Tag Archives: morals

Understanding the role of markets in education

This post continues my attempts to understand how educational economics are shaping our understanding of education. This is a philosophical project in the sense that it’s about concepts – understanding the ones that we use and creating new ones where they are needed.

Previously I’ve written about the difference conceptions of education that arise when beginning from ideologies of either equality or liberty.

I’ve recently been reading What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel (a philosophy professor from Harvard – here’s a good review of it and below is clip showing the main arguments).

My takeaway for understanding the role of markets in education is that there are two main arguments against creating a market in any domain:

  1. Fairness: In a world in which different people have access to different resources, there is an inherent unfairness in creating markets for things that ought to be fundamental rights (as indeed education is under the UN charter of human rights). For example, one might be tempted to make the quality of a child’s education entirely dependent upon the willingness of parents to pay. Many reject such a proposal on the grounds of fairness (and hence the presence of government funded education)
  2. Corruption/degradation: Putting a price on something and making it a market fundamentally changes the way that society values something. For example, giving teachers “performance pay” for improving student results is not a neutral action – it fundamentally changes the relationship between teachers and their work.  In this case it might be seen as degrading the idea (held by many teachers) that they do their work to benefit society and not for achieving a financial reward. In other words, the extrinsic reward (of money) can interfere with existing intrinsic rewards.

These two standpoints help to give us some structure for critiquing economic rationale in education. In the first case creating a market creates unfairness; in the second case creating a market in some way changes the values of society in a way that may (morally) be considered detrimental. This second case is often forgotten due to the challenges that it presents.

Why create markets?

A market is fundamentally a way of being able to exchange something. Creating a market is making it possible to exchange something (usually with money) that wasn’t previously able to be exchanged.

In the current climate of neoliberalism, politicians often look for ways to bring “market logic” into education. The rationale for this are complex and I won’t get into the textbook economic theory more than I have to. Mostly it is about:

  1. Efficiency: Markets are really good at ensuring that things get to the people that most value them at the price that best fits the supplier – however, there are plenty of assumptions made about the market for this statement to remain true.
  2. Competition: Making a market introduces competition and (so goes the theory) then the best suppliers win – where success is determined by giving the consumer what they want at the right price. This of course is far more complex in education than this simple idea accounts for. This is why ideas like “making all schools private to improve competition” make little sense when the nuance is considered.
  3. Regulation: Once there is a price on something then it can be controlled and influenced by (government) policy. For example, once teachers have performance pay linked to standardised tests then the logic goes that it’s a matter of finding the right price to “incentivise” them to work harder. (To be clear, in practice there are many issues with all of this – my point here is just to characterise the arguments and policies that are often made).

Markets in education

Where does all of this get us to? The aim is to provide some clear thinking to get us out of the bind that we in education seem to frequently find ourselves in – having to deal with increasing attempts to create markets and set prices within education.

Some examples from around the world:

  • The cost of private schools
  •  Paying students [in low income areas] to read books or take advanced courses
  • Paying students for their performance (e.g., in standardised tests)
  • Paying teachers for their performance (e.g. in standardised tests)
  • Funding schools according to their performance (e.g., in standardised tests or in truancy rates)
  • Funding universities according to the salaries achieved by their graduates
  • Etc

In every case the advocates of the market solution point us to the ways that efficiency will increase and the way that all parties involved will win from increased funding and choice.

The point of this post is to encourage everyone to consider more deeply the two initial criteria:

  1. Is this change, with all of its economic rationale, fair for all involved?
  2. What are the impacts of this change on the values that society holds about education, and the values of the people involved in education? Are we prepared to accept such degradation (where it exists)?

The former question is frequently addressed in media reports (e.g. this was discussed widely regards the recent HECS/HELP repayment thresholds in Australia). My concern is that the second question is rarely considered, let alone actually treated by politicians as holding weight.

Yet an education system always embodies the moral values of a society. When will we start actually having a conversation around these moral values rather than utilitarian outcomes?