Education in the age of neoliberalism: Local and external contexts
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
—Richard Shaull, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
Officially, Nigeria is in a recession, because the worth of all the commodities (goods and services) produced in the country and adjusted for inflation, otherwise known as real GDP, has declined in two consecutive quarters. In the first quarter, it shrank to -0.36 percent and berthed in the second at -2.06 percent (Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). How this official release mirrors the state of the Nigerian economy is not clear to the common man. However, the reality of daily life captured appropriately by the consumer price index (CPI) has shown that the prices of goods and services have increased with inflation nearing a tipping point.
Nonetheless, it is to be noted that the present Nigerian condition is a consequence of state policy—policy being government’s choices. For three decades on, Nigerian economy has been governed on the basis of neoliberal principles mainstreamed from the advanced economic centres of North America, Europe and Japan. The notorious moniker, Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) readily reminds us of the havoc wrought by the application of the principles in our national economic life. Adjustment policy did not only reduce the national currencyto monetary worthlessness in 1986, it consequently spurred a second generation of brain drain in our tertiary institutions after the autocratic shock of thelate 1970s. Hence we pose the question: How compatible are neoliberalism and education? I shall attempt to answer this question in this paper and also point the way forward.
There is no denying the point that the knowledge highway is the battle ground of the 21st century. Two leaders from the global north, namely, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton had emphasised this at the turn of the last century. In his State of the Union message to the Congress on January 27, 2000, President Bill Clinton declaimed:
First and foremost, we need a 21st century revolution in education, guided by our faith that every single child can learn. Because education is more important than ever, more than ever the key to our children’s future, we must make sure all our children have that key. That means quality preschool and afterschool, the best trained teachers in the classroom, and college opportunities for all our children.
Prime Minister Tony Blair during the launching of the Labour Party’s Education Manifesto at the University of Southampton on May 23, 2001 emphasised the importance his party attached to education in Britain. In his words:
Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people…At a good school children gain the basic tools for life and work…But they ought also to learn the joy of life: the exhilaration of music, the excitement of sport, the beauty of art, the magic of science…And they learn the value of life: what it is to be responsible citizens who give something back to their community.
If the dominant actors of the post-industrial societies who sit on top of the ladder of the global relations of production are primed on revamping their education sector in order to retain their global leadership, need we emphasise the importance of education for developing countries like ours? As Awolowo (1978: 66-67) has rightly noted in his instructive reflection on the Africa’s problems, under-developed countries contend with the problems of ignorance, illiteracy; disease; calorie deficiency, dependence on subsistence agriculture and excessive underemployment of the rural population; deficiency in techniques, organisation and capital. To these myriad problems, education holds the key, and indeed the solution to the problems “consist in the full development and full employment of every African-man or woman, child or adolescent.”
The point should be made that the country realised much earlier even before independence in 1960 that it lacked the required manpower to run the overdeveloped colonial bureaucracy. This was the reason behind Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s proposal of a phased disengagement from Nigeria for the British by which time the country would have groomed both intermediate and upper-level manpower to run the post-colonial Nigerian state.
However, the exiting colonialists were pre-occupied with the state of education and had a desire to nurture the country’s human capital and consequently set the Ashby Commission on education in1959 to address the inadequacy of manpower development in the country. The commission took cognisance of the fact that to sustain the neo-colonial order Universal Basic Education (UBE) was necessary. The commission also addressed the problems at the tertiary level by recommending the establishment of universities including institution of undergraduate degree in Education and the training of additional teachers for Nigeria’s secondary schools. Since then, the minders of the Nigerian states have experimented with various forms of policies in the educational sector many of which have undermined the sector.
Today, the greatest challenges facing the education sector are underfunding (see appendix), curricula distortion and authoritarian intrusion. Firstly, let me say a few things about this authoritarian assault. I shall come to the other points in subsequent sections of this paper. Between 1978 and 1993, under the Obasanjo and Babangida regimes, tertiary institutions were purged of thinking lecturers who had in solidarity with the students protested against the commoditisation of education in the country in the popular Ali-Must-Go protest of 1978. The likes of Comrade Ola Oni, Dr. Edwin Madunangu, Professors Bade Onimode, Akin Ojo, Ade Ajayi, Mr. Ebenezer Babatope and Laoye Sanda and other progressive intellectuals across the country were purged from Nigerian universities (Some were later recalled by the Shagari Administration in the Second Republic). Under the Babangida military dictatorship, university lecturers were accused of violating the teaching code. Ofeimun puts it more aptly in his recent tribute to Professor Isidore Okpewho who passed on in the United States. Adducing reason for the latter’s sojourn in the United States, he points to the illiberalism of “ a time when Nigerian academics under military dictatorship were being sacked for teaching what they were not paid to teach, and were being paid pittance for a take-home that could not take them home.” Babangida regime (1985-1993) combined both co-optation of academics into his regime and the sacrilege of appointing military personnel as sole administrator to undermine higher education in the country.
From then on the ivory towers have been struggling to regain their intellectual role which Baran (1961) has summed up as:
The desire to tell the truth is therefore only one condition for being an intellectual. The other is courage, readiness to carry on rational inquiry to wherever it may lead, to undertake “ruthless criticism of everything that exists, ruthless in the sense that the criticism will not shrink either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx) An intellectual is thus in essence a social critic, a person whose concern is to identify, to analyze, and in this way to help overcome the obstacles barring the way to the attainment of a better, more humane, and more rational social order. As such he becomes the conscience of society and the spokesman of such progressive forces as it contains in any given period of history.
And as such he is inevitably considered a “troublemaker” and a “nuisance” by the ruling class seeking to preserve the status quo, as well as by the intellect workers in its service who accuse the intellectual of being utopian or metaphysical at best, subversive or seditious at worst.
The more reactionary a ruling class, the more obvious it becomes that the social order over which it presides has turned into an impediment to human liberation, the more is its ideology taken over by anti-intellectualism, irrationalism, and superstition. And by the same token, the more difficult it becomes for the intellectual to withstand the social pressures brought upon him, to avoid surrendering to the ruling ideology and succumbing to the intellect workers comfortable and lucrative conformity. Under such conditions it becomes a matter of supreme importance and urgency to insist on the function and to stress the commitment of the intellectual. For it is under such conditions that it falls to his lot, both as a responsibility and as a privilege, to save from extinction the tradition of humanism, reason, and progress that constitutes our most valuable inheritance from the entire history of mankind.
I shall return to this subject, let’s now focus on neoliberalism.
‘The Neoliberal Virus’
It is important to underline the importance of contexts in academic analysis for a number of reasons. One, contexts may help to identify variants, path-dependency, trajectory of outcomes of neoliberalisation as “a really existing process” and two, help to overcome the overarching universalism of neoliberal discourse and to come to terms with the its characteristics and impact in different environments (Castree, 2006). Contextualising neoliberalism also helps to understand its politics and assumptions. I examine here the external context before the local because of an inherent vertical relationship between the two contexts.The external context is only intelligible within the ambit of the global political economy. The global economy is based on capitalism, “a mode of production in which the means of production are owned by capitalists who constitute a distinct class in society” (Dobb, 1958: 16). This mode of production today is world-wide. In its towering global status, capitalism has undergone several transformation: mercantilism to neoliberal globalisation. Africa and other less developed countries were inserted into this mode of production as producer of primary products for the metropolitan economies. This subaltern position in the global economy has been reinforced by metropolitan prescriptions, from modernisation to adjustment policies. These policies constitute what I have described as secondary uneven development, i.e., those policies which continue to widen and reinforce global inequality by deepening the original gap created by primary uneven development (Akhaine, 2015). So neo-liberalism is nothing but a capitalist matrix for the subjugation of weaker economies within the metropolitan complex. Neoliberal globalism represents “the over-extension of credit on a narrow material production base… a situation in which money has become increasingly detached from its material base of a money commodity that can measure its value such as gold” (Nabudere and Amin, January 9, 2009). This increased financialisation has expanded global inequality through pervasive and virulent cycles of boom and bust.
Two important points need to be made from the beginning. One, we cannot stop talking about an epidemic ravaging a people for which no cure has yet been found. Two, Ideas have consequence, we ignore them at our own peril. Because ideas are also path-dependent and have consequence for the future, a historical excursion is important here. My intention is not to regurgitate what has been said about neoliberalism (George, 1999) but to beam the searchlight on the subject in ways that we can understand the importance of education in relation to national development. It seems to me that the starting point is to look at Liberalism.
Liberalism is a body of ideas that has evolved from the enunciation of the enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Adam Smith and their numerous descendants. I am concerned here with what Manning (Quoted in Akhaine, 2004) has called ‘Symbolic form of Liberalism’ and which I have referred elsewhere as ‘essentials of the liberal doctrine”. These include the freedom to private property, moral obligation, individualism and pluralism, spontaneity of the independent mind and self-interest. My objective is simple to show that today’s ‘neoliberal gospel’ is a subversion of the liberal idea. Locke (Quoted in Akhaine, Ibid) says that “every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself”. The rationality for this is that by working on nature or the environment, man adds value to the product of nature and he can therefore lay claim to it as his property. This is not an absolute exclusivity because man lives in a society, Locke therefore added the caveat of “sufficiency limit,” which is that the measure of expropriation from nature is determined by man’s labour and convenience. Since no man by his own labour can appropriate the whole of the world, all by himself, there will all ways be something left for others. Liberalism believes in moral obligation in that it is the moral will that yields the power that holds together all human relationships. Individualism as a value is traceable to the protestant reformation courtesy of Luther by emphasising the purity of the conscience, freedom form all forms of arbitrariness and social conformism. Thus, it’s by-product is pluralism as well as self-interest. Manning (Quoted in Ibid) says this is dominant in man’s production relations and leads consequently to competitiveness. Equality is of the liberal essence. Smith’s envisages a progression to equality, a requirement for efficient market (Chomsky, 1996: 180). Truly, the liberal spirit is antithetical to privileges and patronage.
The foregoing is the ideational foundation of the neoliberal virus pillaging societies and institutions, especially in the global south. The virus nurtured and disseminated by Friederich Von Hayek and his acolytes, such as Milton Friedman, is clothed in market regalia and also partly enriched by the complex systems theory. According to Susan George, “the whole point of neoliberalism is that market mechanism should be allowed to direct the fate of human beings. The economy should dictate its rules to society, not the other way around”. A recent editorial in The Japan Times(June 13, 2016) provides a useful summary:
Neoliberalism is capitalism in its purest form. It calls for the smallest possible government, the opening of domestic markets to foreign competition, and allowing capital to go to where it will (ostensibly) be used most efficiently. In practice, this means shrinking the state and lifting the hand of bureaucracies, privatizing enterprises, balancing budgets, opening domestic markets to international competition and permitting money to move across borders with minimal restrictions.
In particular, neoliberal economic principles cover public expenditure priorities, fiscal deficits, tax reform, interest rates, the exchange rate, trade policy, foreign direct investment, privatisation, deregulation and property rights. These policy clusters are also called Washington Consensus described by Stiglitz (2002:16) as “a consensus between the IMF, the World Bank, and the US Treasury about the ‘right’ policy for developing countries—that signalled a radically different approach to economic development and stabilisation”. These policies, a subversion of Liberalism and Keynesianism being averse to state intervention, first forced themselves into public reckoning with brute force in Chile under Augusto Pinochet regime which toppled the socialist government of Salvador Allende (Weyland, 2004). Allende had nationalised the commanding heights of the economy to the discomfiture of transnational capital (Sampson, 1974). Chile under neoliberal orthodoxy, its economy grew by about 5 percent between 1973 and 1980 but the human cost was immeasurable. Indeed, Pinochet killed over 11000 adversaries in his first year in office, employing arbitrary arrest, kidnapping, torture, disappearances, allanamientos(military sweeps) and relegacion (internal exile) (Akhaine,1999: 52-53). The recorded growth belied the fallen standard of living of more than 12 million Chileans at the end of that regime.
Neoliberal Virus versus Education
To overcome neoliberalisation, we must ignore the medicine men from Bretton Woods and turn to native wisdom or what aligns with our reality. It has become imperative at a time when neoliberal oracles are disavowing their economic cants. Indeed, the impact of neo-liberalisation in terms of human cost is unquantifiable. It meant and continue to mean the “demolition of society” thanks to Susan George. The particular emphasis on rolling back the state based on the argument that state-owned enterprises are inefficiently managed and therefore a drain on public resources has direct bearing on education. Infact in the wisdom of the neoliberals, education is to fare better in private hands and should be privatised trough the introduction of school fees. It went to lengths to prescribe curriculum overhaul to privilege entrepreneurial course while de-emphasising the humanities. Recall that the same international financial institutions (IFIs) noted in the case of sub-Saharan African deficiency of human resources. Without doubt these prescriptions are at the heart of educational crises in the developing world.
To be sure, the peoples of the metropoles are by no means immune from the ravaging effect of the neoliberal virus. They are at the receiving end just as the peoples of the developing world. This becomes glaring if we take a critical look at the global economy. According a 1999 United Nations Human Development Report, “(T) he top fifth of the world’s people in the richest countries enjoy 82% of the expanding export trade and 68% of foreign direct investment-the bottom fifth, barely more than 1%”. It is this sort of inequality that Robert Wade once described as a champagne glass, top-heavy with a slim bottom. This metaphor also captures the reality within the metropoles. The difference is one of scale. Whereas in the underdeveloped countries of Africa, neo-liberalisation has confined them to a zone of exclusion, a zone in which “a form of ‘adverse incorporation’ is taking place whereby the poor, without formal rights are obliged to engage in informal exchange and clientilist relationship to secure their survival needs. In this context the informal economy of drugs, prostitution, arms dealing and illegal trade flourishes” (Deacon, 2000: 6).
In the field of education, United States despites its historic expression of commitment to education, under Obama administration, a new system in which the federal government would lend money directly to students, instead of guaranteeing bank loans has been introduced. The loan as it were would be spread over 20 years as a small, fixed ratio of income. As Bill Clinton remarked at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York on June 4, 2012, “No one will ever have to drop out of college again because of the cost”. There is nothing fundamentally innovative in this. The Labour government in the UK had introduced the so-called top-up fees. Under the Higher Education Act 2004 universities were permitted to charge adjustable fees later capped at £9000 in 2010. Students would have access to upfront loans payable after graduation based on a tiny percentage of the monthly income of the debtor. In the UK universities are still publicly funded but drop in public funding has confined them to frontline work, that is, teaching and research. These are capitulation to capital realisation dynamics that found a convenient anchor under the third way during Blair and Clinton administrations in the UK and USA respectively (Giddens, 1998).
Some of the above examples happened in the metropoles what then has been the fate of education in the developing world under persistent neoliberal attacks? Between 1985 and 2005, trade liberalisation, one of the neoliberal tools cost sub-Saharan Africa US$272 billion over the past 20 years. According to Christian Aid (July 2005), “Had they not been forced to liberalise as the price of aid, loans and debt relief, sub-Saharan African countries would have had enough extra income to wipe out their debts and have sufficient left over to pay for every child to be vaccinated and go to school. Two decades of liberalisation has cost sub-Saharan Africa roughly what it has received in aid”. The organisation went further to note that:
In the year 2000 alone, sub-Saharan Africa lost nearly US$45 dollars per person thanks to trade liberalisation… This looks like a bad deal: in 2000, aid per person in sub-Saharan Africa was less than half the loss from liberalisation – only US$20. Africa is losing much more than it gains if aid comes with policy strings attached.
To take a look at a few countries in the continent, Ghana which was touted as the star pupil in Africa on how to implement adjustment policies and its pay-offs. The social cost of adjustment in this country was devastating. The rate of GDP growth was paralleled by the rate of capital flight. Receipts from Gold exports rose to $139.8 million in 1987, $304 million in 1991 and $549 million in 1995.Interestingly, the rate of import also increased in the same period (Akhaine, 2004). The consequence was that malnutrition and illness increased among the poor due to cut in wages and expenditure. Besides, user-fees were introduced in education and health care services. The formal witnessed increased rate of drop-outs and illiteracy (Hammond and McGowan, 1994).
In Nigeria, the story is the same. Apart from the direct impact on the economy, adjustment led to underfunding and infrastructural decay in our educational system. In the first one year of SAP, the government tried to increase the capital vote while simultaneously reducing recurrent expenditure from N429m to N316m. SAP increased the crisis in the educational sector underlined by chronic underfunding; infrastructural decay; stagnation in staff development and pervasive deterioration in the condition of service of academic staff (Jega, 1993: 104). Also, to come back to the issue of authoritarian onslaught, some academics labelled extremists, were again hounded out of the academia, namely, Festus Iyayi, OsagieObayuwana and Professor ItseSagay at the University of Benin. Due to these pathologies in the sector, the phenomenon of brain drain reared its ugly head. As Amuwo (2003:100) has rightly noted, brain drain flows from the contradictory dynamics of the global political economy. “When pay is not perceived as commensurate with skills and job profile; when daily living gradually becomes (in relative terms) a nightmarish experience because the basic or minimal structures, infrastructures and facilities of a modern society and economy have either decayed are in advanced stage of disrepair or simply do not exist, the natural response is to want to move.” Correspondingly, the advanced economies also tapped into the cheap labour of dissatisfied and distraught professionals running away from conditions of misery at home (Ibid: 97).
Interestingly state institutions have even devised immigration programme to harness them. In the United States, it is call alien of extra-ordinary ability. The cost to the continent has been immeasurable. The late Olukoye Ransome-Kuti as Minister of Health encountered some 5000 Nigerian professionals in Denver, Colorado and broke down in tears (personal communication). Justifiably so, because brain drain constitute a huge loss to the national productivity and development. By some estimate over 20,000 academics and professionals are said to leave the continent for advanced countries of Europe and America annually (Ibid: 103). Over 60 percent of the immigrants, especially those from Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa have university education (Ibid: 103).
Today, the fact that politicians now showcase red roofs in primary and secondary schools is an indication of the decay in that sector during the adjustment years. The short of it is that SAP has “engendered unprecedented levels of peonage in Nigeria’s history, economic underdevelopment, and foreign trade and international relations, and tends towards recolonization” (Akali, 2004: 13)
Beyond Neo-liberalisation: A Resort to Statist Strategies?
The ideology of neoliberalism and free markets, once critically referred to as the “new religion” of establishment economists, is now being widely contradicted from its supposed outcome of superseding governments and the nation state. In the face of a growing financial crisis, the spiralling prices of basic foods, and the threatening ascendancy of emerging economies like China and India, capitalist elites are progressively resorting to nationalist strategies of protection and government intervention(Share the World’s Resources, 2008)
Przeworski (1992:46) examines neoliberal concepts and principles in the contest of transition economies of former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and concludes that some of the basic assumptions of neoliberalism such as rolling back the state, market efficiency or achieving Pareto optimality are mainly fallacies. According to him (Ibid: 46):
Neoliberal ideology, emanating from the United States and various multinational agencies, claims that the choice is obvious: there is only one path to development, and it must be followed. Proponents of this ideology argue as if they had a Last Judgement picture of the world, a general model of economic and political dynamics that allows them to assess the ultimate consequences of all partial steps.
Nevertheless, Przeworski (Ibid: 46-47) supplies a caveat to his position that his analysis is “a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of excessive ideological zeal”.
The views of three high priests of the research department of the International Monetary Fund, namely, Ostry, Loungani and Furceri (2016) are even more revealing. In rethinking of neoliberal policies, the trio argue that the policies were wrongheaded in its assumptions in certain areas such as application of austerity measures and capital account liberalisation.
Our assessment of the agenda is confined to the effects of two policies: removing restrictions on the movement of capital across a country’s borders (so called capital account liberalisation) and fiscal consolidation, sometimes called “austerity”, which is shorthand for policies to reduce fiscal deficit and debt levels. An assessment of the specifics policies (rather than the broad neoliberal agenda) reaches three disquieting conclusions.
The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish when looking at a broad group of countries
The costs in term of increased liquidity are prominent. Such costs in terms epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.
Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.
In the analysis of Ostryet al (ibid) the policy instrument of capital control harbours risk of bust and inequality while austerity measures could worsen unemployment. They, therefore, submit that policy should be guided by what works. It is precisely, in this context that I revisit the state question. Neoliberalisation has castrated the state and reduce it to a sentinel of capital with consequence for its autonomy and the capacity to fulfil its contractual obligation, namely, the responsibility to provide social security for its people. In my analysis of the state I rely on the works of Mkandawire (2001) and Mazzucato (2015). Both left and liberal perspectives can be discerned in their analysis of the state which is invested with a commanding role for the realisation of governability in the Foucauldian sense.
Mkandawire (2001:290) does a critique of the literature on claims of the impossibility of the developmental state in Africa. Summarising the core argument in the literature by an adoption of Castells (Quoted in Ibid) viewpoint which is that in the literature, the developmental state has two constituents which are ideological and structural. The ideology-structural connexion of the developmental state is its distinguishing feature in relations to other forms of states. Its ideological core was developmental and sees it task as that of ensuring economic development, usually measurable by such indicators as high rate of accumulation and industrialisation, transformation of the production relations internally and in relations of the global economy. Against this backdrop, he argues that the motley of qualifiers such as ‘neopatrimonialism’, ‘rentiers’, ‘captured’ ‘lack of autonomy’, ‘lack of ideology’ and ‘lack of capacity’ employed to describe the African conditions failed to harness the specificity of the African experience and the insights of parallel historical processes. He holds the view that most of the first generation of African states were inclined to development and indeed sought nationalist and developmental ideological anchoring for the goal of national building and development despite the authoritarian trappings. As he puts it, “By political commitment and social origin most of the leaders were deeply committed to the ‘eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease’, which formed an unholy alliance against which the nationalist sword was drawn in the post-colonial era” (Ibid). He concludes with a call for a developmental state that is democratic, a pathway that is already being blazed by Botswana and Mauritius.
In her “The Innovative State”, Mazzucato (2015: 61) begins with a summary of the neoliberal assumption about the state. According to her:
The conventional view of what the state should do to foster innovation is simple: it just needs to get out of the way. At best, governments merely facilitate the economic dynamism of the private sector; at worst, their lumbering, heavy-handed, and bureaucratic institutions actively inhibit it.
She reinforces this view from quote from a 2012 Economist article that argues that while the neoliberal revolution rages government is expected to stick to some basic roles, namely, “provide better schools for a skilled workforce, clear rules and level playing field for enterprise of all kinds. Leave the rest to the revolutionaries.”
Against the backdrop of the rolling back of the state with targeting of public debts or so-called sequestration as in the United States and Europe’s fiscal compact pigeon-holing state to three percent deficit threshold with consequence for research and development (R &D), she reminded us that countries that achieved growth by means of innovation did so because of the central role of the state. The latter is inclined to risk taking than the private sector. Within the innovative sphere comprising basic research to commercialisation, governments have provided the resources that have yielded “the internet, nanotechnology, biotechnology and clean energy” (Ibid). The role of the military industrial complex is underlined. She stresses the point that meeting societal challenges requires state leadership, and beyond remedying market failures, the state must itself create markets and move the economy into “techno-economic paradigm”. It is to be noted that in the past, state led by constructing railroads, supporting automobile. Building the innovative state in this new century requires the state to create public agencies of the future that can serve as “hotbed of creativity, adaptation and exploration” (Ibid).
The quest for either a developmental state or innovative state proposes a paradigm shift on both sides of the ideological polarity and represents the desire to re-invent the state for
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