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Can education be sold?

Melonie Fullick

That’s a question that came up on Twitter last week. And while to many this sounds like a “no-brainer”–“of course education can be sold, it’s already being sold all the time!”–my thought is that the question is a lot more complex. On Twitter, with its restriction of 140 characters per post, I found it was very difficult to have this discussion because the concept of education itself needed to be fleshed out in more detail–and as usual, the underlying idea of the thing we’re discussing has a huge effect on the conclusions we draw.

In fact, I wasn’t simply denying the “reality” that education is sold already. “Education” is of course sold, marketed, and discussed as if it is a product. But in these discussions, what exactly is meant by “education”? What does education marketing tell us we’re being sold? And does it correspond with what actually happens when students arrive at college or university?

A book, for example, is not like education (yet higher education has been compared to bookstores). A book is a contained physical or virtual thing, an item (a discrete unit), an object (seen as exchangeable; reified), a product (something produced)–it can be seen as all those things in economic terms, and it can be sold as such, even in digital form. Another popular comparison is to the music industry; I would argue that music itself is still not a good parallel with education because an MP3, for example, can be sold or transferred as an item. Music doesn’t require that an audience participate; it only requires them to purchase a copy of the recording (or access to an event). What music and books have in common is that, like information, they’re separate from the person doing the buying. So the comparison doesn’t really work, because education is more like something that happens, and happens differently for everyone.

My friend Dr. Alex Sevigny has an analogy that I think works much better: education is like a fitness program. Yes, you can pay for access to a gym with top-of-the-line facilities. You can pay for a trainer to take you through the best possible individualized regimen. You can buy the shoes and expensive gym clothes. But ultimately if you don’t get yourself to the gym, multiple days a week, and push yourself to get fit–there’s no benefit in any of it.

Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.

The assumption that education itself can be sold seems in part like a conflation of “education” and “credential”, and also an assumption that education never required anything from the student in order to be education. The idea that in the past students were not “engaged” with material is closely related to this. Of course students in the past were engaged to learn–they had to be. Otherwise they couldn’t have learned anything, because that’s how learning works. This is why “education” cannot be “delivered” like the daily paper.

The concept of education as an object is also present in debates about online learning, particularly in the recent massively hyped corporate and Ivy League versions of MOOCs. Driven as they are by the non-pedagogical need to find economies of scale, these projects envision students quantitatively, from the calculation of enrollment to the use of “learning analytics” to track behaviour (and the monetization of data). This fragmentation turns education into a series of discrete services, interactions, and measured outcomes.

Such a view of education–as something that can be delivered, sold, packaged–is part of a schema that includes the overly-simplistic “sender-receiver” model of communication, and the objectification of knowledge. These ideas are present in much of the criticism of, and commentary about, higher education; and they are pervasive in the rhetoric of education marketing and policy. The marketization of education, its presentation as simultaneously a product and a service, its increasing necessity in a difficult economy, and the financial burden placed on students through increasing tuition and fees, have all contributed to our understanding of what education is. Objectification and commodification go hand in hand; treating students as consumers means encouraging them to see education as something to be consumed–not created. Of course this is much easier than saying, “you’ve paid $6,000–now you have to do the work”, because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic.

For the above reasons I see this question about the meaning of “education” not as a problem of business models or technological solutions, but something else first–a philosophical issue that is crucial to the success of teaching and learning. It is a discussion about language, psychology, epistemology, and pedagogy. I don’t think it’s an easy discussion; but what knowledge is, and how education works, are things we need to understand as deeply as possible since we impart such power and control to the systems where these concepts are deployed.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Sandra Hoenle / December 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Great article! You’ve hit the nail on the head.

  2. kohai / December 5, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Great article and the gym analogy is spot on. Education is a process with different outcomes depending on the student for a variety of reasons is the best description.

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