Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy that emphasizes free markets, individual autonomy, and minimal government intervention.
In the realm of education, neoliberal policies have exposed schools to free market principles like competition between schools and teachers and extensive cost-saving measures.
Proponents argue that it can force schools to reform so they’re more responsive to parents, less wasteful, and competing to become the best schools within a free market context.
However, detractors argue that this model will exacerbate social inequalities because free markets tend to advantage those with money and resources, leaving the poor and marginalized with the lower-quality scraps.
This article will explore the benefits and limitations of a neoliberal approach to education.
Neoliberalism in Education: Definition and Overview
Within the neoliberal paradigm, students are viewed as consumers rather than learners, with an emphasis on competition over collaboration.
The neoliberal approach to education also focuses heavily on outcomes-based assessments (Ball, 2016). Numerical data is used to determine student success or failure which disregards qualitative factors such as critical thinking and creativity.
Another facet of neoliberalism in education is privatization of schooling (Ingleby, 2021). The belief system holds that private enterprise can provide higher-quality educational services than public institutions.
This is because private institutions are reactive to market forces such as parents ‘shopping’ for the best school (Brathwaite, 2017).
However, it is arguable that exposing schools to market forces can be harmful to students who come from low-income backgrounds who will be disadvantaged by lack of resources or funding to get into the best schools in the open educational market.
Fact File: Neoliberalism and Standardized Tests
Neoliberal regimes need a way to measure and compare schools against each other. The solution is standardized tests – the same test that every single student in every single school will take (Angus, 2015). Based on the results of these tests, governments create ‘league tables’. This empowers parentss to compare schools and judge which ones are better, and forces schools to engage in hyper-competitive practices and focus singlemindedly on getting the best possible grades in the tests (which often fail to test valuable critical thinking and real-life problem solving skills).
Benefits of Neoliberalism in Education
Neoliberalism encourages schools to compete against each other to be the best. Often, this is done by providing financial incentives to schools that get the highest grades in standardized tests.
The benefits of competition in education are many. First, it provides an incentive for schools and teachers to perform at a high level, given that they have to compete with other educational institutions for students (Ingleby, 2021).
This can lead to infrastructure improvements, better quality teaching, and enhanced extracurricular activities.
Furthermore, competition can push students beyond their comfort zone as they strive harder to achieve academic excellence.
It may even teach them important life skills such as resilience, perseverance, and determination.
Neoliberalism can lead to increased efficiency in education because it pushes schools and teachers to keep trying to keep up with other schools in their region. To do this, they need to ‘cut the fat’.
For example, neoliberal competition encourages schools and institutions to focus on improving their results through data-driven assessments, which can help identify areas of academic weakness for students (Angus, 2015; Savage, 2017).
This data-based approach can show schools exactly where they’re failing or falling behind, and give them sufficient data to solve that problem (e.g. by firing poor performing teachers, cutting poor performing electives, and so on).
The neoliberal education paradigm aims to turn education into a marketplace where parents act as consumers shopping for the best school for their child.
For example, some states in the USA now allow students the opportunity to enroll in charter schools, and parents are given school vouchers so they can shop around for the school (Brathwaite, 2017).
This model forces public schools must adapt and offer more competitive programs to attract student enrollment.
This helps parents choose the right educational path for their children instead of being bound by where they live or other income barriers (although, the ‘better’ schools often end up charging more than the value of the school voucher, keeping out poorer families).
4. Private Funding
When parents are incenitivized to pay for privatized, market-based schooling for their children, more money flows into schools.
Schools can use this funding to upgrade infrastructure, hire qualified teachers, purchase technology resources like laptops or tablets, or expand student extracurricular activities- without entirely relying on government funding (Ball, 2016).
This takes the burden away from the government tax revenues and responsibilizes individual families to pay out of their paycheques for schooling.
Nevertheless, those who can afford it will be able to buy the highest-quality schooling for their children.
Criticisms of Neoliberalism in Education
Neoliberalism perpetuates educational inequalities by prioritizing market-based solutions over and above the common good. Often, free market policies allow the advantaged to get ahead while marginalizing the disadvantaged.
For example, neoliberalism enforces competition among schools, making low-performing public schools less attractive. As a result, parents who can afford it choose to enroll their children in private institutions or better performing charter schools instead. Families from lower-income neighborhoods are left behind in the failing schools.
Private schools are incentivized, therefore, to only cater to those who can pay high tuition fees or have access to more resources (Ingleby, 2021).
This leads deserving but poor students unable to access educational resources.
2. Stress and Burnout
Neoliberalism in education can lead to stress and burnout among students and teachers as it elevates high-stakes competitive standardized tests as the key markers of success.
The constant pressure to perform based on standardized test scores can cause anxiety for students, leading to stress-related illnesses and a compromised mental health state. At the same time, the learning experience becomes monotonous with no space left for creativity (Ball, 2016).
Furthermore, teachers can experience stress, because the burden of success for students is carried disproportionately by teachers. Administrators restrict resources to save money in a marketized model, but at the same time pressure teachers to get top test scores above all else.
3. Short-Sighted Teaching is Encouraged
Teachers are incentivized to focus their teaching entirely on getting top grades in standardized tests (Ball, 2016).
To win in the tests is everything to a neoliberal school, because the test score is how consumers (that is, parents) rank and compare schools. The highest-performing schools can charge higher prices, while lowest-performing schools (generally with the least advantaged students) are unable to command the high prices they actually need to bridge the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged (Ingleby, 2021).
What happens, then, is that teachers spend all day focusing on ‘teach to the test’ methods: rote learning, like reciting the answers to the tests, instead of engaging in inquiry-based and active learning strategies that can promote creativity, real-life problem-solving skills, and love of learning.
4. Lack of Focus on Critical Thinking
Above, I argued that teachers are forced to focus on teach-to-the-test strategies, like reciting and memorizing answers, rather than active learning (Savage, 2017).
Detractor of neoliberalism, Paulo Friere, called teaching to the test the ‘banking model of education’. According to Friere, this prevents students from engaging in genuine critical thinking strategies.
Critical thinking encourages not just reciting answers, but understanding issues from many viewpoints before reaching a personal conclusion (not necessarily just the conclusion that will get the best test score).
The need for critical thinking does not translate well into an environment which puts more emphasis on competition as opposed to creativity and individual thought.
Thus any creative or experiential form of education gets automatically sidelined to meet quantitative requirements of standardized tests (Ingleby, 2015).
This,ultimately, results in classes which feel robotic and less engaging, causing pupils’ academic excitement to drop dramatically.
5. Unjust Resource Allocation
Neoliberal education perpetuates unjust resource allocation because it prioritizes funding to the highest-performing schools (which command the highest price from parent-consumers). In reality, it’s the lowest-performing schools that need the resources!
As a result, the money goes up to the advantaged schools, and the disadvantaged schools become even more disadvantaged! Clearly, this will lead to significant wealth inequalities and wider the education inequality gap (Gray, O’Regan & Wallace, 2018).
Therefore, Neoliberalism fails in delivering proper justice and fails to achieve the goal of education: opportunity for all (especially the poor!).
Neoliberalism has become firmly established in western education systems, especially in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. While proponents argue that it can lead to higher standards by incentivizing schools to compete to be the best, detractors claim it’s been extremely harmful for social equality.
Angus, L. (2015). School choice: Neoliberal education policy and imagined futures. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(3), 395-413.
Ball, S. J. (2016). Neoliberal education? Confronting the slouching beast. Policy Futures in Education, 14(8), 1046-1059.
Brathwaite, J. (2017). Neoliberal education reform and the perpetuation of inequality. Critical Sociology, 43(3), 429-448.
Gray, J., O’Regan, J. P., & Wallace, C. (2018). Education and the discourse of global neoliberalism. Language and Intercultural Communication, 18(5), 471-477.
Ingleby, E. (2021). Neoliberalism Across Education. London: Springer International Publishing.
Ingleby, E. (2015). The house that Jack built: Neoliberalism, teaching in higher education and the moral objections. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(5), 518-529.
Savage, G. (2017). Neoliberalism, education and curriculum. Powers of curriculum: Sociological perspectives on education, 143-165.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]