The “merchandization” of education: not only GATS


If you allow me, before speaking actually about GATS and privatization of education, I would like to begin with giving some historical and economic background of the problem. In my opinion this is essential to measure the specificity and the dangerousness of the present offensive of markets on education.

The main idea of this contribution is that what is happening today is a historic transition from the era of “massification” of education to the era of “merchandization” of education. In a context of great economic uncertainty and of growing inequality on the labour market, the education systems are summoned to adapt themselves, in order to sustain more efficiently the economic competition, in a threefold process: first, by educating the workforce and adapting it to the so-called “knowledge economy”; 2nd, by educating and stimulating the consumers; and third, by opening itself to the conquest of the markets. As a matter of fact, we have to speak about a threefold “merchandization”, that concerns the education system in all its dimensions: curricula, organization, management and even pedagogic methods. As the European experts say in one of their main documents: “The features of the 21st century company must be taken into account by education and training systems”

Historical background

This process is a new important step in a long-term evolution of the capitalist education systems. We have to understand this evolution, because some people believe that in capitalist countries education has always been in service of capitalist economy and that the present trend towards merchandisation is in fact nothing really new. Well, that is a wrong idea.
Primary education that developed in the newly industrialising countries in the beginning of the 19th century, like the Städtische Volksschulen and the Armenschulen here in Germany, had mainly a function of socialising and moralizing children.
In the second half of the19th century the school became more and more a part of the state ideological apparatus. Its main function was not to produce skilled workforces, but to instil some political and moral values, to counter the growing danger of organized proletariat and socialist ideology. It’s the time when Emperor Wilhelm II declares, here in Berlin in 1889: “Schon längere Zeit hat mich der Gedanke beschäftigt, die Schule in ihren einzelnen Abstufungen nutzbar zu machen, um der Ausbreitung sozialistischer und kommunistischer Ideen entgegenzuwirken. In erster Linie wird die Schule durch Pflege der Gottesfurcht und der Liebe zum Vaterlande die Grundlage für eine gesunde Auffassung auch der staatlichen und gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse zu legen haben”.
At the same time, in France, Jules Ferry founded the French “école républicaine” after the repression of the “Commune de Paris”, in 1871, he said: “We ascribe the state the only role it may have in education: maintaining a certain state moral, certain doctrines that are important to its preservation”. Indeed, the mass graves of the First World War are the historical testimonies of how successful the European capitalist societies have been in using education to instil patriotism.

But from the beginning of the 20th century, the technological development in industry and the growth of the state administration created a need for some more skilled workforces. Progressively the secondary school opened vocational classes where a minority, the most worthy children of the working class, could expect a chance of social ascension. But thereby the education system began also to act as an instrument of social selection. The performance of the children, at the end of their primary education, became the criterion for deciding who would continue in the secondary school.

The era of massification

The economic role of education dramatically increased after WWII, during the 30 years of strong and almost permanent economic growth, of heavy and long-term technological innovations, such as electrification of the railroad, harbour and airport infrastructures, highways, nuclear technology, telecommunications, petrochemical industry, etc. Sectors that used low-skilled workforces, like agriculture, mines or quarries, were in decline. Upcoming sectors, like mechanical and chemical industries, electronics, electro mechanics, bank-services, repair stations, state administrations, and so on, needed more and more high skilled workforces. It was an era that demanded a general and permanent elevation of the mean level of instruction of workers and consumers.
A rapid “massification” of secondary and, later, higher education backed up this elevation. And the state was able to pay for it, because the economic growth sustained a parallel growth of fiscal incomes.

The mean public expenses for education in Western Europe grew up, from 3% of the GNP (gross national product) in the 50’s, to about 6% at the end of the 70’s. The pace of that “massification” was tremendous: in France only 4% of one generation achieved the baccalaureate in 1946 ; 40 years later they were more than 60%.
I have to insist on one point: it was really a “massification”, not a democratisation of the education. Children from all social classes reached a longer school career, but the relative social inequalities between them did not reduce.
This means that the “massification” of secondary education involved also a “massification” of the social selection. In the past, that selection happened before the entry into secondary school. Now it’s the education system itself that has to sort the children, officially according to their ability or their merit, but in fact often according to their social origin. In other words, the school becomes what Bourdieu called an “apparatus of social reproduction”.

A new economical context

The conditions that had caused and authorized that “massification” of secondary and higher education changed dramatically with the international economic crisis that started at the mid 70’s. But policies have always certain inertia. We have to wait until the end of the 80’s before the economical and political authorities became really aware of the new economic context and the new missions that it imposes on education. To put it in a nutshell: we can mention four characteristics of this new context:
• Exacerbation (« globalization ») of economic competition
• Decrease of state financial ressources
• Higher rate of change (technology, markets)
• « Dualisation » of labour market

Those are the main factors that have determined, since the end of the 80’s, a profound revision of the education policies.
Let’s explore each of them in detail and examine their essential impact on education policies.

Contradictory influences

The two first characteristics we mentioned have apparently contradictory consequences on the education policies. In a context of exacerbation of economic competition, the industrial and financial powers ask the political leaders to transform education so that it can better support the competitiveness of regional, national or European companies.
But on the other hand, the same economical powers demand the state to reduce it’s fiscal pressure and thus to reduce it’s expenses, notably in the field of education.
Obviously, there seems to be a contradiction: how can one enhance the economical role of education, train more skilled workforces, and in the same time reduce the means of education systems to accomplish this task ?
The lobbyists of the European Round Table of Industrialists express this contradiction when they write, in one of their reports : “(in education) We have to use the limited amount of public money as a catalyst to sustain and stimulate the activity of the private sector».
The solution of that contradiction will come from the two other characteristics of the present economical environment.

Instability and unpredictability

The accumulation of scientific and technological knowledge in a context of exacerbated competition induces an accelerated rate of technical and industrial innovation. Civil aviation, a technology dating from the beginning of the 20st century, needed 54 years to conquer a quarter of its potential market. Television needed 26 years. The personal computer needed only 15 years, the mobile phone 13 years and Internet conquered 25% of its potential market in less than 7 years. That implies steadily new production methods, new professions and new markets. Joined to the process of “globalisation”, it also means constant restructurations, delocalisations, closing of factories, creation of new services, etc. The pace of change is tremendous. The horizon of economic predictability is fading away steadily.
In that context, it is almost impossible to predict what will be the precise needs in qualified workforces in the forthcoming five or ten years. Therefore, the main keywords of the new education policy are: flexibility and adaptability. Adaptability of the work-force and of the consumers, to be able to produce and to consume in a fast changing and diversified technological, social and cultural environment. But also flexibility of the education systems themselves, so that they can adapt quickly to the changing demand of industry and services.
Labour-market evolution
The last characteristic of the “new economy” is the contradictory evolution of the labour market. Everybody knows the growing need for high skilled workforces in the area of new technologies: engineers, computer and network specialists, biotechnologists, etc. But what is far less known, is the impressive numerical growth of very low skilled workforces. A study, published in the American Monthly Labour Review, about the expected job growth in the United States during the next ten years, shows that 56% of the fastest growing jobs (in absolute number, not in percent) need only a “short-term on-the-job training”: retail salespersons, cashiers, truck drivers, general office clerks, personal care and home health aides, teacher assistants, janitors, cleaners, nursing aides, receptionists, information clerks, waiters, guards, hand packers and packagers, food counters, fountain and related workers, etc. On a total of 20 million expected job creations in the US, 5 million will need a bachelor-degree or a higher level, but 9 million will need only a short or moderate-term on-the-job training.
Add to this the lasting high levels of unemployment and you’ll understand that we are not more in a period of general growth of the education-levels needed on the labour-market, as it was the case in the 50’s, the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s. Now the labour-market is increasingly stretched, increasingly “polarised”.

Solving our contradiction

Now, what does it actually mean, to adapt education to the needs of business and in the same time reducing state expenses for education? How can the contradiction between putting education in service of economy and reducing the growth of expenses be solved?
The answer is threefold.
Firstly, the evolution of the labour market involves that it’s not at all necessary to give a high level of education, of general knowledge, to all the future workers. From a strictly economic point of view, it is not only possible but imperative to stop the “massification” movement, because that is from now on too expensive and no longer useful. On the contrary, from that same point of view, it is now possible and even highly recommendable to have a more polarised education system.
Secondly, as a result of the unpredictable economic environment, education should not try to transmit a broad common culture to the majority of future workers, but instead it should teach them some basic, general skills, that can be easily put into practice in a fast changing environment. They also have to learn to adapt their knowledge and their skills all along their working life.
Thirdly, to transform the aims of education, the easiest way is to make the education system itself more flexible. The public school system has thus to be transformed into a competitive education-market where everybody will find an education that is exactly suited to its social destiny and its financial capacity.
Why ? In the first place because this deregulation means more autonomy and more competition in the field of education and that is seen as a guarantee for a fast and spontaneous adaptation of the education to the demands of de markets. In the second place, because deregulation is an easy and politically acceptable way of ensuring the imperative social dualisation we mentioned above. And in the third place because it opens the door to the privatization of education, thus reducing state expenses and creating new profitable markets.
When you add to these three points the wish of using education systems as a way of promoting directly some markets (especially in the ICT area), then you have the main points of the present business-agenda for education.

Now, let’s have a look at how all of this has been put into practice in Europe


At the European level, the turning point was 1989, when the ERT, the European Round Table of industrialists, one of the most powerful business lobbies in Europe, published its first report on education. It began with these words: “Education is a strategic issue in European Competitiveness”. But, asked the, ERT : “does our educational system properly prepare people to live and work in Europe (…), does it provide people with adequate new knowledge throughout their working life ?”. And the answer of the business-lobby was : NO. Education is “inappropriate or outdated”. “Industry’s influence on the curricula (…) has been weak” and teachers have “a poor understanding of the economic environment and the nature of business and profit making” . The ERT stigmatises a European education tradition that “allows and even encourages its young individuals to take the liberty of pursuing “interesting”, not directly job-related, studies”. And the industry-lobby concludes : “The technical and industrial development of European industry clearly requires an accelerated revitalisation of education and its curricula”.


Those demands were quickly welcomed. In 1992, article 126 of the Treaty of Maestricht granted for the first time the European Commission with some authority in the field of education. In its White Paper on growth, competitiveness, and employment, published in 1993, the Commission suggested that “the private sector, and businesses in particular, should become more involved in the work of vocational training systems. In order to facilitate this process, appropriate incentives (of a fiscal and legal nature) should be developed”. At the DGXXII, the directorate general for education, Commissioner Edith Cresson initiated a Study Group on Education and Training, under direction of professor Jean-Louis Reiffers. This group took an active part in elaborating the European White Paper, “Teaching and learning : towards the learning society”, published in 1995. One year later, the Reiffers commission publishes it’s own conclusions in a voluminous report. The main idea of this report is: “It’s by adapting themselves to the character of the enterprise of the 21st century that the European education and training systems will be able to contribute to the European competitivity” . The Reiffers-commission only reproduced the demands of the ERT. And another year later, the European Commission reproduced in its turn the recommendations of the Reiffers-Commission in a new very important document : “Towards a Europe of knowledge”. In the mean time, European action programmes, called “Socrates”, “Lenoardo da Vinci”, “Youth” and “Tempus”, allowed those plans to firm up.
In parallel, the European Commission promoted the negociations that lead to the Bologna-process, the creation of a common European higher education-market.
Edith Cresson started the job of creating a European common education policy. But it’s Viviane Reding, the new Luxemburger Commissioner for Education, which officialised the leading role of the European Commission in the field of Education. Firstly by organising, in the year 2000 in Lisbon, a crucial summit on the question of e-Learning. Secondly, by publishing six months later its vision on Lifelong learning and, last but not least, by realising in january 2001, an important synthesis of the visions developed by the member states: “The concrete future objectives of education systems”. This text makes at once clear what the aims of educational reforms are today: “the European Union is confronted with a quantum leap stemming from globalisation and the new knowledge-driven economy”. Thus, the strategic goal to which education has to collaborate is helping Europe “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth”.


It’ impossible to discuss in detail all the aspects of this European education policy. I’ll just point two aspects, deregulation and introduction of ICT, because both are of great importance to understand the movement towards merchandization.

In 1989, the European Round Table published an important report, explaining that “administrative practices are often too rigid to allow education institutions at various levels to adapt to the changes made imperative by rapidly developing modern technology and the restructuring of industry and services”. In another report, six years later, the ERT regrets that “in most of the European countries, schools are integrated in a centralised public system, controlled by a bureaucracy that slows down their evolution and makes them not permeable to the demands coming from outside”.
The European Commission has perfectly well heard the advocacy of the ERT. Since 1995, it has asserted, “the central question now is how to move towards greater flexibility in education and training systems” .
And indeed, the education systems of all European countries have followed a similar evolution towards more autonomy, more competition. In its reports, the European study centre Eurydice emphasises the international character of that movement towards deregulation, decentralisation, autonomy, etc.
The main idea is clear: to dismantle the public school systems, directed by the states, and substitute them by a network of autonomous schools, engaged in a severe competition. Indeed “the most decentralised systems, says the Commission, are also the most flexible, the quickest to adapt and hence have the greatest propensity to develop new forms of partnership ». Autonomous schools are more flexible; and competition will force them to adapt to the changing demands of the environment. That’s the main idea.

Deregulating the education system also results in breaking the national diplomas and degrees, as the traditional way to regulate the labour market. Instead, the economic leaders demand modular certificates for partial skills. They allow a more flexible, and thus less costly, labour market. This goes hand in hand with the attempt at making the “learner” more “responsible”, namely by forcing him to choose those apprenticeships that are really important for the labour market, hence for the employers.


One of the general skills that are more and more frequently asked by the employers is the ability to work in an environment that is dominated by the new information and communication technologies. “All Member States see a need to reconsider the basic skills with which young people should leave initial school or training, and for these to integrate fully the Information and Communication Technologies” says the European commission. Don’t be mistaken by those words: it does NOT mean that they want to train vast masses of computer specialists. As we have already underlined, that is not necessary in a dualised labour-market. But all workers, even those who occupy precarious and low skilled jobs, have to be familiarized with a basic use of those technologies. For example, the thousands of people who will refill automatic dispensers of Coca Cola or some fast food will have to use automated guiding systems, on board of their truck, to optimise their productivity despite the bottlenecks in urban traffic. They also have to be able to learn, by themselves, how to use new software of that kind, because its evolution is very fast. It is assumed that 75% of new jobs will need ICT-capabilities. That is the first reason why ERT and EC insist on the need of giving all young people those general ICT-skills.
People will have to use Internet as the way to keep their knowledge and skills tuned with the needs of their employer. Of course, they will do so at home, during their week-ends or evenings, and they will buy their computer and pay their communications with their own money! That’s what the European commission calls “responsibilising” the workers in their long-life training.

The school has not only to train the workers; it should also educate the consumers. The development of new mass-markets in the area of emerging technologies is only possible if the potential clients have the necessary knowledge and skills to use those products, if they can overcome their apprehensions. That is, once again, a task for the school system. 1n 1997, the Reiffers-Commission wrote: “It is doubtful whether our continent will take its rightful place in this new market if our education and training systems do not rapidly respond to the challenge. The development of these technologies, in the context of strong international competition, requires that the effects of scale play their full part. If the world of education and training does not use IT, Europe will become a mass market too late” Some months later, the European commissioner for education, Edith Cresson, declared at a meeting: “The European market (of ICT’s) remains too narrow, too fragmented; the too small number of users and creators penalizes our industry (…) Thus it was necessary to take a number of initiatives to help it and to stimulate it. That’s the purpose of the European action plan Learning in the information society” .
Three years later, at the European summit in Lisbon, things became even more obvious. The central question at that summit was: “how could Europe catch up with the USA and Japan in the race for controlling the ICT-industry and electronic business?” And the answer was: “e-learning”, massive introduction of computers and Internet in the schools.

Incidentally, that makes us understand how ICT are introduced in education today. There is little global reflection on the conditions of a positive, pedagogic use of those technologies. There is almost no serious training of the teachers (I do not mean training in the use of a computer, that’s easy, but training in it’s correct use as a didactic instrument, what’s far more difficult). Besides, there is no political will to give teachers the material conditions – in terms of class-size for example – to put into practice the pedagogic innovations that ICT could make possible. There is only one thing : investments in machines and Internet connections. Because the aim is simply to let young people get some practice in clicking a button, surfing a hypertext link or pointing a mouse. Nothing more.

Schoolhouse commercialism

Another way of using the education systems in the aim of stimulating markets, can be found in the development of schoolhouse commercialism : advertisements in schoolbooks, sponsoring of educational materials or activities, etc. In most of the european countries, those practices are forbidden by law, although they exist more and more. In 1998, the European commission published a report on “marketing at school” (in fact it has been written on the Commission’s demand by the private group GMV-Conseil, but the Commission publicizes it). That report concludes that: “with some safeguards, advantages of marketing will appear: advantages for school systems with a chronic lack of resources, but also advantages in educational terms because the penetration of marketing into schools opens them up to the world of business and to the realities of life and society”. The study recommends “the national education authorities to update the texts on “commercial practices” and to recognise that certain “good” practices that are already in widespread use are legitimate”.

Education Business

The deregulation of the school and the march towards lifelong learning both open the door to the privatisation of the school. Following the OECD, “the economic, political and cultural globalisation makes obsolete the locally established institution that is anchored in a determined culture, that we call the school, as well as it makes obsolete the teacher” . The European politicians are even more explicit : “the era of school-based education is coming to a close. This will liberate educational process and will place more control in the hands of those providers that are more innovative than traditional educational structures”. Of course, everybody has understood who are those “more innovative” providers…

The 2000 billion dollars of worldwide annual expenses in education are indeed immensely attractive for capitalists who have difficulties in finding profitable investments, especially in the long time. For them, the opening of education to free market is like a New Eldorado. Maybe even the last one!
The American consulting group Eduventures writes that the 1990’s “will be remembered as a time when the for-profit education industry came of age. The foundations for a vibrant 21st century education industry – entrepreneurship, technology innovations and market opportunities – began to coalesce and achieve critical mass».
Following the analyses of Merril Lynch the situation is ripe for a vast for-profit privatisation of education.
The British consultant Capital Strategies indicates that the development of education-business is explained by the growing public investments in new technologies for education, the fast development of partnerships between universities and industry and the trend to growing outplacement of educational services. As you see, this are exactly the consequences of the three axis of merchandization we mentioned above.

One of the most powerful catalysts of the development of for-profit education is, of course, Internet. Because this technology allows distributing educational services worldwide, without any marginal costs (once the investments in scientific research, pedagogical, artistic and technological development, are done, the product can be distributed as many times as you want, without any extra costs).
So Internet opens a vast new educational market, but it has to be a world market to be really profitable. That’s one of the reasons why some countries in the World Trade Organisation hope to liberalise the world market of educational services at the GATS-negociations.
As the World Bank puts it : « the elimination of the physical distance barrier as a result of the ICT revolution means that it is possible for outside institutions and providers to compete with local universities and reach students anywhere, in any country » (World_Bank 2002).

But today, the big education-business is still to be found in traditional higher education and life-long learning. There resides the main bet of the present GATS-negociations on education. As you know, the purpose of GATS is not regulation, but de-regulation. GATS is a one-way ticket to liberalisation: there is no return!
An important question for us is the position of Europe in the GATS-negociations. At a first glance we could be satisfied: Europe did not accept any new commitments on liberalization of education. But we should avoid excessive optimism. Today, Europe is not ready for engaging an international competition in the field of higher education. It’s universities are too small, their offer is not enough coherent, their local small languages are a barrier for further internationalization. That are the main reasons of the present European positioning on GATS. But the Bologna-process has precisely the aim to lift those barriers and to create a Broad European higher education market before 2010. That has been clearly evoked, once again, yesterday at the EuropeanEducation ministers conference, here in Berlin. Thus it is very likely that in 2010 the European position on GATS and education will change dramatically.
I read this morning in a German right-wing newspaper that: “Ein solcher Hochschulraum ist im Übrigen nichts mehr als die akademische Freihet, die schon dass Mittelalter kannte” and he adds: “wohlgemerkt nur für die, die es sich leisten konnten, in den Hochschulstädten Europas zu studieren”. I’m afraid that this is the exact description of what is awaiting us: a return to the middle-age, where quality education was the privilege of those who could pay for it. Tomorrow, we will have, even more than nowadays, schools for the rich and schools for the poor. Private education for those who can afford it, while, following the OECD, the public schools will only have to “ensure access to apprenticeship of those who will never constitute a profitable market and whose exclusion from the society will grow while others continue to progress”

Now, of course, this catastrophic scenario is only going to happen if we do not resist. But that resistance needs two conditions to be victorious. Firstly, we have to resist not only to GATS. Of course, we must say NO to GATS and say it loudly. But that is far from enough. The European leaders also refuse GATS… for the moment. Our struggle must combat merchandization of education in all it’s dimensions, on the three axis I mentioned. Because, whatever happens to GATS, the global pressure is there and it continues pushing the system in the neoliberal direction.
The second condition is that our resistance must be an international one. Facing a global offensive, we have to unite, at least at the European level, and fight together. Well that’s the main reason why we came here in Berlin. It’s a start. Let’s build the next steps.

Nico Hirtt est physicien de formation et a fait carrière comme professeur de mathématique et de physique. En 1995, il fut l'un des fondateurs de l'Aped, il a aussi été rédacteur en chef de la revue trimestrielle L'école démocratique. Il est actuellement chargé d'étude pour l'Aped. Il est l'auteur de nombreux articles et ouvrages sur l'école.