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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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The liberal inheritance

Neo-liberalism has a history. It has inherited the core values of liberalism in both its humanistic and economic forms. It shares with the classical liberalism, a humanist tradition that defines the person as an autonomous and rational being, a Cartesian man sic whose humanity is encapsulated in the phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am). As such, it carries through into the twenty-first century a deep indifference to the inevitable dependencies and interdependencies that are endemic to the human condition (Nussbaum 1997). It is disregarding of the role that emotions play in our relationships and our learning, and correlatively indifferent to the central role of care and love relations in defining who we are (Kittay 1999; Baker et al. 2004; Lynch and Baker 2005). In line with classical economic views of education, it also defines the person to be educated in economic terms, as ‘homo economicus’ a labour market actor whose life and purposes are determined by their economic status. These twin sets of values are reinforced with a third set of educational purposes, namely the conceptualisation of the person to be educated as a highly individualised, self regarding and consuming economic actor. Competitive individualism is no longer seen as an amoral necessity but rather as a desirable and necessary attribute for a constantly reinventing entrepreneur (Apple 2001; Ball 2003). What neo-liberalism has succeeded in doing, however, which classical liberalism did not do, is to subordinate and trivialise education that has no market value.

The moral opprobrium that has been accorded to the definition of the educated person as one who is autonomous, rational, market-oriented, consuming and self-interested has profound implications for the operation of education as a social practice. It is indifferent to the fact that the majority of citizens in society at any given time are not self-financing consumers (children, older people, unpaid carers, and so on). Many are in no position to make active consumer choices due to the poverty of their resources, time and/or capacities. In line with its classical origins, the neo-liberal perspective also jettisons from educational formation much of the work and living concerns of humanity. It is disregarding of the fact that while we are undoubtedly economic actors, consumers and rational actors, neither our rationality nor our economic and consumer choices can be presumed to be devoid of relationality. For most of humanity, much of life is lived in a state of profound and deep interdependency and, for some, prolonged dependency (Kittay 1999). Humanity may be characterised as homo sapiens or homo economicus but we are also undoubtedly ‘homo interdependicus’ and at times ‘homo dependicus’.

The neo-liberal model is also indifferent to the fact that the state is an in-eliminable agent in matters of justice. It ignores the reality that only the state can guarantee to individual persons the right to education. If the state absolves itself of the responsibility to educate, rights become more contingent – contingent on the ability to pay. What is at issue here is the difference between democratic accountability and market accountability. In a market-led system access to higher educational services will be contingent on market capacity or the ability to pay, whereas in a democratic, publicly controlled system, one’s right to education is protected (however minimally at times) by the state.

The irony of what is now happening is that it is the very success of state-aided education that is used to challenge its continuance. The massification of higher education in Western countries has produced cultures and societies that have benefited greatly from the enrichment of their cultural capital (and their standards of living) through state investment in education. However, to maintain this level of social and economic development that derives from high quality higher education requires continual investment by the state. With the rise of the new-right, neo-liberal agenda, there is an attempt to offload the cost of education, and indeed other public services such as housing, transport, care services, and so on, onto the individual. There is an increasing attempt to privatise public services, including higher education, so that citizens will have to buy them at market value rather than have them provided by the state (Angus 2004; Bullen et al. 2004; Steier 2003; Stevenson 1999). The move to marketise and privatise manifests itself in different ways in higher education.

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