Case Study: How is neo-liberalism shaping education in Australia and abroad, and is its effects as troublesome as some claim?

Matthew Ovens
YourStatsGuru, Melbourne, Australia

Originally submitted on 28 September 2018 as part of coursework at Curtin University, Perth, Australia


Education is part of a complex societal eco-system that attempts to instil in students the cultural values and norms of the society in which it operates. Traditional barriers between nations and societies are disappearing, revealing more information about educational practices across the globe. Whilst greater access to information and the opportunity to learn more about potential alternate practices is of great interest to educators, there are also threats to traditional classroom practices.
Drawing upon the published literature and this author’s near twenty years of teaching experience across various tertiary institutions and disciplines, this paper aims to highlight some of the effects (intended and unintended) of the rise of the neo-liberalism paradigm as applied in education. Special attention is placed on the Australian context as well as various standardised tests utilised as quasi-measures of educational performance/quality.

Front page of paper


Education is a complex and messy arena. From birth, children start on their learning journeys with their parents and other family members acting as their first teachers. By the time a child enters formal schooling, usually at age four or five, many have learnt the essential basic social, conversational, reading, writing and arithmetic skills from those they have already interacted with, including fellow children encountered in playgrounds or during formalised child-care, what Altbach and Hazelkorn (2018) refer to as social capital. Early primary teachers must, therefore, attempt to account for the multitudes of differing backgrounds and skill levels present in their classes, requiring the teachers to get to know their students and adapt their lesson plans and assessments accordingly. The early years of primary schooling attempt to create a cohort of students with a relatively homogeneous skill set, as defined in the curriculum documents, in an effort to prepare these students for later learning years. Middle school teachers then attempt to help these students progress in their skills and identify their potential future career pathways. Later year secondary schooling attempts to equip these students with the necessary skills to either enter the workforce or pursue further education in the tertiary sector. As Connell (2013) describes:

“To say that education involves nurture is important. Education involves encounter between persons, and that encounter involves care. Learning from a computer is not education; the machine does not care. Learning from a person behaving like a machine is not education; that person’s capacity for care is being suppressed. It is care that is the basis of the creativity in teaching, at all levels from Kindergarten to PhD supervision, as the teacher’s practice evolves in response to the learner’s development and needs.” (p. 104)

Throughout this complex and messy arena, teachers are guided by the curriculum, their peers and their own professional judgement, as to how to take a diverse group of individuals and help them acquire a vast number of skills (see Garcia (2015) for a humorous enumeration of some of these essential skills in the American context) required in order for them to be ready to fully participate in the complexity of our modern world. Sahlberg (2010) states this eloquently:

“Students need to experience personal and social development and change as the most important outcome of schooling. In other words, learning that is worthwhile and valued by their families, communities and nations more than simply achievement for external expectations or to satisfy policy norms.” (p. 46).

This then raises the question of “What skills are required, how they should be taught, and how do we know when students have successfully acquired them?”. Traditionally this was solely the purview of the classroom teacher, school principals and the education authority with little interference from those outside of the educational domain, that is until the rise of the neo-liberalist paradigm.

What is neo-liberalism?

Neo-liberalism is, in essence, a philosophy that emphasises the mechanism of the so-called “free market”, sometimes referred to as “globalisation”. Under this philosophy, as described by Peters (2001), there is a “limiting of the State’s role [decreasing] its power to mediate in the market to achieve the traditional welfare goal of full employment or of equality of opportunity in education” (p. 59). Firms compete for resources, customers and “pursue careful strategies of investment, capital enhancement, leveraging, cost reduction, adaptation to changing environments and new challenges, and sustained high credit ratings” Brown (2016, p. 3). One could argue that this neo-liberalism is simply The Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1776) repackaged for a more modern audience, wherein competition drives both businesses and customers to seek out efficiency, quality and the best return on investment, i.e. profitability (for businesses) or value-for-money (for customers), with the government turned into merely a regulator of the market.

What is neo-liberalism in education?

The most basic expression of neo-liberalism in education is the shift towards what Connell (2013) describes as the commodification of access to education, wherein students are “redefined simply as customers” (p. 102). Institutions, such as universities and schools, are forced to compete with one another to secure funding. Principals and deans are forced to become managers trying to reduce costs whilst also marketing their school/institution to attract potential fee-paying students or additional funding. Teachers are forced into competition with one another by virtue of the fact that students’ results on standardised tests are used to assess their performance. Students are forced into competition with one another by the use of these same standardised tests as a quasi-entrance exam for some selective schools and their final results from secondary school being used to create relative rankings for tertiary entrance.

Hil (2012, 2015) expertly, and somewhat satirically, describes the first effects of the so-called Dawkins1 Revolution, a series of neo-liberalist reforms first beginning in 1987, to tertiary education in Australia. These reforms have effectively turned the universities into for-profit businesses first and foremost, instead of ensuring that their primary mission continues to be one of education for the common good. The on-going effects of these reforms in Australia have, by now, reached down into lower levels of the Australian education system, so that even in the early-childhood sector, there is competition between providers to secure sufficient government funding.

What have been the consequences of neo-liberalism in education?

The most obvious and profound consequence of neo-liberalism in education has been the pursuit by governments, not only in Australia, to make educators and institutions accountable to some form of quality standard. Laudable as this goal is, educational quality is difficult to define in quantifiable and measurable terms. The result of this, as Biesta (2017) states, is that “indicators of quality are taken as definitions of quality” (p. 316). In other words, performance on a specific measure (e.g. a standardised test or student satisfaction survey) is taken as a definitive measure of the quality of education provided by the institution or educator, ignoring all other possible factors.

“We might think of this as an open question, but perhaps it is more accurate to treat it as a diagnosis of what is currently going on in many countries around the world, where we have reached a situation where measurement is to a large degree driving education policy and practice without any longer asking whether what is being measured adequately represents a view of good education.” Biesta (2017, p. 316)

The second major consequence of the neo-liberal approach to education is seen in the rise in the use of comparative league tables to determine the success or otherwise of interventions. Data for these league tables can come from a variety of sources, but almost all rely on some form of standardised test that measures only that which is measurable in education, i.e. whether or not the student obtains the correct/desired answer on the test.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has, for many years now, produced such a table based upon results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA, it should be noted, is not administered in the same manner in each country. In some cases, only a few schools across a country might participate whereas Australia over-samples for PISA. Equally, Shanghai and Hong Kong are included in the rankings as individual cities, since China as a whole does not participate, being compared to the like of Australia, the US and Canada. Socio-economic status (SES), population demographics, comparisons between cities and nations, geographical challenges as well as difference in governance structures are all somewhat ignored when creating the PISA ranking tables (Gorur & Wu, 2015).

Australia also participates in collecting data for the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which are used in constructing their associated league tables. In addition, Australia also has its own “in-house” program called the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) which is administered to students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Aggregate school-based NAPLAN data is published on the My School website along with some contextual information about the schools (such as SES and per pupil funding) but league tables are not presented, although they can be constructed from the published data (Polesel, Rice, & Dulfer, 2014).

Aside from the fundamental problems of trying to measure the immeasurable with such blunt instruments, the use of averages alone as a method of ranking is inherently flawed. More worrisome, however, is the increasing trend for institutions, or even countries, to make “reaching a certain position in a league table … itself a strategic target” Biesta (2017, p. 316). Australia, under Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012, declared its intent to be ranked in the top five on international rankings.

“So strong is this ambition that it has been inscribed into the Australian Education Act of 2013 as its very first objective, which reads: ‘Australia to be placed, by 2025, in the top 5 highest performing countries based on the performance of school students in reading, mathematics and science’ (Australian Education Act, 2013) as measured in PISA.” (Gorur & Wu, 2015, p. 648)

The use of NAPLAN or similar standardised test data as a measure of the quality of education provided by a teacher is so obviously flawed that it is surprising, at least to this author, that the point even needs to be argued. As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, education is messy and a child learns from more people than just their current classroom teacher. If, for example, a child, prior to entry into formal schooling, is taught, erroneously, by their parents that the product of seven and eight is fifty-four2 (instead of fifty-six), then why should their Year 3 classroom teacher be held solely accountable for the student still holding this misconception? Surely the parents are the source of the problem and if the child still holds this misconception at Year 3, does this not also indicate that the previous classroom teachers have failed to correct the misconception? Hence one would argue that the NAPLAN data is a form of summative assessment of the child’s learning journey to that point in time, i.e. what the test was originally designed to measure.

This brings us to the next unintended consequence of neo-liberalism in education; the perversion of purpose. Data collected for educationally pure motives, such as in a summative or formative assessment, is repurposed for an administrative or bureaucratic requirement. NAPLAN, for example, is supposed to provide a point-in-time measurement of a student’s current literacy and numeracy levels and thereby enable students, parents and teachers to identify areas of weakness to address in future lessons. The long delay between the student sitting the test and the results being released make the information provided back to the students, parents and teachers obsolete, however, it is the repurposed use of this data and the impact of this on the wellbeing of students, parents and teachers alike that is of most concern. Howell (2016) discusses some of the alarming levels of anxiety, stress and fear that some students feel regarding NAPLAN despite supposed reassurances that the test has no consequences for them. One parent describes how their Year 3 child “had nightmares and wet the bed in the nights leading up to NAPLAN” (Howell, 2016, p. 171).

The perversion of purpose also impacts the behaviour of the classroom teacher, either as a response to trying to mitigate the effects on the wellbeing of their students or as a “defensive pedagogy” (McNeil, 2000 as cited in Lingard (2009)), as described in Howell (2016):

“… it would be reasonable to surmise that extended periods of explicit NAPLAN preparation, which impact negatively on child-teacher-peer relationships, would in turn impact negatively on teachers’ ability to successfully meet the needs of the children in their classes and improve learning outcomes.” (p. 177)

The result, in either case, can be the situation of “teaching to the test” rather than teaching the curriculum, a finding of the work by Polesel et al. (2014). Teachers are “increasingly becoming technicians, obliged to deliver a prescribed and narrow product into which they have had little input” (ibid, p. 643).

The construction of league tables and participation in programs such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS does, however, motivate us to investigate educational practices in other contexts. Finland, Shanghai, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong are often studied in an attempt to identify what makes them rank so highly. Alexander (2012) while discussing the UK context reminds us, however, that we cannot separate schools from the society (eco-system) they operate in and as such, “policy borrowing” is not a guarantee for improvement in performance. Gorur and Wu (2015) also comment on the practice of “learning from the best”, both in Australia and abroad, noting how many such studies only look at the “high-performing systems and then [conclude] that these practices are the reason for their success”. A clear example of the fallacious logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc being utilised to determine what interventions to make.

Concluding remarks

Teaching is a vocation that requires an utmost professionalism and willing self-sacrifice, as Sahlberg (2010) describes beautifully:

“Teaching is a profession that is typically driven by ethical motive or intrinsic desire, just as nursing, the performing arts and humanitarian services are routinely driven. Most teachers, therefore, expect to teach in congruence with their moral purpose, i.e. so that students would understand and learn to promote their personal development and growth, not only for favourable exam scores or other externally set conditions of progress. Helping other people and thereby one’s own community and society is the basic element of moral purpose associated with the teaching profession. Teachers are, by their nature, important facilitators in building social capital within their community and nation. … Teachers try to balance their work between the moral purpose of student-centred pedagogy within education as a public right, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the drive for higher standards through perceived efficiency of the presentation-recitation mode of instruction and the perspective of education as a private good.” (p. 49)

Furthermore, teaching aims to inspire a student’s curiosity for further learning, “often expressed in terms of commitment to lifelong learning, with the implication that it involves more than just the choice of … careers or further education, but may also be expressed through participation in … activities and projects within students’ community.” (Ainley & Ainley, 2011, p. 52)

The neo-liberalist paradigm when applied in education promotes competition rather than cooperation. Some competition is warranted as is accountability for the utilisation of public resources, however, trust in the professionalism of educators is also warranted. Education, if we must use economic terms, is an investment in the future of humanity, not a commodity we want to sell off to the highest bidder.


1. The Honourable John Dawkins AO was minister for Employment, Education and Training from July 1987 through to December 1991 and was responsible for the re-introduction of fees for higher education, at the time known as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), and a series of reforms that led to merger and/or closure of several tertiary institutions and centres of advanced education.

2. This is a common misconception. Many students find themselves confusing 7 \times 8 = 56 with 6 \times 9 = 54 , even into their tertiary level studies.


NAPLAN National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy
OECD Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
PIRLS Progress in International Reading Literacy Study
PISA Programme for International Student Assessment
SES Socio-Economic Status
TIMSS Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study


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Full citation:

Ovens, M. (2018). Case Study: How is neo-liberalism shaping education in Australia and abroad, and is its effects as troublesome as some claim?. YourStatsGuru, Melbourne, Australia

Last updated 28 September 2019