Market forces and professional development

Market forces and professional development

While recent media attention has been focussed on Toby Young, perhaps people have overlooked the real nature of the new ‘Office For Students’?  This organisation has been set up to regulate higher education as ‘a market’. The office sees students as consumers, as does the House of Commons Education Committee that recently sent me a questionnaire wanting to know if I thought that Universities offered value for money. They assumed that I was an undergraduate. I’m pleased I’m not! In this blog, I argue that in England, we are destined for yet more of the private abuse of a public good. New private providers are now more likely to be validated and competition is one of the organisation’s watchwords. Education is now perceived to be a commodity that ought to be traded in the market place. The Office demands that data, data and yet more data is provided in order to determine league table positions. Quality is demonstrated by rank order and when your rationale is based on this, you only need to provide some simple yardsticks. The trick is to out-manoeuvre your competitors.

The consequences are that measurement and inspection become ever more important and yet, if there is one thing we have learned about inspectors, it is that they do not like complexity or uncertainty and that they have very little time to form a judgement. When they come to visit, you need to make sure that you are seen to be hitting that target, whatever it is, given the rapidly changing government policies. Or else, you will suffer the consequences! The ‘Office For Students’ is presented as a market regulator. It is actually intended to be a market enabler that will complete the transformation of education from a socially fulfilling and purposeful activity into a form of possessive individualism. There are other examples of ‘simple assumptions’ about education in England. The division between ‘grammar schools’ for approximately 20% of eleven year olds and ‘secondary moderns’ for the other 80% is based upon an assumption that only a few are worthy of promotion and fulfilment.

As opposed to focusing on the social consequences of these decisions that have been taken, I want to reinforce the argument of the Scottish philosopher Robin Downie. In the work of Downie and Randall (1999), the argument is developed that the power of the medical profession has dominated understandings of education. Interest in ‘Asclepius’, the Greek god of healing has diminished and there is instead, an obsession with ‘Hippocrates’, the famous physician. Hippocrates is associated with the mantra that “treatment ‘A’ can cure illness ‘B”. In contrast, Asclepius is associated with more complex processes of healing that are similar to what Schwandt (2005, cited in Urban 2009) refers to as ‘the messiness of human life’. This paradigm view, of ‘solving problems’ is central to the nature of organisations like ‘The Office For Students’. An emphasis is placed on data and measurement to the detriment of the real human factors that influence educational processes. This sounds similar to what can happen with professional development. As Kennedy (2005) argues, not all forms of professional development appear to be ‘transformative’. If measurement and market forces are dominating in Hippocratic ways, it is less likely that there will be an emphasis placed upon reflection, as this cannot be measured. Asclepius is associated with the gleaming eyes of serpents. There was a belief that the healing process was based on looking beyond yourself and into the eyes of what is external to the self. This belief is not based on numbers and market forces. The philosophy is mysterious and vague as it cannot be quantified. The recent Channel 4 programme ‘Educating Greater Manchester’ revealed the complexity of education and professional development. The educational experiences in this television programme could not be captured through numbers. The teachers appeared to be there for their students and for each other. Like Asclepius, healing occurred through looking into the eyes of others and making a connection. There was no television evidence that ‘treatment A’ was ‘curing condition B’ in this educational context.


Downie, R., and F. Randall. 1999. Palliative care ethics: a companion for all specialities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, A., 2005. Models of cpd: a framework for analysis. Journal of In-Service Education, 31 (2), 235-250.

Urban, M., 2009. Strategies for change: rethinking professional development to meet the challenges of diversity in the early years profession. Paper presented at the IPDA conference, 27-28 November, Birmingham, UK.


Author: Cliff Jones

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