Here's yet another reason to oppose the HE Bill

Monday 18-07-2016 - 16:46

We speak to Dr. John Blewitt about the links between the marketisation of Higher Education, neoliberalism and education for sustainable development.

Dr. John Blewitt has written extensively on sustainability in Higher Education, and he shares our concerns about the HE Bill.

He argues that if our universities are going to be successful in shaping any sustainable economic alternatives to the neoliberal consensus which drives the climate crisis, then our education system has to shake itself free of market forces. 

As Parliament read a HE Bill which seeks to marketise Higher Education even further, we spoke to him about what this means for education for sustainable development, and how important it is that we oppose this Bill. 

Does the marketisation of higher education have a negative impact on education for sustainable development?


With marketisation educational courses become commoditised, academic staff become ‘resources’ and students become an institutional income stream. What dominates is the market criteria of what (or who) pays, what will generate more money and what will enhance the market profile or brand value of the institution.

Now, it is possible that a sustainable university will develop such a profile, that its ‘brand value’ will become highly sought after by students and others, but in our marketised society students, quite understandably, are primarily concerned about their own future employability in a market place where sustainability is not a major concern.

So, unless Business sees sustainability as a market winner, essential to their future success, ESD is unlikely to gain the necessary traction it needs in HEIs, and particularly in teaching and learning. Education and sustainability should not be commoditised unless we believe the market will cure all our ills.

Can education for sustainability help to counteract neoliberalism and marketisation? 

Yes, but a qualified ‘yes’.

ESD needs to contest the neoliberal ideology pervading the university. If it fails to do this, any change towards ecological sustainability within HEIs is likely to be piecemeal and certainly not systemic. Some things should not be marketised and therefore subjected to the vagaries and whims of the markets. ESD should be a non negotiable, fundamental aspect of all teaching, learning and research provision because if it is not the long term futures of students will be severely compromised.

Students and teachers must take a really critical look at the green solutions being offered by the big Business consultancies, NGOs reliant on corporate funding, governments and universities. Too often they are not what they are cracked up to be. Why, for example, does the carbon agenda dominate so much educational activity when sustainable development means necessarily so much more?

The answer is obvious. It is because the markets understand ‘carbon’ and the managerial and technical fixes that are perceived to change things without challenging the basic unsustainability of the system as a whole.

Why wasn't HE able to offer new ideas for a sustainable economy during the last crisis of neoliberalism in 2008? Are there any new reasons for optimism today?

Many academics didn't see the financial crash coming and indeed many of the theories advocating deregulation, privatisation and various forms of neoliberalism emanated from the university Business Schools. Just take a look at Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job.

Additionally, HEIs are remarkably conservative institutions dominated by targets, projected outputs and blind managerialism. When required to think out of the box, HEIs simply look for another box to think within. Many top rank academic journals are also highly conservative publications that are intellectually risk averse and often quite dull. This means that much of the most exciting thinking in recent years has taken place in think tanks and research institutes outside of the academy.

Increasing numbers of academics work with and sometimes for these institutions and students seek placements with them. So, if there is a cause for optimism it lies with the influence these critically free thinking external bodies can exert on the academic dinosaur. This is indeed happening.

What will the situation be like if this Bill passes? How do we resist it?

There is a twin problem associated with this Bill: the likelihood of the overly powerful and democratically unaccountable Office for Students, and the further entrenchment of market values in the structure and ethos of Higher Education. If the Bill becomes law, HE will have become effectively privatised. The notion that it will widen choice is spurious just as the TEF will motivate good teaching and learning.

Over ten years ago Sir Nicholas Stern argued that climate change was a supreme and clear example of market failure. ESD must free itself completely from the delusions of neoliberal market ideology in order to continuously and vigorously critique marketised education and the failures of the market and market solutions while simultaneously offering an alternative vision together with actual examples of how this alternative can and does work.

We need to widen and deepen the cracks within the current system by strengthening those bodies that are not totally in thrall to the market, to business as usual, to crass managerialism and to weak solutions that basically pander to vested interests.

Dr John Blewitt has written widely on sustainability and education and is a Distinguished Fellow of the Schumacher Institute and a core member of the think tank, GreenHouse. He teaches at Aston University.

If you want to find out more about education for sustainable development, talk to us about how we can help you embed it across your institution.

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