The three Axes of School-Merchandization


This is a longer version of the paper presented in Beijing and Dublin in 2005

Main evolutions in the education systems

When we look at the evolution of compulsory education in industrialised capitalist countries, especially in Europe, we notice several important common trends.

The first, and in my opinion the most obvious of these trends, is decentralisation and deregulation. The former centralised education systems, run by state, are transformed into networks of flexible, competitive schools, often managed by local authorities or non-governmental groups. There is given more local power for developing own programs, own teaching methods. In a report published eight years ago, the European research institute on education, Euridice, noticed already that “ the reforms in European education systems can be summarized as a progressive movement towards decentralization and reducing the central power of the state” (Eurydice, 1997).
This evolution is strongly supported by industrial lobbies, like the European Round Table, one of the most powerfull busines lobbies in Europe : “We must encourage manners of training that are less institutional, more informal (…) As industrialists we believe that educators themselves should be free to conduct the same kind of internal searches for efficiency without interference or undue pressures exerted from the outside” (ERT, 1995).
But, as we will notice in some of the next points, this decentralisation and deregulation in the field of management, goes often together with a stronger central state-control on certain specific achievements and on the definition of the objectives of education (skills, work-related learning, preparation for life-long learning).

Secondly, the very fast growth of educational expenses that characterised the fifties, the sixties and the seventies has been dramatically slowed down in the 80’ and the 90’. In the European Union, the public expenditures for education stagnate since more than ten years around 5% of the GDP (with the notable exception of Scandinavian countries whose expenses remain at a high level, about 7% of GDP) (Eurydice, 2005). In some countries, like Belgium for instance, relative expenses have even been severely reduced while the number of students in higher education continued to grow.

Thirdly, when we look at the school-programs, at the pedagogic aims of education, we see that the emphasis is now not more on knowledge or “general culture”, but more and more on skills : professional skills (mastering a second language, or ICT-related skills) and vague transversal skills (like problem solving) or so-called “social skills” (like adaptability). (OCDE, 1994; CEC, 1995; ERT, 1995; CEC, 1996; Reiffers, 1996; ERT, 1997; OECD, 2001)

We observe also the emergence of a worldwide discourse about life-long learning : primary and secondary schools have to adapt themselves to this new challenge.

Heavy pressure is put on the fast introduction of ICT in schools. The so-called “digital litteracy” is seen as a fundamental skill nowadays AND a way of promoting life-long learning.

The next common trend we observe since about 15 years is a growing social inequality in school. National as well as international studies — like PISA — show that the educational gap between higher-class and lower-class children is widening again in many countries (Thélot and Vallet, 2000; Albouy and Wanecq, 2003; GERESE, 2003; Nicaise et al., 2003). The process of generalising comprehensive education that marked the 60’s and the 70’s has been stopped. We notice a return to a stronger and a sooner selection, which turns often into a social selection. The aim to democratise the access to general higher secondary education has often been abandoned for a so-called “second chance” education, which usually means a work-oriented vocational training.

And precisely, the next trend is a growing work-orientation of education. More emphasis is put on vocational training, on work-related teaching, on developing partnerships between schools and private companies, on promoting “entrepreneurship” in education. (CEC, 1995; CEC, 1997; CEC, 2000b; CEC, 2001b; OECD, 2001)

Not only do schools go to business, business comes also into school. We notice a tremendous growth of diverse forms of commercial presence in the schools : putting advertisements on the school-walls or upon teaching-material, sponsoring of activities by private companies (GMV-Conseil, 1998). Or even using education to sustain the market of IC-technologies, as the European Union decided in Lisboa five years ago. (CEC, 1996; CEC, 1997; CEC, 2000a; CEC, 2000b; CEC, 2000c; CEC, 2001a)

And so we come to the last common trend, where we see education becoming itself a new profitable market: private teaching, private schools, private management of schools, on-line learning, in one word: Education business. 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” (Newman, 2000) Following the analyses of Merril Lynch “the situation is ripe for a vast for-profit privatisation of education”. Although this statement could seem somewhat exaggerated in respect of most European countries, where this extreme form of marketisation relates at this moment almost only to higher education and long-life learning, we notice that in other parts of the world the evolution towards privatisation goes much faster (Johnstone, 1998; IFC, 1999; Patrinos, 1999; World Bank, 1999; Robertson et al., 2001). This is especially the case in Far-East and South-East Asia. In South Corea, the private expenses for education have recently surpassed the public expenses (Bray, 2004).

We have also, in Europe, a proces of hamonisation of higher education. The so-called Bologna process. As we will see later, this is actually — at least partly — an adaptation of the global marketization process to specific conditions of universities and higher education.
Economic globalisation

The above sketched evolutions coincide with the process of economic globalisation and the emergence of the so-called “knowledge society”. It seems thus likely — and following a Marxist framework for analysis it seems even obvious — that the developments in the field of education should be linked with the evolution of the economic environment. To develop this point, we have to characterise some aspects and contradictions of economic globalisation. (For a more in-depth analysis, see (Hirtt, 2004))

Since the middle of the eighties, the economy of advanced capitalist countries faces two major challenges.
Firstly, we have an exacerbation of economic competition, which resulted initially from the economic crisis in the late 70’s. This means great instability, high unemployment rates, heavy pressure on public expenditures and a continuous pursuit of competitiveness.
Secondly, industry and services have been entering the era of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies.
These technologies lead to new forms of labor-organisation, with more flexibility, just-in-time production and a fast internationalization of production and exchanges. But it means also more unpredictability, more instability, more unequal development, which in return feeds the exacerbation of economic competition. (CEC, 1997; Field, 1997)
So, while technological development is stimulated by investors, by companies and by governments as a way of solving the problem of competitiveness at the local or national level, it becomes a key-element in keeping up an exacerbated economic competitive environment at an international level

Now we have a global evolution of education systems on one side, and the global economy a on the other side. But how does the first entity produce the second ?

The three axes of school-marketisation

Let us see what are the direct consequences of globalised competition, the three main axes of school-marketisation.

Firstly, the exacerbated economic environment means that investors are constantly looking for new profitable markets. And of course, now that many of the public services in advanced capitalist countries are already privatised, the two billion dollar worldwide education expenses are regarded as a new Eldorado (Patrinos and Ariasingam, 1997; Larsen and Vincent-Lancrin, 2003).

Secondly, the heavy economic competition means that governments are put under pressure to adapt swiftly and narrowly the contents and structures of education so that they respond better to the changing demand of skilled workforces. This explains, of course, the trend towards a more work-oriented education. I will explain later, in detail, what this actually means.

Thirdly, the exacerbated economic relations mean that companies are trying to use the vast commercial opportunities represented by hundreds of millions of students and pupils, to reinforce their commercial presence in schools. And when it concerns sectors that are considered as strategic by governments, as it is the case for ICT-markets, then we see the European Commission itself plead the cause of using education as a mean of stimulating that market: “It is doubtful if our continent will keep hold of the industrial place which it has achieved in this new market of multimedia if our systems of education and training do not rapidly keep pace. The development of these technologies, in a context of strong international competition, requires that the effects of scale play their full role. If the world of education and training does not use them, the European market will become a mass market too late” (CEC, 1996).

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.
The development of new mass-markets in the area of emerging technologies is only possible if the potential clients have the necessary skills to use those products, if they the can overcome their apprehensions. That is, once again, a task for the school system.


Thus far, things could seem quite simple, perhaps even too mechanical. In fact, there are some importants contradictions within this agenda.

An exacerbated economic competition has also an indirect consequence for the education systems. To improve competitiveness of national or local industries and services, governments are urged to diminish fiscal pressure. “Less taxes”, is one of the main demands of their national companies. And less taxes means less financing of public services, especially one the most costly, education. This is, obviously, the first and main explanation for the relative decline of public educational expenses we noticed above and thus, for the decline of material conditions of education.
I call this link “indirect”, because most of the representative organisations of business and capital are not actually demanding to reduce the education-budgets. The European Round Table of industrialists even asked for an increase (ERT, 1989). But at the same time their members ask each national government to reduce taxes.

Therefore, we seem to have a contradiction between the economic demands towards education and the budget-cuts in education expenses. How can education be more effective in producing the workforces needed by the knowledge-society, If it has less financial means, if the material working conditions in education get worse, then it will be more and more difficult to let every child progress towards a high level of knowledge and professional skills. This will leave a great part of future workers without any serious qualification. There are even some people on the left who believe that the growing demand for high-skilled workforces will be sufficient to force governments to invest more in education and to push education systems towards social democratization on the long term.

Unfortunately, as we will see now, this is an excessive optimistic idea. And the “solution” of the contradiction is going to be really disastrous.

“Knowledge society”

Actually, it is a misunderstanding of the concept of “knowledge society” to believe that the future economy will only need high skilled workforces. On the contrary, in all advanced countries where statistics are available, we notice a polarised evolution of labour market. In the US, for instance, when we look at the 30 occupations with the largest job-creation, we see that 22% of them require indeed a very high level of education (a bachelor or doctoral degree), but on the other hand we see that almost 70% of these jobs require only a short-term or a middle-term on-the-job training : cashiers, cleaners, waiters, truck drivers, security guards, home care aides, etc (Braddock, 1999).
The same evolution is noticed in France, where the number of unqualified jobs has grown from 4.3 millions to 5 millions in the last ten years, while it had constantly been reduced during the previous decades (Chardon, 2001).

Polarisation of the education levels needed by the labour market: that is the reality behind the myth of the “knowledge society” in the industrialised countries. And it makes us understand how these societies can manage with social polarisation, with deregulation and with budgetary cuts in their education systems. And why the European Commission can make propositions that would have shocked everybody twenty or thirty years ago : “Education could be rationalised by providing a shorter period of general education which is better tailored to market needs” (CEC, 1993).


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.

Therefore, education is asked to attach less importance to knowledge, which “is nowadays, in our fast-moving societies and economies, a perishable product” (Cresson, 1998), and to put more emphasis on those skills that can guarantee flexibility and adaptability of the workforce.

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.

But the most important skills are so-called “transversal” and “social” skills. An OECD-report puts that very clearly: “In the world of work, there exists a set of basic competences – relationship qualities, linguistic aptitudes, creativity, the capacity to work in a team and to solve problems, a good understanding of new technologies – which have today become essential to possess to be able to obtain a job and to adapt rapidly to the evolving demands of working life” (OCDE, 1998).

The really important thing, in school, is not more to learn, but to “learn to learn”, to be able to adapt quickly to the fast changing technological environment and to the rapid rotation of labour force in industry and services. “The advocacy for lifelong learning rests on the idea that preparation for active life may not be considered as definitive and that workers must (follow) training during their professional life to remain productive and employable” (OCDE, 1997).


Not only the worker has to be able to adapt to a changing environment. Flexibility and unpredictability mean also that education systems themselves have to develop their capacity of adaptation, by becoming more autonomous, more competitive, less dependent from central regulation.
In 1989, the European Round Table wrote 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”. “We must encourage manners of training that are less institutional, more informal”, Concludes the European Round Table of industrialist in 1993 (ERT, 1993).
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 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.

For example, autonomous schools are more likely to engage partnerships with private enterprises. One of the aims of those partnerships is to instil some “spirit of competition” into the world of education. Given that European education systems are traditionally reticent to developing links with the word of enterprise, the European commission sated that “the education systems should review their practice to see what can be learned from [partnerships with business] in terms of motivating learners and of injecting a new perspective into schools or training establishments”.

As the European Commission pointed in the White Paper on Education and Training, “There are many today who think that the time for education outside school has arrived, and that the liberation of the education process which it would make possible will result in the control of education by providers who would be more innovative than the traditional structures” (CEC, 1995).


The above analysis has shown that the present evolution of education systems in advanced capitalist countries is not only the result of political choices. The neo-liberal agenda in education is also, and more fundamentally, a product of objective, material, circumstances in capitalist economy. In my opinion, those mutations mark a new identity between school and business, namely: the transition from the historical era of “massification” of education to the era of “marketisation” of education.

We have to observe that all of the first trends in education policy contribute to stimulate the last one: privatisation. Less regulation opens the door to private investments in education; the emphasis on skills and labour-oriented teaching and the reluctance of public education systems to adapt to this demand makes private education more attractive; social polarisation and budget cuts in education contribute also to make private education investments profitable.
Unless the emergence of a radical and worldwide movement to stop this development, to defend a public and democratic school for all and, above all, to change the economic (dis)order which is generating that evolution, education will quickly evolve towards a polarised system, where “public authorities will only have to ensure access to education for those who will never constitute a profitable market and whose exclusion from the society will grow while others will continue to progress” (OECD, 1996).

The three main aspects of this marketisation mean that the pupils and the students will be regarded as future adaptable producers for industry and services, flexible consumers on the worldwide market and good clients for the emerging education business. But what about educating critical citizens, armed with the knowledge that will make them capable of understanding the world they live in and capable of participating in the transformation of that world ?

Historical background

This process is a new step in a long-term evolution of the capitalist education systems through the twentieth century. Primary school that developed in the newly industrialising countries,in Europe and in the USA, in the beginning of the 19th century, had mainly a fuction of socialising children.
In the second half of the19th century it became essentially 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 socialist ideology. When Jules Ferry founded the French “republican school” 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 historic 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-time 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%. In Belgium, the participation in education at the age-levels of 16-17 years grew up from 42% in 1956, to twice as much, 81%, in 1978.
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. For example, in France the probability for children of white-collar workers to get a higher level of instruction than children of the working class was about 80% some 40 years ago ; but it was still 75% 30 years later. In 1951, 21% of the students in the prestigious “Ecole Polytechnique” were issued from the lower social classes. In 1989 they were only 8%.
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”.


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 this contradiction be solved?

Firstly, the evolution of the labour market involves that it’s not economicly 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 necessary. 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 competion 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 thirth 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 ICT), then you have the main points of the present business-agenda for education.

We have to observe that all of the six first trends in education policy contribute to stimulate the last one: privatisation. Less regulation opens the door to private investments in education; the emphasis on skills and labour-oriented teaching and the reluctance of public education systems to adapt to this demand makes private education more attractive; social polarisation and budget cuts in education contribute also to make private education investments profitable.

One of the 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 possible, 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 members of the World Trade Organisation hope to free up the world market of educational services via the GATS-negociations.

And finally, we have, among the main forces of economic globalisation, the fast development of Information and Communication technologies. By allowing new forms of distance-education, hence new niches that are not controlled by the state, ICT is another very important catalyst of education-business. “The development of different sources of information and knowledge is going to bring about a rapid decline in the monopoly of educational institutions in the domain of information and knowledge” (CEC, 1997).

Deregulation and privatisation, in a context of strong social differentiation, are a basis of unequal development. 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”.

On the other hand, the programs of those schools – and I mean especially the public schools for children of the lower classes – will be dominated by the flexible, all-purpose, competences, required by the labour market. And it will be so to the detriment of the general knowledge, the common culture, that could give those future workers the arms they need to understand the world they live in and to take part in the transformation of that world towards more justice, more equity, more rationality.

In the same time, economy puts pressure on the states to reduce expenses for education. And this reinforces the three main aspects of merchandization.

It’s in this general context that we have to measure the dangerousness of another pressure, coming from economy and business, via international organizations, and asking to liberalize education services. What I have tried to show is that we will not be able to stop merchandization of education, if we do not organize resistance on the three fronts, the three axis of that merchandization.

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.