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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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Neo-liberalism and its implications

The corporatisation and marketisation of the universities has its origins in neo-liberal politics premised on the assumption that the market can replace the democratic state as the primary producer of cultural logic and value.[3] Those who endorse a neo-liberalism position, including Chubb and Moe (1990) and Tooley (2000), favour a market view of citizenship that is generally antithetical to rights, especially to state-guaranteed rights in education. The citizen is defined as an economic maximiser, governed by self-interest. There is a glorification of the ‘consumer citizen’ construed as willing, resourced and capable of making market-led choices. In this new market state, the individual (rather than the nation) is held responsible for her or his own well-being. The state’s role is one of facilitator and enabler of the consumer and market-led citizen (Rutherford 2005). This neo-liberal position is fundamentally Hobbesian in character, focusing on creating privatised citizens who care primarily for themselves. The privatised, consumer-led citizenry of the neo-liberal model are reared on a culture of insecurity that induces anxiety, competition, and indifference to those more vulnerable than themselves (Harvey 2005).

When transposed to education the neo-liberal model of citizenship has very serious implications (Giroux 2002). It treats education as just another service to be delivered on the market to those who can afford to buy it. The rationalisation that is offered is that it provides people with choice. Choice is the carrot with which people are duped into believing that they will have freedom to buy what higher education they like in some brave new market. This drive to increase ‘choice’ and shift control from the school or university to the sovereign consumer is indicative of a broader political shift towards the right. A distinctive neo-liberal interpretation of fairness and efficiency based on the moral might and supremacy of the market has taken root internationally (Apple 2001; Bonal 2003; Loxley and Thomas 2001; Thrupp 2001). And small countries like Ireland are no exception to this trend (Allen 2003; Kirby 2002; Lynch and Moran 2006).

Yet, the evidence is overwhelming that in economically unequal societies, only those with sufficient resources can make choices and those who are poor have no choices at all (Archer et al. 2003; Ball 2003; Gewirtz et al. 1995; Lauder et al. 1999; Lyons et al. 2003; Reay and Lucey 2003; Whitty et al. 1998). What is ignored is the fact that what people may want is not a choice of university (or public service) but access to an affordable, accessible and available university education of high standard (Tight 2000). For those with limited resources, choice is a secondary rather than primary value, taking its place behind quality, affordability and access (Lynch and O’Riordan 1998).

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