The effects of privatization of education on teacher professionalism: evidence from the UK
‘If universities continue to heed the call of corporatisation, the role of the academic will become extinct.’
Recently I read an interesting blog post on theguardian.com. By comparing oneself with a ‘precious bird’ who is struggling among the ‘bustling sale of cheap, plastic imitation bird-objects around it’, the anonymous author sadly predicts that this bird may face extinction, leaving only its exotic feathers as relics of rapidly fading ideals. The post argues how a ‘wholesale corporatisation’ of the British higher education sector creates inequalities and adversely affects teacher professionalism. In addition to the increases in tuition fees due to the marketisation of higher education, the author argues that unfair pay between senior representatives and junior academics, particularly university support staff, will inevitably lead to more inequality. In an environment where private sector ideals are thriving, the author also feels that students are drawn more to the issues of ‘customer satisfaction’ rather than their commitment to study and academic aspirations. The blog points to the fact that as academics are being asked to undertake more administrative tasks, they have less time to undertake scholarship. Most importantly, academics find the private sector-style environments unsupportive to sustain their professionalism, being treated simply as information providers or sellers of their expertise.
I believe that the author is not the only ‘bird’ who has such a gloomy feeling. In fact, 2013 was seen as the year of marketisation of UK higher education with the government’s complete removal of student number controls. Although the sector is still far from a fully functioning market, a great number of academics in the UK have been expressing their increasing concerns about the consequences of extending market competition in universities’ activities of teaching and research.
In a large-scale strike, which broke out across the UK last year and early this year (2014), many interviewed academics held that education should not be seen as a commodity and be left to the fluctuations of the market. It is true that when education is increasingly viewed in instrumental terms, serving the ultimate for-profit goal of the private sector, the universities are trying hard to squeeze all the costs including the salaries of academics and staff. Meanwhile, the academics are required to work more and more, leading to their overall low morale and satisfaction with their jobs.
Indeed, privatisation of education is a growing worldwide trend, which continues to spread in the context of globalization. The problems it creates remain unaddressed, even in the countries like the UK where marketisation was originally traced back in the 1980s. In the eye of many academics, private, for-profit education in the UK seem to become a big business, causing public universities to reduce the value of a higher education to the laws of supply and demand to compete in the marketplace. As a result, British academics feel a growing sense of frustration and demoralization in a career that they might choose because of their interest instead of the pay it offers.
The impact of privatization of education on teacher morale has also long been documented in different contexts. For example, teachers in New Zealand with the rising administrative functions reported high levels of stress, declining job satisfaction and the desire to leave the profession . In Australia, teachers were found demoralized and deprofessionalized by crude performance indicators such as research output and teaching performance in neoliberal education reforms . In the same vein, the expansion of market principles in education also has negative effects on Chinese professionals in terms of their workload, payment, wellbeing, social status and teaching and living conditions .
In addition, it is no surprise that in many for-profit higher institutions, the professionals are not required to engage in advanced research. This is simply because the institutions only hire the faculty on the part-time basis, which can help them drive down the cost and better deal with the changes in the market’s demand. Without doubt, academics in these private, for-profit universities also do not have many opportunities for professional development offered by universities. This is most evident in newly marketised higher education systems in many Asian countries like China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
I believe that privatization of public services has certain advantage of injecting competition into a market-based playing field. But when it is seen as the primary approach to education reform without proper supervision and outcome evaluation, this playing field turns out to be not at all level and equal, causing great many problems, including adverse impact on teacher morale and professionalism. To me, teaching academics hold a very important and special position in maintaining the goals and values of education as a public good in their communities. When market position places more pressure on them to pursue and construct academic identities in line with corporate identities, education has more negative consequences than positive outcomes.
 Power, S. 1997. “Managing the State and the Market: ‘New’ education management in five
countries.” British Journal of Educational Studies 45 (4): 342-362.
 WELCH, A. (1996) Australian Education: reform or crisis? (Sydney, Allen & Unwin), cited in Chan, D., & Mok, K. H. (2001). Educational reforms and coping strategies under the tidal wave of marketisation: A comparative study of Hong Kong and the mainland. Comparative Education, 37(1), 21-41.
 Guo, S., Guo, Y., Beckett, G., Li, Q., & Guo, L. (2013). Changes in Chinese education under globalisation and market economy: emerging issues and debates.Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 43(2), 244-264