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Big issues and ELT 2: Neoliberalism

August 10, 2014


In my last post I looked at globalisation and how it is impacting on ELT. This time I’m going to try and tackle the connected concept of neoliberalism. This term is normally used in the context of economic policy, but this doesn’t make it irrelevant to ELT. On the contrary, over the last 20-odd years neoliberalism has become pretty much synonymous with capitalism, and is therefore impacting massively on society as a whole across the world. This includes education in general and perhaps global industries like ELT even moreso.

I am neither an economist nor a politician. But I’m going to have a go at defining neoliberalism anyway, and if anyone wants to correct me or give an alternative definition then they are very welcome to do so. The purpose of these posts is not so much to say what I think, but to get people thinking about how these issues apply to their contexts.

Previous, more classical versions of liberalism were mostly about creating a society that allows people to live free from exploitation or oppression. Many philosophers of the 18th century, Kant for example, believed that freedom went hand in hand with Enlightenment; knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world would allow individuals to liberate themselves from what he called ‘the guardians‘ – that faceless authority which nowadays we would be more likely to refer to as “the man”.

Neoliberalism is also about creating a free society that promotes the rights of the individual, but argues that this freedom can be attained differently. Harvey describes neoliberalism as:
‘…a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human wellbeing can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills’.
(Harvey 2005: 2)

If people are given the freedom to make economic choices, the idea is that political freedom will inevitably follow. Milton Friedman, a political economist whose ideas had a huge impact on the development of neoliberal society, described the importance of a free economy thus:
It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.’
(Friedman 1962: 15)

In order for economic freedom to be achieved, the state, and trade unions for that matter, need to play a reduced role in controlling the market, allowing the market to control itself according to the will of the people. This means less state ownership, more privatisation, free trade, and the active participation of the population in the market, both as consumers and producers. Reduced government influence allows the market to dictate the availability of resources and the direction of society. Neoliberalism, therefore, creates an environment that promotes entrepreneurship, competition and competitiveness. It encourages people to be go-getters, and rewards those who can be successful within a competitive market.

In order for a thriving market to exist, consumerism is one of the fundamentals of neoliberalism. People need to want stuff, and once they get that stuff, they need to want more stuff. This requires people to be greedy and acquisitive or, as Olssen et al put it, ‘perpetually responsive’ (Olssen et al 2004: 137).

Now, there are some problems with all of this. Let’s look at the idea that the population controls the market. This can only really happen if everyone has equal access to the market, but of course that isn’t the case. People or organisations with more financial clout are able to exercise more control over how the market works, which gives them even more financial clout and consequently even more control. Economic freedom can only be achieved if you have money, and the more money you have the more freedom you have. Conversely, those with little or no money can’t participate actively in the economy and therefore have no control over the market and, as a result, no freedom.

So what about people who are not successful in the market? Neoliberals would argue that this is their fault. They’re too lazy, or apathetic, or maybe just stupid. Whatever the reason, such people don’t deserve to be successful.

But maybe it’s not about laziness, or apathy, or intelligence. In a neoliberal society it is often people with the least scruples and the lowest morals (and their descendants) who thrive. Compassion, morality and a sense of social justice do not lead to success, so people who place importance on these values are likely to struggle. George Monbiot’s recent article illustrates this much better than I can, and I strongly recommend you read it to get his view of the damaging impact of neoliberalism.

So, everything is about the market. So much so, in fact, that Paul Treanor suggests this:
‘Neo-liberals tend to believe that humans exist for the market, and not the other way around.’

To a large extent then, those of us who are not involved in controlling the market are actually enslaved by it. Instead of giving people what a particular group thinks they ought to want, a free market gives us what a particular group wants us to want. And they want us to want whatever they have to sell us – cigarettes, guns, oil, English language courses (hang on we’ll get to that in a bit) – and if we don’t want them, they have to convince us that we do want them.

So there are flaws in the argument that neoliberalism creates a free society. Let’s look then at the kind of society that neoliberalism does create. Monbiot and others have argued that it rewards the selfish and unscrupulous. But there’s more to it than that. Treanor describes neoliberalism in its ideal form as:
‘…a universe where every action of every being is a market transaction, conducted in competition with every other being and influencing every other transaction, with transactions occurring in an infinitely short time, and repeated at an infinitely fast rate.’

Everything, therefore, is seen in business terms. In hospitals, patients are clients. In schools, exam results are performance indicators. Social workers are service providers. Neoliberalism doesn’t just exist in business contexts; it is now pervasive across all areas of society. Everything that exists has a potential market value. This includes abstract things like actions, and ideas. Even knowledge is a commodity.

Margaret Thatcher, who, along with Ronald Reagan in the USA, was one of the first leaders to introduce neoliberalism into Western society, famously said that there is no such thing as society, just individuals. In a neoliberal world, social interaction is purely transactional. There is no point in talking to someone unless you can get something out of the conversation. There’s no room for chit-chat in a neoliberal world – unless that chit-chat can lead to something that will be of value to at least one of the speakers.

Right, let’s summarise some of the values and concepts associated with neoliberalism:

• Privatisation is good
• The state plays a limited role in the market
• People are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and competitive
• There is no real place for trade unions
• There is no real value placed on compassion or social justice
• A minority of people ends up controlling the market
• People are required to be consumers
• Everything is a commodity
• Everything has a market value
• Interactions become transactions

OK, so how do we apply all of this to English Language Teaching? Here are some questions to consider:

1. Is it just a coincidence that the rise of English as a global language happened around the same time as the rise of neoliberalism in the English-speaking world?

2. Why do governments want their population to learn English? Is it to empower these people or is it to allow them to contribute more to the economy?

3. How much control does the government have over the English language teaching industry in your country?

4. How big a role do private enterprises play in the provision of English Language Teaching?

5. Why do individuals want to learn English? Is it more for social reasons or for economic reasons?

6. To what extent are schools and universities in your country run as businesses?

7. What is generally seen as the purpose of education in your context? Is it to provide knowledge or is it to prepare learners for (or enhance their capacity in) the workplace?

8. Is the private education sector in your country expanding?

9. Is there a strong union in your workplace? When was the last time you went on strike?

10. Are teachers held in high regard in your country? What about English language teachers – higher or lower? If there is a difference, why is this?

11. Does your institution view similar institutions as partners or competitors?

12. In your teaching context, how often are courses referred to as “products”?

13. How often does your institution get contacted by publishing or software companies trying to sell their latest EdTech solutions?

14. How often do you do a speaking task with your students that has no measurable outcome?

15. Why would your students prefer to talk to you than to each other?

16. Who pays for the education you provide, and where does that money go?

17. Generally speaking, did the people in charge of your organization get to where they are because of their principles and high moral standing? If not, what common qualities can you identify in them?

18. Are decisions on course content etc. made on the basis of their educational value, or as a direct result of student preferences?

19. If you show compassion towards your students, is this because of the organization you work for or in spite of it?

20. Do you sometimes question the moral value of what you are doing in your job?

21. Isn’t it strange that a teacher should even be asked that question?

Considering the answers to these questions should hopefully allow you to evaluate the extent to which neoliberalism impacts on ELT in your particular context. For me it’s important to understand that neoliberalism affects more than just national and global economics. Everything (including education) is a commodity, and as such, everything (including the English language) is for sale. So what does that make us? Are we providers of learning or are we merely peddling a commodity so that somebody (certainly not us) can get rich?


Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friedman, M. (1962), Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Olssen, M., Codd, J. and O’Neill, A-M. (2004), Education Policy: Globalization, Citizenship and Democracy, London: Sage.

  1. Terry M Gresham permalink

    Reblogged this on okieprogressive.

  2. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    “Neoliberalism refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit.” So begins the article “Noam Chomsky and the Struggle Against Neoliberalism” by McChesney, published in the Monthly Review, April 1, 1999. See
    htm Fifteen years on, things have got worse!

    Answers to your questions:

    1. No, but it doesn’t properly explain it either. English is the lingua franca of capitalism.

    2. Governments act to promote and protect the interests of the ruling class. See 1.

    3. In Spain, the government rightly sees the English Language Industry as a business and treats it in the same way as it treats other businesses, i.e. corruptly.

    4. The bigger question is how private companies are taking over state education.

    5. While separating economic and social aspects of our lives helps understanding to some extent, they’re obviously entwined and, in the end, the economic aspect dominates. Marx suggested that the key to understanding society is to identify the economic interests (profit) of those who own and control the means of production. In our society, the control now extends to the means of consumption (as the Situationists brilliantly argued). Gramsci, Kench and others argued that Marx underestimated the power of what Marx called “the superstructure” (social values, culture, more or less) and that Marx’s “deterministic” model underplayed the power of revolutionary cultural movements. Amen to that, but it’s still the economy, stupid.

    6. Increasingly. As you suggest, this is the core of neoliberalism, and it indicates that neoliberalism, as Chomsky and others argue, is now the dominant ideology which serves to “explain” / “justify” the increasingly right-wing actions of governments.

    7. In my context (post grad. work) most workers are fighting a hopeless battle against the bosses, trying to preserve the idea of education as the development of critical thinking.

    8. In Spain the private sector in primary and secondary education is losing ground, because it’s where the middle classes get educated, and the middle classes are collapsing. In tertiary education, private universities are expanding, because the state universities are hopelessly overcrowded and underfunded and because the rich from other countries send their offspring to the private unis.

    9.As in most countries, trade unions are losing influence. To some extent it’s their own fault because they’ve increasingly failed to represent the real interests of those they’re supposed to represent. Spain has a tradition of “syndicatos” which are a pale remnant of a truly revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist movement, but which today play a mostly ineffectual role in defending workers’ rights. The last time I went on strike was in 1972. I haven’t been on strike since because no strike has been organised in the few places I’ve worked, but I’ve supported a few strikes, although not as many as I should have done.

    10. No. About the same, I think.

    11. Competitors, of course!

    12. Not much yet, but it’s coming.

    13. Don’t know: I’m not informed or consulted.

    14. I do little else! 😦

    15. Because that’s the culture. It’s a good question, but I think we should avoid any simplistic answer. (Deserves a thread of its own, methinks.)

    16. The taxpayer and the students.

    17. Tempting to generalise, but it wouldn’t be fair. But there’s no doubt that in the UK (I work in Spain for an English uni.) as elsewhere, it’s not what, but who, you know.

    18. Students have little say.

    19. What does “compassion” mean? 🙂

    20. Yes.

    21. Yes indeed.

    Having done this, I realise I should have selected 1 or 2 questions and dealt with them. Anyway, there you go.



  3. geoffjordan permalink

    Sorry, just noticed I referred to Spanish sindicatos as “syndicatos”. An understandable mistake for somebody who has only lived in Spain for 36 years, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Nice to see you in here again, and thanks very much for answering all of these questions. Your quote illustrates the problem very well, identifying that this set of economic policies has a lot more than just an economic impact.
      Some of your answers really made me think, and I’d like to focus on those if I may.

      4. When you say private companies are taking over state education, do you mean that people are forced to go private to supplement state provision because state education isn’t adequate, or do you mean private education providers are setting up shop within state educational institutions? I think both of these things are happening but I was wondering which is most prevalent in your context (maybe it’s both?)

      5. You say that the economic aspect dominates, and that seems entirely natural nowadays. But was it always like that? Didn’t people use to learn English simply because they enjoyed it? These days the stakes seem to be really high for English learners – they need it to get a place at university, or they need it for a promotion, or they just need it to get a job in the first place. Nobody seems to learn English for the fun of it any more.

      7. Yes, even at postgrad level I expect many students are there for economic reasons rather than to develop their learning or their critical thinking. Everything has to boil down to monetary value. A masters is an investment these days. See 5.

      8. I suppose this is an example of the state reduce its influence in order for the market to have more freedom – a prime example of neoliberalism in practice. The same is happening in the UK in both education and in the NHS. It’s a very convenient economic policy for a government to have, because it means they can stop spending so much money. But it creates a vacuum and the private sector fills it. But how do you regulate or ensure standards in the private sector? Friedman would have argued that they would regulate themselves through market forces, but if all the schools in a 20-mile radius of your house are rubbish, what are you going to do? Presumably the middle classes in Spain are having to go back to sending their kids to state schools but the state schools aren’t getting any more funding. That doesn’t sound good.

      9. I’ve always thought of Spain as a country with strong unions and a good tradition of upholding workers’ rights. It’s sad to hear that the unions in Spain have lost much of their power. Of course this happened in the UK in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher; defeating the unions allowed private companies more freedom to do what they wanted. It was the employees who suffered, of course.

      16. So the taxpayer and the students themselves pay for the course, but who benefits? Does it all go back into the institution? That may well be the case in your institution, but I’m sure that’s not always the case.

      It’s all really rather depressing, isn’t it. What do we do about it though?

      • geoffjordan permalink

        Hi Steve,

        4. I was referring to how state-run schools, hospitals, etc., contract out just about all areas of their work to private companies.

        5. Following the Marxist line of argument, I think economics has a very big influence on all aspects of education, including “learning for fun”, which can be seen as one more product / service available on the market. But, I agree: these days the stakes are high for English learners.

        8. How do you regulate or ensure standards in the private sector? Whatever attempts are made to “ensure standards” the private sector will offer a range which includes lots of rubbish. That was the rationale behind the Welfare State in the UK in 1945: some key sectors (education, health, fuel, transport) were considered too socially important to be governed by market forces.

        9.You say that Margaret Thatcher defeated the unions in the 80s. As I suggested, we should remember that the unions stopped being democratic, bottom-up, radical agents of change long before that. Those unions which hadn’t already given in to the bosses, ran closed shops, behaved like Luddites, lined their own pockets, and generally betrayed the membership. Good riddance to them. What is needed is for workers to organise themselves at the local level, form cooperatives wherever possible, and then have a loose federation looking after national/international issues. ..

        16. UK Universities get income from tuition fees, taxpayers and private donations. They spend it in a similar way to many businesses: fat salaries for those at the top and miserable salaries for most; often poorly-chosen and -assessed research; promotion; etc.

        Yes, It certainly is all really rather depressing, What do we do about it? Criticise it and encourage the young to do likewise. Don’t vote in any national election, reject Westminster’s claim to represent us and organise locally.

      • Hi Geoff,
        Point taken about the unions, they didn’t do themselves any favours. But that doesn’t mean they’re not a very important institution in principle.
        Your suggestion that we “reject Westminster’s claim to represent us and organise locally” makes me wonder how you feel about the potential break-up of the UK, or Spain for that matter? If you have views on this you can air them on my latest post 🙂
        We can blame various past and present governments for creating this situation in the first place, but now that we’re here, and all the power has been handed over to the multinational corporations, I’m not sure what could be gained by protesting to the government or refusing to vote. Unless you are angling for revolution. Is that what you are suggesting, Geoff? Is that the only way?
        I haven’t completely lost faith in democracy, not yet. Give me a few years, maybe.
        Always a pleasure to read your comments, Geoff.


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