Striking a Balance: Navigating Neo-liberal Management in the Education Sector

The term “neoliberalism” has been applied to various aspects such as the commercialization of universities, the shift of welfare policies towards philanthropy and entrepreneurship, the rise of intensive mothering, the privatization of state-owned companies, the expansion of low-wage service employment, the increase in mass incarceration, and more (Johanna Bookm, 2013). This phenomenon emerged in the context of post-liberalization, privatization, and globalization, wherein local situations were influenced by global trends. Notably, this neoliberal trend has penetrated all aspects of public life, including education.

Impact of neoliberalism policies

In the realm of education, the principles of neoliberalism have significantly impacted the traditional landscape. Previously, academic perspectives and leadership styles predominated, but now, management theories and related terms like “quality” have taken the forefront. My previous involvement in the education sector within the development domain allowed me to explore this transformation. I engaged with the concepts of “Leadership” and “Motivation” in two distinct organizations—an Indian and an international one. Both organizations aimed to enhance student learning outcomes through various dimensions of leadership and by boosting teachers’ intrinsic motivation to address identified issues collaboratively. Interestingly, the strategies adopted to achieve student learning outcomes seemed distant from providing pedagogical support. Despite this, they claimed success by targeting pedagogic matters directly.

Changing expectations from the leadership

The proliferation of education management concepts from Western countries to developed and developing nations has ushered in a shift from traditional academic perspectives to a managerial approach. This influence is evident even in government schools, although their leadership style remains more administrative than in private educational institutions. Conversations with a District Institute of Education and Training (DIET) principal in Uttar Pradesh highlighted how management has introduced outcome measurement based on inputs—a departure from the older leadership approach. However, this doesn’t guarantee the intended academic results. Mukhopadhyay (2001, 2005) accurately observes the increasing presence of management practices in Indian education. While private schools have embraced these changes, government schools tend to retain their administrative approach.

In the contemporary context, management places substantial pressure on teachers to ensure student learning, often treating parents as direct customers. This contrasts with the traditional educator-student relationship, which was community-oriented rather than customer-oriented (Satbir Khora). This shift is emblematic of the neoliberal environment where economic efficiency and profit take precedence.

Even decisions like school mergers, based on cost-benefit analyses and efficient resource allocation, exhibit a management-driven approach. Sthabir Khora rightly stresses the importance of considering contextual specificity when applying management practices, particularly in education. The current pressure to align with neoliberal efficiency ideals often overlooks the unique characteristics of educational institutions. The influence of neoliberal ideals on education has increased numerical impact in terms of data collection and dashboards but they often fell short of qualitative improvements at the ground level.

This managerial approach prioritized infrastructure development, sidelining the quest for quality education which is a long-term outcome. The case study “Education Management and Leadership in a School District in Odisha” reveals contradictory authority distribution. In conclusion, the pervasive emphasis on quality and management in education is emblematic of the neoliberal era’s impact. However, the conflict between traditional education values and managerial efficiency calls for a nuanced approach that preserves education’s societal essence.

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