Economic thinking is corrupting education in Australia

There is a growing trend in education of proposing and enacting policy ideas that are based primarily upon economic thinking. I believe there are hidden impacts of applying economic thinking (typified by price signals, market mechanisms and market-oriented ideas) to education. In this post I want to unpack some of that thinking and look at what is happening to education because of it.

 Corruption of the concept of education

The philosopher Michael Sandel proposes that there are two main arguments against policy based on economic thinking. These arguments are made on the basis of fairness and corruption, and both are significant for education researchers and policy makers. While it is typical in policy formation for much attention to be given to the concept of fairness – with steps taken to ensure that policy is as fair as possible – the concept of corruption is rarely given consideration. In the case of education policy, this relates to questions about how policy can change (or corrupt) society’s conception of the role and purpose of education, and about how the moral value of education can be crowded out by economic values.

If you want to read more about this notion of economic thinking in education you should read Hidden Privatisation in Public Education and (released in July this year) Commercialisation in Australian Public Schooling. This latter study provides data confirming that teachers in Australia are indeed concerned about the influence of commercialism in schools, characterised by “top-down, test-based accountability, the introduction of market competition between schools, the use of private sector managerial practices, and an increasingly standardised curriculum that focuses on literacy and numeracy” .

In this climate of economic thinking there is a great need to attend to the moral value of education – its role and its purpose in society.

What does economic thinking in education look like?

 Some examples from Australia and around the world demonstrate what economic thinking in education looks like:

1) Various schools within the USA have experimented with paying students to learn. In Dallas, a school district paid students to read books ($2 per book) to motivate higher literacy. In New York and Chicago students were given rewards based on their performance in assessments.

2) Still in the USA, there was an experiment in some charter schools with the inverse of this: giving students financial penalties for bad behaviour. This was dubbed as a move “from corporal punishment to capital punishment”.

3) In Australia, in the Northern Territory, a similar concept was enacted on a broader scale when schools had part of their funding determined by student attendance levels. Some commentators referred to this as “inverse needs-based funding”.

4) Politicians and think tanks have at various times come up with the idea of linking school funding or teacher pay to performance in standardised tests such as NAPLAN.

5) In Australia, recent increases to higher education student fees and repayments have been justified by claims about the higher earnings gained by those who have attended university. Minister Birmingham uses this rationale to suggest that the extra cost for students is a “fairer deal for taxpayers”. In the United Kingdom, the former Secretary of State for Education recently stated this same argument more bluntly, saying “it’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”

6) Australia has invested $5.1million to pilot ‘P-TECH’ (Pathways in Technology) high schools, and there are currently 14 pilot sites across the country. These schools are jointly funded by industry and government. They provide traditional high school study in parallel with industry-supported STEM education geared towards employment, or further education, in a particular sector. The economic thinking and employment-oriented focus of this program is evident in Wyong High School’s rationale for adopting the P-TECH model:

“In the P-TECH model, local employers partner with schools, TAFEs/RTOs and universities to strengthen students’ prospects of a successful transition to work by ensuring they develop the technical and personal skills employers are looking for. To achieve this goal, the school is working collaboratively with other education and training providers and a number of major locally-based employer partners including Mars Food Australia (Masterfoods), Sanitarium Health & Wellbeing Australia, the University of Newcastle and the Central Coast NSW Business Chamber. Commencing in January 2017, Wyong High School has begun to introduce an innovative P-TECH styled skills-based program that will provide an industry-supported pathway for students to achieve a post-school qualification in areas of growing local employment demand.”

When economic thinking takes over

These varied examples highlight different aspects of economic thinking. For example, when students are being paid to learn or are fined for bad behaviour, when schools are being paid for improving attendance, and when teachers are being paid for having higher achieving students, a financial incentive is being introduced where, previously, the motivation had been intrinsically oriented.

The economic justification for these ideas is that by “incentivising” a particular behaviour, you get more of it. However, this is not always the case as introducing a price mechanism, certain intrinsic or pro-social motivations can be lost – or “crowded out” as Sandel describes it.

This crowding out effect can be observed in a classic study of a childcare centre in Israel. Parents were often late to pick up their children, so the childcare centre experimented with the idea of introducing a financial penalty for being late. Traditional economic thinking dictates that this should result in fewer parents being late to pick up their children as they now have an added disincentive to be late.

However, the inverse occurred: more parents were late to pick up their child than previously, when there was no financial penalty. One interpretation of this is that the pro-social motivations for being on-time for picking up children (e.g. not infringing upon the teachers) were crowded-out by the introduction of a financial mechanism, and the parents felt that this justified them in being late.

A similar phenomenon can occur with the introduction of price mechanisms in education. For example, to return to the cases listed above, a student may feel justified in not doing their homework if they have resolved to accept the corresponding infringement. The intrinsic motivation in this case (i.e. that doing homework will help the student learn) is therefore at risk of being lost, and the student may begin to make decisions about their education that are based primarily on perceived economic benefits. Whilst there are many possible reasons to critique such ideas of performance pay for schools, teacher, and students, the focus here is upon the way that the introduction of an incentive changes how people relate to the activity; the very concept of what that activity is about can shift.

What is lost when education is framed in economic terms?

In the case of the recent changes to HECS-HELP fees and repayments, the public discussion centred almost entirely around whether it was fair. Debate went something like this: On the one hand, there is evidence that those going to university earn more money than those who do not. On the other hand, education is a public good and should be supported by the government. What percentage of student fees should be paid by students and what percentage by government? What kind of repayment system would enable equality of access to higher education without the burden of repayments becoming prohibitive?

My point does not address the final mix that was present in the policy but rather that the terms of the debate were entirely around fairness. Was it fair for students? For different degree types? For women? For students from lower socio-economic areas? For those who drop out of a degree? These are all important questions that do deserve to take primacy in debate around this policy. However, there is a separate argument to be made about the resulting degradation of the concept of education from the repetition of such policy ideas and their rationale. What is altered or lost by framing university education as a purely personal and economic good?

A similar question applies to the case of P-TECH schools in Australia. An economic way to frame the argument is that having industry invest in high school students is a “win” for everyone who is involved: schools get more money for education, students get a head-start in skills in technology that employers want, and industry gets graduates that have the skills they need to take up entry-level positions following graduation.

However, we can ask once more: What is altered or lost when we frame the debate in these terms? Or perhaps: What are the moral values surrounding society’s conception of education that are being degraded or corrupted by promoting models of high school education solely on the basis of their economic merit and their ability to help students get jobs? To be clear, having an education system that supports a strong economy is not problematic in and of itself; but what happens when such aims crowd out other goals for education?

Why economic thinking degrades education

The aim of this short post is to draw attention to the way that economic thinking degrades the very concept of education. Often those critiquing economic rationale do so on the basis that it is unfair to certain sectors of society. Another critique that is often missed is that such rationale cheapens the very meaning of education: why we engage in it, how it benefits society.

A response to this excess of economic thinking in education is increased public discourse around why education ought to be valued as a social good.

Many teachers complain that students only wish to learn the things on which they will be examined– the classic question “will this be in the test?” Students are chastised for even asking the question because it indicates that they are blind to the broader merits of learning.

Is there not a large contradiction here? We expect our students to be aware of the intrinsic value of learning, yet they are taught within a system that increasingly values only economic thinking.


Dr Nick Kelly is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education and the Science and Engineering Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology. He is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Digital Life Laboratory at the University of Southern Queensland. His research focuses on motivation within the teaching profession, the online support needs of beginning teachers and the cognition of creativity. Further details can be found on Nick’s website