Education policy forms the basic structure of practice and governance and profoundly affects work and outcomes in education (Arafeh, 2014, p. 1), both through formal structures and laws as well as spoken and unspoken social and cultural norms (Arafeh, 2014, p. 4). All policy, education policy not excluded, involves making compromises to seek balances between freedoms, resources, interests, values, and efficiencies, and often involves redefining values in order to justify and account for the outcome of the decisions made (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, pp. 71–72). Education is a right of citizenship and shaped by national policy, while also largely determining how citizens view the meaning of citizenship in their local context as it relates to their relationship with governing bodies and structures (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, pp. 61–62).
In the past, social welfare policy in the west supported notions of universalism, the belief that individuals’ rights to social welfare should be independent of their ability to contribute to the economic well-being of the nation-state, and that all citizens should have access to every liberty regardless of their station, thus empowering the state to intervene in market processes and redistribute resources in such a way as to balance inequalities. Rights of social citizenship were considered universal, much like civil and political citizenship rights (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 60).In such a policy landscape, support for public education should flourish as a basic right of all individuals in support of democracy, equality, personal fulfillment, and the intrinsic value of every individual and their education (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, pp. 72, 78).
More recently, a global shift towards neoliberal education policies focusing on human capital in a globalized economy, privatization, efficiency, and accountability has occurred (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 72). The importance of national human capital development to economic growth viewed from the neoliberal perspective firmly places education policy in the realm of national economic policy, resulting in the dominance of social efficiency as a policy value and education policy that supports economic productivity of nations and corporations (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 58; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 78). Supporters of neoliberal policy cite the failure of the universal approach to provide balanced service provision to marginalized groups and its inability to address culture in diverse nations and argue that the market offers the only fair way to appraise and allocate resources (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 61).
The shift towards neoliberal education policy poses risks. Education policy is social policy insofar as it promotes welfare, ideology, and social cohesion (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 58). The neoliberal practice of viewing individuals as being only as valuable as their contribution to the free market necessarily results in rebalancing and renegotiating values like equity and democracy, sidelining some values and promoting others (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 76). Policies promoting test-based accountability resulting from this neoliberal perspective of education may oversimplify complex local contextual issues and reduce social justice (Lingard, Martino, & Rezai-Rashti, 2013, p. 539). The focus on education policy to support global economic competitiveness minimizes the value of discourse centered on altruism and assumes that public institutions and governments are threats to individual freedom (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 86). Increasing privatization of education services based on assumptions of greater efficiency runs the risk of corroding state commitment to public education resulting in it becoming a low-quality residual service for the poor and those without the political power to ask for more (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 62; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 87). Decentralization for accountability can decrease national cohesion and, as marginalized students and teachers in low-income schools struggle against the odds to raise scores in subjects on standardized tests, they are more likely to ignore educating students in skills of participatory democracy, further limiting their ability to lobby for more social welfare support (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 68) At the international level, as governments and international aid providers apply results-based criteria to determine whether developing nations receive education funding, there is a risk that developing education systems will lose funding due to low initial capacity or factors out of their control (Holland & Lee, 2017, pp. 26–27).
The proliferation of neoliberal policy in education and tendency to subsume other values to social efficiency as a meta-value risks strengthening historical and economic inequalities by limiting the perception of the value of the individual to their worth in the global market and furthering a reductive notion that success is proportional to effort regardless of starting conditions (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 78). As state service provision is eroded by increasing privatization, civics education is ignored to secure funding by increasing standardized test scores in core subjects, and the tone of the prevailing discourse paints governments as disconnected and inefficient, education policy devalues citizenship within the state and bolsters the neoliberal view that acting in self-advancing ways to increase one’s status in the global market should supersede altruism and civic responsibility (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, pp. 87–88). Rizvi & Lingard (2010) state that the goals of education include “ the development of knowledgeable individuals who are able to think rationally, the formation of sustainable community, and the realization of economic goals benefiting both individuals and their communities” (pg. 71) The current neoliberal bent in education policy promises only to address the economic. Where then will individuals turn to develop the capability to act as rational, informed citizens of sustainable communities if success in a global market economy does not support the development of such individuals? What is the cost to be borne by global social welfare and democracy in the pursuit of economic gain?
Arafeh, S. (2014). Orienting Education Leaders to Education Policy. In N. M. Haynes, S. Arafeh, & C. McDaniels (Eds.), Educational leadership: Perspectives on preparation and practice. Toronto: UPA. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/brocku/detail.action?docID=1911841
Bell, L., & Stevenson, H. (2006). Educational policy, citizenship, and social justice. In L. Bell & H. Stevenson (Eds.), Education policy: process, themes and impact (pp. 58–73). London: Routledge.
Holland, P. A., & Lee, J. D. (2017). Results-based Financing in Education: Financing Results to Strengthen Systems. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Lingard, B., Martino, W., & Rezai-Rashti, G. (2013). Testing regimes, accountabilities and education policy: commensurate global and national developments. Journal of Education Policy, 28(5), 539–556.
Rizvi, F., & Lindgard, B. (Eds.). (2010). Education Policy and the Allocation of Values. In Globalizing Education Policy (pp. 77–92). New York: Routledge.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.