Challenging the neoliberal paradigm

Neoliberal or new right philosophy is based on the economic premise that market systems are necessary for distributing resources. Markets are based on individuals making a choice in their consumption of goods where producers have to maintain a high standard to attract consumer attention or risk going out of business.

In the neoliberal paradigm, the key to success in education is the marketisation of schools. Educational institutions must have ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ where schools compete for consumers in an open market. This will improve standards as parents will send their children to the most successful institutions and schools will have an incentive to improve their performance as a result of consumer demand. Public money will follow parent preference as successful schools will be allocated the funds and non-performing ones given the incentive to improve or face closure.

However, neoliberal policies today reinforce the gap between the rich and the poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy. It has led to an ‘economic Darwinism’ which has resulted in privatisation and commodification of social institutions.

This is leading to undermining all forms of social solidarity which can challenge market-driven values where the education system neoliberalism fosters disdain for community, social responsibility and the public good. In this model of education, young people are subject to strict disciplinary measures for breaking the most insignificant rules; passivity and acceptance of authority is encouraged; and external rewards are there within the education system in the form of lucrative scholarships and well-paid jobs since school work itself is boring and routine. The capacity to think critically is erased and any understanding of the broader systemic relations of exploitation is discouraged.

Higher education and the humanities in particular are increasingly threatened by the corporatisation and militarisation of the university where faculty members are being made powerless at the expense of the management. There is a quenching of academic freedom, an ever-increasing part-time faculty and an imposition of the view that students are consumers who buy a commodity such as a credential.

This neoliberal paradigm has turned schools and universities around the world from Pakistan to India to the UK as insulated spaces where teachers are beholden to corporate interests and career building. Whether we talk about the tuition culture in Pakistan or the disinterested professor in the Far East, there is a sad recognition that the academic has largely become irrelevant. The fundamentals of the market prepare students to be competitive in the global economic framework and not critical thinkers interested in resolving humanity’s problems.

To stop this tide of neoliberalism from completely dismantling the education edifice, there needs to be inculcated civic literacy where pupils connect private troubles to larger public issues as part of critical reflection and engagement. This civic literacy, apart from imparting critical understanding, will enable individuals to effectively intervene in society. In this sense, the university and other educational institutions must be guarded as places where intellectuals can imagine the otherwise and stand firm on egalitarian principles. Secondly, humanities must move beyond the recognition that philosophy, art and literature need to be studied and emphasise how these subjects are indispensable for students if they are claimed to be critical agents of change. It is in this realm of humanities and social sciences that the demands of social responsibility can be successfully internalised, the imagination can be unchained and historical lessons of democratisation learned. Thus, there must be a collective and individual defence of education as a pillar vital to democracy itself.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2018.

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