Challenging Consumerism: Education As Human Development

This article explores the role of challenging consumerism through notionalising learning and education as human development.  This is an extended version of the blog originally published on the British Educational Research Association blog published on


The culture of transforming everything into products to be ‘consumed by the market’ is manifesting itself as a global pathology. This feverish trend is destroying long standing communities of practice in education (Kezar and Eckel, 2002) which have been built upon collegiality and information sharing imposing competition (Carson, Bartneck & Voges, 2013) and secrecy into the terrain (Walsh & Hong, 2003). This is a symptom of a growing epidemic (OECD, 2009).


It is a kind of ‘locust economy’ driven by profit crazed stockmarkets and financiers (Kaufman, 2012) which have earmarked public goods like education as “market opportunities” (European Round Table of Industrialists,1998); the primary motive is to build and extract profit whilst externalising ‘costly’ responsibilities (Bakan, 2012).


Driving this surprising transformation of education are companies like Pearson Plc appropriating profit in the leagues of £4,552 million in sales revenues (Pearson, 2017) for the year 2016 whilst nesting in tax havens (Pearson, 2016).


Former tax-inspector, and winner of the Paul Foot Award for Investigative Journalism, Richard Brooks wrote a book called The Great Tax Robbery which featured Pearson Plc:


The Great Tax Robbery by Richard Brooks

“…with the shackles removed from international finance, a simple trick became easier and, for many companies, irresistible. Money could be placed in a tax haven subsidiary company in return for share capital in that company, and then either invested or even lent back to the British company from which it came in the first place. The high interest rates employed in the battle against inflation at the time meant a quick accumulation of tax-free profits offshore, matched by a corresponding reduction in taxable profits back home.


One of the first multinational companies to cash in was Pearson, the owner of Penguin books and the Financial Times, which in 1979 placed £20m surplus cash in a Jersey-registered company for deployment in several high-yielding schemes made possible by the currency relaxations. It doubled its money in five years, free of UK tax.


But in order to get out of both the UK’s and Jersey’s taxes, the company needed to ensure it was not ‘managed and controlled’ – a trigger for tax residence – in either place. Its directors toured Europe’s tax havens, holding thirty board meetings in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Luxembourg, Geneva, Monaco and elsewhere to ensure the peripatetic company remained stateless for tax purposes…” (Brooks, 2014)


This kind of relationship in a mixed market economy like the UK can be seen as asset stripping the nation’s infrastructure and community but it is sold to us as a liberating force.  Principal architects of free market economics such as Milton Friedman have long championed privatization as giving choice and freedom to the individual….


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It is argued that consumerism is displaying the autopoietic (meaning self reproducing) (Seidl, 2004) characteristics of iatrogenic illness (Friedman,1982). Iatrogenic is a word describing illness which is caused by medical examination or treatment; the economic system we have is creating the problems it is purporting to solve.


The notion of consumer has been instilled in our culture through marketing concepts of freedom, choice, competition and efficiency. These semiotics disguise dispossessive economies, leaving people bereft of the values and features which sustain them. Education has become normalised as a business and slogans of commercialism such as ‘student as consumer’ have changed the dynamic of the pedagogical terrain (Molesworth, Scullion, & Nixon, 2011). Students increasingly demand service for their money rather than search for their inner horizons.


I have heard various accounts of educators being asked how much money they will bring into the institution prior to the consideration of the content of their teaching. Students are encouraged into rituals of employability fraught with perverse incentives (Moreau & Leathwood, 2006; Kohn, 2018) where they are told that they are buying a ‘luxury brand’ promising better incomes if they accumulate awards and perform community volunteer components to round out their curriculum vitae.


It is upsetting to see the nature of volunteering be instrumentalised in such ways, particularly so for the communities who are instrumentalised.  We can see a rising critical discourse on such activities with the coining of terms like ‘Voluntourism’ (Smith, 2015).  There are unfortunate side effects of combining a competitive commercialised setting with the moral hazard of incentivised giving of time.  As one graduate now in a good job said to me “oh no, I did that”…


Set up and posed as consumers the vast complex interrelationships of homo sapiens in the natural world are reduced to finance and profitability. Perverse incentives subjugate the scholar to what will meet funding criteria and factor in league tables whilst Value Added Measures offer a sinister threat should student satisfaction or key performance indicators not be met (Amrein-Beardsley, 2014).


league tables


The mindless acquisition and subjugation of all forms of wealth into finance and reductive metrics is exerting new artificial pressures on humans to survive as social mammals. Managerialist caste systems emerge (Lock & Spender, 2011) operating dark satanic algorithms tracking ever more each moment of the working life. Contracts are diluted and educators are tacitly expected to work evenings and weekends to meet the increasing demands of administrative bureaucracies and work loads.


We need only look to the natural world to understand the road we are travelling. We are losing the habitat which sustains us through consuming it; our inheritance has become polluted, diminished, instrumentalised, desertified. The current dominant culture is unsustainable producing more problems than it proposes answers for.


The broader effect of the consumerisation is that the diverse educational landscape has been damaged. Further Education is being underfunded and undermined in the same way that lifelong learning, adult education and communities have been. Universities are facing the same pressures which is changing their conformations.  Where do we find answers to the intractable problems of the consumption of education by finance ?


Education as human development (United Nations, 2004) promises in its practice the proliferation of skills needed to respond. For those disadvantaged by the dominant culture the situation can be reframed as an opportunity to study, cognicise and adapt to the disfigured terrain.


This pragmatic philosophy is rooted in Ragged University, an evolving informal education model based on human development which celebrates the nucleus of the formal institution (Eco, 1978) stepping beyond finance.


We must learn from the problem and find the strength we need in intellectual life independent of consumerism if we are to collectively thrive.