Market madness #7: What markets do to us

The creeping marketization of education has many aspects, each of which changes the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to others.


If education is seen as a commodity; something which can be consumed and traded, then schools, colleges, universities and the courses they offer all enter the market and can be exchanged. What were previously thought of as life-long social interactions and developmental processes become tradeable things. This inevitably changes the relationship between students, teachers and institutions. Students become both consumers; demanding that education ‘delivers’ for them and also commodities; being selected by providers based on their likelihood of success. Teachers ‘deliver’ and institutions ‘perform’.

Valuing and ranking:

To be tradeable, every aspect of learning needs to quantified and given a value. Grades, points, qualifications, measures of progress and added-value all reduce the complex processes of education to numbers. This promotes a hierarchy of worth with ‘outstanding’ schools, ‘top’ universities and ‘facilitating’ subjects at the top of finely graduated hierarchies. The human beings themselves become ‘grade 1 teachers’ or ‘top decile’ students at one end or ‘marginal performers’ and ‘failures’ at the other. This inevitably changes people’s perceptions of their own worth and that of others.


If we exist in a market where everything has a value, we want to seek out the best and there is always something better to aspire to. We need the second-rate or ‘sink’ option to exist in order to scare us into scrambling ahead to escape it. We worship choice and we hope that making the right choice will help us get on. We want to benefit from the inequality, or ‘diversity’, of what is on offer by grabbing something valuable which not everyone can have. However, the market limits the options open to us and only allows us to strive for certain things. It leaves inequalities unchallenged and tends to widen them.


Whether it’s the global economic ‘race to the top’ which can never be won or PISA scores which most governments use to beat up their national education systems, we all seem to be running up an accelerating down escalator and never quite reaching our destination. At the individual level this leads to a general dissatisfaction with ourselves and increasing pressure to make the best choices and achieve the highest grades. If only a clutch of high grade GCSEs at 16 and in facilitating A-level subjects with a place in a Russell Group university are good enough then most students will be ‘losers’.

Is this so bad?

Is the effect of the market really so bad? Surely, striving, dissatisfaction and a hunger for more are great motivators of learning. Are these not classic consumer behaviours?

Dissatisfaction and striving are certainly pre-requisites for learning but they need to be combined with curiosity, a desire to understand and a sense of human fellowship if they are to foster a genuine hunger for learning. To be real learners, we need to be inquisitive rather than acquisitive.

What does this do to us?

The danger of assimilating a market view of education is that in our rush to accumulate its goods and get ahead we lose sight of the fact that learning is a social and developmental process involving human relationships and requiring human solidarity. Certainly, we learn in order to advance ourselves but we are learning from others in the hope of achieving something with others. We will never see other people as our equals or our partners in progress if we believe that their educational advancement is at the expense of ours. Our educational relationships with others should not be economic transactions but human ones; threads in a social fabric which is our only hope of a better world.

Previous Market madness posts:

#1 Oversubscribed?

#2 ‘Choice and diversity’

#3 The well-informed educational consumer

#4 A good system can help schools improve

#5 Qualifications as currency

#6 Students as commodities: premium, discount and remaindered

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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