Why Education is not a Commodity

The arguments advanced by government ministers like David Willetts for the draconian reform of university funding are confused and specious. They would certainly fail any exam in logic. Rather than reason, they depend on various forms of mediatised rhetoric, like Orwell’s newspeak, or doublespeak, or what the writer Steve Poole has called unspeak—although sometimes they amount to simple misrepresentation, derived from hasty and inadequate statistics, or falsehood resulting from denial.

The confusion begins with the slipperiness of the words being used—like when is a debt not a debt? It seems to depend on who owes it to whom, although you can also try calling it a graduate tax. As Rafael Behr recently put it, debt is ‘a curse and a blight, except when incurred by students to pay university tuition fees, in which context it is an opportunity and an engine of social mobility’. There is also confusion with regard to unexamined but fundamental concepts, like speaking of a market for education. Markets deal in commodities, but what exactly is being bought and sold in the case of education?

The first clue comes in this passage from Michel Serres:

“To illustrate the importance of knowledge sharing, I would like to tell you a little lesson in economics: I have a block of butter, and you have three Euros. If we proceed to do a transaction, you will, in the end, have a block of butter, and I will have three Euros. We are dealing with a zero sum game: nothing happens from this exchange. But in the exchange of knowledge, during teaching, the game is not one of zero sum as more parties profit from the exchange: if you know a theorem and teach it to me, at the end of the exchange, we both know it. In this knowledge exchange there is no equilibrium at all, but a terrific growth which economics does not know. Teachings are the bearers of an unbelievable treasure – knowledge – which multiplies and is the treasure of all humanity.” (Michel Serres)

In other words, education is not a commodity like a bar of chocolate or a cafe latte, which is physically consumed till there’s nothing left. Nor is it like a motor car or a washing machine, which are durable but eventually break down and have to be replaced, since an education is never replaced but only added to, extended and renovated (‘life-long learning’ anyone?). Perhaps it’s a bit like a book in constituting a store of knowledge, but it isn’t a physical object and doesn’t create a second-hand market, although it seems to be something you can cash in on, because it’s supposed to guarantee you a better income. However, education also goes on domestically and informally, and you can also pass on bits of it for free without depriving yourself of what you’ve passed on. (The early rabbis thought of it as like the flame of a candle.) The teacher is someone who gets paid for doing this, but they’re not selling an object, they are performing what Adam Smith called a service.

Education is closer to live artforms like theatre, music, exhibitions and circuses, where the price of admission buys you the right to an experience, but not an object you can carry away with you except in your mind. Modern media have blurred the boundaries between different forms of cultural consumption, but there’s still a distinction between going to the cinema and watching a film privately at home on a DVD. Choosing a course of study, however, is not like deciding what to see by reading the critics or watching the trailers—the league tables are no more reliable a guide than the year’s ten best lists, and corporate styles of advertising have no demonstrable effect on recruitment. (Although this doesn’t stop universities engaging in expensive rebranding exercises. According to a report in the Sunday Times (2 Jan 2011), at least two universities paid consultants as much as £100K to redesign their logo and add or subtract a single word.)

If education is not a regular kind of commodity, it also means that the work of the teacher is of a different kind to that of someone whose output can be measured in terms of productivity. It’s more like that of doctor or nurse, where quality of attention matters just as much as quantity. In a famous passage in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that the labour of some of the most respectable as well as some of the most frivolous orders in society is in this respect the same: churchmen, lawyers, physicians and men of letters on the one hand, and on the other, buffoons, musicians, opera singers, dancers, etc. All of them, he says, fall into the category of ‘perishable services’, a type of activity which ‘does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject, or vendible commodity, which endures after the labour is past.’ Discussing this passage, what this comes down to, says Marx, is that only labour that reproduces capital is economically productive: ‘a singer who sings like a bird’ (the kind of singer who like the young Mozart, sits with the servants) ‘is an unproductive worker. When she sells her song, she is a wage earner or merchant. But the same singer, employed by someone else to give concerts and bring in money, is a productive worker because she directly produces capital.’

Oddly, neither of these writers mentions teachers, but someone who does is Schiller. Coming between Smith and Marx, Schiller, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind, drew a pertinent distinction between the work of the craftsman or artist and that of the teacher. When a craftsman, he said, works on his raw material he has no scruple in doing it violence. The artist has just as little scruple, but avoids showing it (which was true in Schiller’s day, though not in ours). But in pedagogy things are very different, because the material with which the educator works is not inert, but the same as the goal, namely, the human being. Do violence to the material you are working with and you can no longer achieve your aims, because your ends and your means are the same. (He adds that there’s another kind of person who has to operate by the same principle—the politician. Unfortunately this was probably a piece of wishful thinking even then. It’s certainly not true today, when our politicians lie through their teeth.)

Classic writers all of them, none could have remotely imagined the specious measures of productivity devised by neoliberal managerialists and policy makers who are utterly alienated from the experience of teaching or caring, but insist on quantifying their outputs. In Schiller’s terms, to treat the student managerially is a form of systemic violence which breaches the very principles of pedagogy. This managerialism isn’t new, but goes back to the first reform of higher education by Mrs Thatcher 25 years ago. Thatcherism devised a reform of higher education based on the advice of the accountants and business consultants Coopers and Lybrand. The idea was to place higher education institutions in direct competition through a ranked assessment system based on the inspection of courses, with the allocation of student numbers, and hence funding, as the reward (or punishment). To the question what is good and who does the ranking and the judging, the answer was built in to the system. What looked superficially like an extension of the peer review system which guided British higher education in the past, became a systemic process in the form of a categorized audit conducted by trained assessors. (On one occasion I was present at one of these inspections when someone else turned up on the last day, who was introduced to us as ‘being here in order to assess the assessors’.) Many of these features were pioneered in the polytechnics, which Thatcher subsequently turned into universities, such as using student numbers and staff/student ratios to determine the quantity of funding and thus ensure expansion in more popular courses according to the rule of the market. But what do you do in domains like education where market mechanisms do not come naturally, because you’re not dealing with a regular kind of commodity?

Managerialism is normative, bludgeoning people into compliance, and ‘better management’ is not only a euphemism for management according to market principles, but also more management (which by definition falls into the category of unproductive labour—it would be more productive to send them to work for the Inland Revenue.) The system relies on statistics about ‘course delivery’ in order to monitor ‘student satisfaction’. But what part of the experience of the student can possibly be expressed through answering the questionnaires through which such statistics are compiled? Nothing essential, because the process they’re passing through is not quantifiable in this way. (For example, I can imagine a situation where a good student can learn a great deal from a poor teacher, while a poor student will never learn very much even from the best teaching.) From my own students I have learnt that these questionnaires are mystifying: they do not know who they’re addressing, or what notice is taken of anything they say. The resulting statistics become a managerial tool which suppresses the lived experience of both student and teacher (not to mention the support staff). So of course what happens next is focus groups.

The student’s work is quantified by the teacher in a very particular way—the examination—but in the university context, the student needs the collective experience of the class plus the individual attention of the tutorial and their own private study. In each situation every student learns at their own rate, but the different modes reinforce each other. The dialogue between ‘teaching and learning’ is therefore very fluid and rather slippery. In fact, in managerial terms, education is a highly imperfect business. While from the point of view of the teacher, it is not a business at all—except for the Mr Gradgrinds of this world. Unfortunately these now include a large number of Vice Chancellors.

Pedagogy is not like the production of commodities, education is not like mass production, teachers are not like production-line workers, and students are not commodities, they are individuals. From the individual’s point of view, learning is not a matter of statistics about ‘learning outcomes’, but it’s affected by the amount and quality of attention you receive. To increase the numbers of students in higher education while proportionately reducing the funds to support them does not improve the efficiency of teaching, it impairs it, and experience shows this is what happens when teachers have to lecture more with less time to prepare their lectures; and then have less time to assess the students’ work and give feedback because there are more students for each lecturer to see, and staffing has not increased in proportion with the students.

But the costs of mismanagement are not just monetary costs. There is a deep contradiction here.
First, the entering student is defined as the customer, the same way as the patient in the post-Thatcherite health service. Then the accountants redefine the student as a product, to be fashioned according to the requirements of the end-user, or in simple old-fashioned language, the employer. This is a serious confusion of categories (what Oxford philosophers like Gilbert Ryle called a category mistake) and a highly damaging mischief, for how can the student be both customer and product at the same time? And if the student is indeed a customer then it only shows that customers have no real rights and they’re being short-changed. But our students are not our customers, they’re our students. They are not buying our services and we are not selling them. That is not the nature of the relationship—and the dialogue—which we have with them.

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