2005 Policy Paper “Commodification of Education”

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ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe was founded in 1982 to promote the educational, economic, cultural, social and political interests of students in Europe. ESIB, through its 44 members from 34 countries, currently represents more than 10 million students in Europe.


1. The Concept of Commodification of Education

Education is a means for social development, democratic empowerment and advancing of the general well-being and economic development of societies. It ensures the accumulation and sharing of knowledge and cultural capital.

ESIB believes that open access to all levels of education is the cornerstone of a socially, culturally and democratically inclusive society and a pre-requisite for individual development and well-being. However in the economic debate, which emphasises the importance of a knowledgebased economy, this definition of education is evermore contested and education has come to be understood solely as an economic factor rather than a tool for social development.

In this context, Higher Education (HE) is perceived as a knowledge industry and Higher Education Institutions (HEIS) as service providers. Students are looked upon primarily as consumers of education and human capital for the labour market. They tend to focus less on active participation in higher education institutions. Many are choosing to focus only on preparation for the labour market and possibilities for maximising personal financial returns upon graduation, which is a negative and one-sided approach. This has also led to a decrease in cooperation and solidarity between individual students and an increase in unhealthy competition for the purpose of the fulfilment of personal aims.

It is thus the increasingly commercialised way in which higher education is being dealt with that is referred to as ‘commodification’ of education.


2. Different Levels of Impact of Commodification on Education

2.1. Cooperation or Competition in Internationalisation of Higher Education

ESIB recognises the positive impacts of internationalisation, yet stresses that students aim for an international education area which is characterised by cooperation, solidarity, high quality and freely accessible education, which also promotes global mobility in order to enable the development of responsible citizens.

ESIB supports the work of student organisations in the global south and reiterates the demand to recreate state-financed and publicly-run HE in Africa, Latin America and Asia and to stop the increasing trend of commodification of public higher education systems. Furthermore, increased commodification of education in these regions also negatively affects higher education in Europe.


2.2. The Regulation of Education

ESIB is greatly concerned that globalisation often proves to be a process which surpasses national and local legislative and regulatory mechanisms, and presents new challenges in the regulation and provision of education. The specific aspects and needs of national HE systems need to be constantly kept in mind in the process of international cooperation in higher education, whether in the form of international law or otherwise. Societies and states, as the main stakeholders of education, need to preserve a major role in regulation and provision of education.

2.3 Academic Freedom and Autonomy

ESIB stresses that classifying education primarily as a tradable product jeopardizes academic freedom and autonomy of universities. With the increasing pressure to meet market standards set in international fora, HEIs have become restricted in the scope and extent of their activity.

Furthermore, market failure and the compromising of academic values by privatisation of education is very likely to lead to a decreasing diversity of disciplines and act as an impediment to academic freedom in HEIs throughout Europe.

2.4. Governance and Democracy

In the context of commodification of education, democracy within HEIs is becoming increasingly replaced by the concept of service provision, with the consequence that it is market mechanisms that characterise the steering of HEIs, rather than democratic structures. This fails to reflect the complex role of education, both in societal and individual terms. HE as a means of developing active citizenship and solidarity within a democratic and tolerant community must base itself on democratic decision making with inclusion of all stakeholders in HEIs.

ESIB strongly condemns efforts which exclude students from the process of creating and sharing knowledge, and which further highlight the trend to treat students as customers, rather than partners in the higher education process.


3. The Different Areas of Impact of Commodification of Education

3.1. Financing of Higher Education and Access

The understanding of education as a public good and a public responsibility is a pre-requisite for equal access to education. Public responsibility in financing of HE and social services for students is a means of ensuring that access does not depend on the socio-economic background of learners or their families.

The right to education has been recognised in national constitutions and in international treaties. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies free access to education as a human right, and the UN Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights calls for a progressive elimination of tuition fees.

ESIB remains categorically opposed to the charging of tuition fees and reaffirms that education is a human right and therefore must be accessible to all. (1)

3.2. Quality and Quality Assurance

There is an increasing lobby by quality assurances agencies and governments to liberalise markets for evaluation agencies. This development endangers the quality assurance process. ESIB stresses that it is of central importance that criteria for evaluation are transparent and agreed upon among all stakeholders of HEIs in order to increase ownership and acceptance of the process, the results and the necessary changes resulting from the evaluation. National and local issues are also relevant in this case, coupled with the necessity to ensure the participation of students, in order to enable the constructive impact of students on quality assurance processes.

ESIB is concerned that many criteria used in quality assurance mechanisms are based on a commodified view of HE, related, among others, to output of study programmes, the setting of standards of excellence in research and teaching and acquisition of private funding. Quality assurance criteria should focus primarily on the education process rather than outcomes.

The assumption that a higher degree of quality will be achieved through market-type mechanisms that stimulate competition between HEIs forms the basis for an increasing trend to privatise state universities and offer HE programmes on a for-profit basis. It is furthermore based on the assumption that competition will inevitably lead to better adjustment of supply to demand and more efficiency in HE provision. This trend is one that can be witnessed globally.

ESIB strongly believes that market-type mechanisms often prove to be a deterrence to the provision of quality. Since competition between different providers on the market exists both on the basis of quality and costs, saving money on the quality of education could also be a result of competition between HEIs. ESIB again stresses that equal access to education includes equal access to education of high quality.


3.3. Recognition

Different standards and procedures in quality assurance or the lack thereof lead to a high level of uncertainty at the global level about qualifications and degrees provided by HEIs and the programmes offered by them. This negatively affects international recognition of qualifications and degrees by public authorities, HEIs or the labour market, leaving the individual in a situation of uncertainty.

ESIB stresses the importance of international cooperation in the development of transparent standards and guidelines for quality assurance on international level as well as of transparent criteria for the recognition of qualifications and degrees. This is a prerequisite to ensure that adequate information is available to individuals, HEIs, public authorities responsible for the recognition of foreign qualifications and degrees, and the labour market on the quality and qualifications of different HE programmes.


4. The Need for Public Debate on Commodification of Higher


ESIB stresses that commodification of HE does not result from the internationalisation thereof. Rather, the different processes of internationalisation reflect and result from a political tendency to perceive the self-regulation of the market as a universal instrument to reach the triad of innovation, economic progress and competitiveness of societies. Social cohesion, democratic and cultural progress of societies are not at the heart of this political concept or its aims, but are merely seen as result of economic competitiveness of societies.

Critical reflection of local, national and regional policy-making and the privatisation of public goods are therefore prerequisites for a comprehensive public debate on internationalisation and its affects on commodification of HE. Responsibility for commodification of education does not only arise on international or regional levels, but also at national and local level.

ESIB strongly welcomes international cooperation in HE, but stresses the need for a comprehensive and inclusive debate on the underlying principles of internationalisation of education, in a transparent and inclusive manner, with all stakeholders in HE, on institutional, national and regional level. ESIB stresses that internationalisation and commodification are separate issues, and recognises the importance of open discussion based on respect for national interests, global solidarity, human rights and non-discrimination. ESIB clearly distances itself from any efforts to misuse arguments against commodification to promote a nationalistic ideology.


1 For ESIB’s position on tuition fees, refer to ESIB’s policy paper on Financing of Higher Education (Adopted at BM48, Bergen)


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