The economization of education and the implications of the quasi-commodification of knowledge on higher education for sustainable development

Petra Biberhofer

Publication: Working/Discussion PaperWU Working Paper


This paper analyses an ongoing economization trend in the sphere of higher education (HE) and
discusses its implications on higher education for sustainable development (HESD). The sources of this
trend are connected with neoliberalism understood as a political project that seeks to extend
competitive market forces, consolidate a market-friendly constitution, and promote individual
freedom. In global HE neoliberalism, decision-makers, be it educational, scientific, or other, are
pressured to assess how their activities impact financially on the individual, organizational, and
institutional levels and/or the imperatives of an internationally competitive economy. The paper
provides a contemporary analysis of the rise of neoliberalism in HE, understood as the specific trend
of an academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime explained by Jessop's six analytic distinct and
potentially overlapping stages of economization. This analysis is based on a review of European policies
from 2006 until 2017 and explains characteristics of current economization strategies. Their core
principles relating to higher education are about improving economic performance based on
knowledge and innovation. Smart growth is defined politically as the main purpose of HE and
positioning students as future workers, with the right higher skills, as the means. The relevance of
students' skills higher education institutions (HEI) are urged to develop highly depend on business
demands. European policies are driven by a comprehensive entrepreneurial agenda restructuring the
organizational mechanisms in HE. Accountability towards the labour market and skills performance of
students set this agenda. Funding strategies rest on strong industry ties and diversification of revenue
streams depend on HEI capability to establish tech-driven knowledge alliances between research,
education and business. These new intermediary and powerful alliances drive economization
strategies, influence curriculum development and decide on relevant higher level skills. Respective
learning practices are oriented strongly towards developing entrepreneurial and digital skills based on
personalized learning environments. Currently HESD adapts towards a neoliberal education agenda
rather than preventing further shifts from a capitalist towards a competitive financialized economy. A
profound critique would have to question the dominant economization trends in higher education i.e.
the very purpose of education and the current raison d'etre of HEI. The core of the critique might build
on new institutionalized learning environments allowing deep, social learning and, hence, the potential
of HEI to act as social catalysts empowering collective and disruptive agency.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationVienna
PublisherWU Vienna University of Economics and Business
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Publication series

NameSRE - Discussion Papers

WU Working Paper Series

  • SRE - Discussion Papers

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