Behind the humanist façade, EU reforms are turning education into a commodity

Behind the humanist façade, EU reforms are turning education into a commodity

The European Union’s education reforms have sought increasingly to produce a labour force shaped to meet the needs of the labour market, to the detriment of the emancipating role of education that enables the individual to “reach and exceed the horizon of their social determinism”.

(Mauro Bottaro/EC-Audiovisual Service)

Any citizen watching his or her children grow up in a society in which the state chose to support the banks after they caused the collapse of the markets by speculating on probabilities; in which the population’s loss of trust in their leaders is reflected amongst other things in the rise of extremist political parties; in a climate of anxiety hyped up by the media which sometimes seem to forget its primary role in the interests of the big groups that bought them, can only nurture one feeling: hope.

The hope that their children will find a place for themselves in this system, and will be socially and culturally liberated while playing a role in a future society that will be more open, more focused on human values and less on productivity and profit at all costs. This citizen is also aware that the social and cultural education of her/his children is the responsibility of two agents: themselves as a parent and school as the embodiment of the education system which will, in her/his view, contribute to turning their children into responsible, educated, cultivated and emancipated human beings.

But by pinning their education hopes on the institution of school, the citizen is probably idealising the role that school can play today, in 2017.

Their idealism is understandable, however. Their own image of school has not changed since the day she or he left the classroom, at a time when, well before the creation of the Europe of the 12 (1986) and the European education policies that followed, the role of school still benefitted from its legacy of the Thirty Glorious Years (1945-1975) when the aim was to train the great intellectuals of the future following the ravages of the Second World War.

She or he will not have read Pierre Boiurdieu’s Les Héritiers (The Heirs, 1964) which highlighted just how much school reinforces social inequalities: the ruling classes, who have always been at the root of the education system’s values, “transmit from generation to generation a specific intellectual heritage that renders privilege inaccessible,” despite the high hopes of emancipation and education of the parents in the less privileged social strata.

And unfortunately – like the majority of the population who entrust their children’s education to the school system – our citizen has not read the official European texts on education policy of the last few decades.

What do these official texts say? An initial analysis of the 2004 Thélot Report, commissioned by the French government, says for example, that “the notion of success for all should not be misunderstood. It certainly does not mean that school should aim to ensure that all students achieve the highest educational qualifications. It would be both an illusion for individuals and a social absurdity since school qualifications would no longer be associated, even vaguely, with the structure of jobs”.

European education policy is not aimed at guiding all students towards success on an equal footing in terms of the right to education. It is based on a different perspective, that of global economic competition: it is a question of becoming “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth…European education and training systems must adapt both to the needs of the knowledge society and to the need to raise the level of employment and improve its quality,” according to the Lisbon European Council in 2000.

Never mind the humanist hopes of the citizen: school must adapt to the needs of production and an economic reality characterised by globalisation and constant competition. School, which is supposed to bring up cultivated, educated citizens, is today a breeding ground for producing a labour force that meets the needs of the labour market, as closely as possible.

“Knowledge and skills are diametrically opposed and irreconcilable”

A series of economic crises, including the most recent disasters in 2000-2001 and 2008, have led to a policy of austerity in Europe. It has made itself felt in the most vulnerable households and is reflected in education through two types of institutional reforms: one organisational, the other educational.

The former, the organisational reforms, consist of steadily reducing education spending. And one of the best ways of achieving this first objective is to limit the number of children who have to repeat the school year. This was done in French-speaking Belgium for example in 2015. There was no longer the possibility of repeating the year between first and second year secondary school, with all the educational consequences arising from that.

The education reforms were inspired by the research of American economists, (Hanushek & Woessman, 2008) according to whom improvements in teaching quality do not require increased funding. Their view is that “more resources made available to schools - pure spending, fewer classes, teacher training - will not lead to an improvement in the level of students”. Instead, they advocate “structural reforms in educational institutions,” which necessarily involve a change in the identity and main objectives of the school.

If we take the example of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, in French-speaking Belgium, there have been two major education reforms: one dates from 1997 and is formalised in the decree ’Missions’, the other is called The Pact for Excellence in Education and is in the process of being validated.

The ’Missions’ decree was aimed, among other things, at ensuring the transition from “reformed” education - which itself had aimed to bring within the reach of the growing school population the knowledge resulting from the theoretical revolution of the 1960s to 1970 - to an education designed to meet the needs of the new neo-liberal society, that no longer required citizens with a critical mind but a flexible human capital capable of meeting the demands of the labour market.

The learning of knowledge was no longer the primary goal, but rather the training of human beings to turn them into skilled beings.

The course curricula that followed were formulated in terms of skills, in line with “a European framework defining the new basic skills to be provided through lifelong learning: IT skills, foreign languages, technological culture, entrepreneurship and social skills”.

From then on, schools would train a future workforce that companies could quickly train on the job: citizens able to use a computer and answer the telephone, knowing how to express themselves in a foreign language, use technological tools and appliances and be able to survive in the corporate world, to the detriment of an education based on the development of critical thinking, and an interest in culture, history, geography, the arts, philosophy and literature.

According to Pauline Harcq, a French teacher: “Grammar and lexical tools are gradually disappearing in favour of skills. Many of our Belgian pupils pass the external evaluation at the end of the second year of secondary school without mastering language and ‘language knowledge’. They must answer questionnaires on different types of texts (narrative, informative). The construction of sentences does not matter provided the student has identified the correct clues, keywords or concepts.

“We have to conclude that we no longer want our students to express themselves correctly, we just want them to be capable of locating information in a text and copying it out”.

Christophe Bodart, an ethics teacher and an opponent of the Pact, considers that “knowledge and skills are diametrically opposed and irreconcilable. Both are pillars on which two different concepts of school are based. The first, called emancipatory, is based on the acquisition of basic knowledge and invites each individual to reach and exceed the horizon of his social determinism. The second concept, on the other hand, the so-called utilitarian one, is based on skills and prepares the individual to occupy their place in the economy”.

The Pact for Excellence in Education, launched in 2015 and to be implemented from the beginning of 2017, also seems to be emerging as a new attempt to make budgetary savings through the implementation of institutional reform, by trying to put an end to repeating the year, for example, as it “costs €400 million a year", or by extending the common training period by a year, with the risk of closing the door on certain qualifications and vocational paths which until now were open to pupils from third year secondary.

Another of many examples of a counter-productive measures in the Pact is that the “four hours per week of Latin” option which currently applies from the first year of secondary school will be replaced by a single mandatory period of “initiation into ancient languages with a view to deepening the learning of French, of culture and ways of thinking related to ancient languages that promote awakening to other languages; or as a support for the development of strategies for understanding and analysing the sentence in the text”.

A course which aims to teach the history of a civilisation, as well as the linguistic, morphological, grammatical and semantic construction of a language, is thus turned into an attempt to use a knowledge, or what remains of it at the rate of one period per week, for what it can bring in terms of skills that are transferable to other subjects, more suited to improving the abilities of the future members of a society that is based on a labour market that demands a competent and flexible human capital.

All of this is sugar coated, presented under the banner of equality for all learners, but it is full of organisational hazards and clearly should have taken heed of the observation by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2001: “Not everyone will embrace a career in the dynamic new economy sector, in fact most will not, therefore school curricula cannot be designed as if all should go far.”

And in the end everyone will lose, both the public institution, with a little more privatisation of it every day, and the pupil lured by the promise of equality, like the promises made in a legislative election campaign.

According to Nicolas Hirtt, “The first victim of these policies is the public education system itself. The individualisation of the training relationship, the dissemination of an entrepreneurial ideology, the quasi commercialisation of schools, the cuts in public education spending and the school-enterprise partnerships that are opening the door more and more to the domination of education by the private sector.”

“But the principal victim is the young person who leaves that kind of school. It will have turned her or him into an adaptable worker, not by developing her or his understanding of change but by breaking their capacity to resist change; not by cultural emancipation but by cultural privation.”

While, in 2017, we see significant advances in the technological and financial sectors, we can only regret the role now allocated to education. The latter has become commoditised. And this dangerous neo-liberal mechanism is as little shaped by progressive values as it is vicious and immoral, because, with great institutional reforms to meet the desire to reduce the costs of educating more students each year, it presents itself on the surface as a humanist evolution towards democratic education, seeking to provide the same opportunities for all, but is ultimately nothing more than an instrument serving the laws of the market, responding to the needs of the economic growth that never comes.

This story has been translated from French.