation campaign at one large private university, dozens of teachers were made redundant, whole departments in fact, with their load transferred to part-timers.

Another issue here is the fate of arts, humanities, and social sciences.  With less support from the government and less interest from the students (which is also a result of neoliberal idea of education as a tool for making money), there has been a steady decline in the number of these departments in American universities.  If this trend continues, this may have a significant cultural and social implications.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science has been vehemently pushing universities towards immediate commercialisation of their research.  This pressure, in a similar fashion, may drain the less “commercialisable” departments of resources and make our tertiary education highly specialised and technocratic, as it was in the Soviet Union, which produced armies of engineers with questionable employment prospects.

I believe education is not an industry, but an important social structure, and universities must not become profit-driven corporations.  While American higher education is strong and retains its quality despite being subjected to the wilderness of the free markets, Kazakhstan’s universities may suffer considerable losses if subjected to the same harsh treatment.


One thought on “The perils of neoliberalism in education

  1. Excellent editorial writing. This one in particular will be a key addition when you decide to start writing the Chshebakov Manifesto (5/5).


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