The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Neoliberalism and Education in the Global South: A New Form of Imperialism

  • Alex GuilhermeEmail author
  • Bruno Antonio Picoli
Living reference work entry


Neoliberalism Imperialism Global South Chile Brazil South Africa 


In the last decade of the twentieth century, many authors commented on the new economic, cultural, and political system being implemented worldwide, which emerged after the crises and fall of socialism: that is to say, neoliberalism. According to Connell (2013, p. 100), this system has an economic and social agenda to be implemented in every society, to be achieved under the auspices of a free market. This agenda turns neoliberalism into not merely a simple set of economic policies; rather, as Miraftab (2009, p. 34) notes, it should be understood as a network of policies, ideologies, values and rationalities, and certainly some of these are disarticulated and contradictory – however, it aims to encompass all peoples, institutions, and culture itself. This means that educational policies are an important part of this system, and it is one of the areas that policy-makers are keen to implement changes (McLaren and Farahmandpur 2001). In this light, we understand that this question must be answered: What is the impact of changes in education being implemented by neoliberal policies in the Global South?

The Rise of Neoliberalism as a New Form of Imperialism

Characterized by cutting taxes, curbing public budgets, privatization of the public assets, commodification of relationships, banking system deregulation, and flexibilization of labor laws, neoliberal policies started to be implemented with vigor in the 1980s by Margareth Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States. However, some authors maintain that the very first experience with this kind of social-political-economic model was implemented in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet, who through a coup d’état, took power by force, murdering President Salvador Allende on the 11th of September 1973 (Stiglitz 2006; Klein 2007; Carvajal Diaz 2017; Vásquez and Olavarría 2014). During Pinochet’s government, some Chilean economists who had studied at the University of Chicago started to define economic policies for the country. These economists were known as the “Chicago Boys” and were responsible for that which Milton Friedman called “The miracle of Chile” (Friedman 1994).

Milton Friedman and Friedman Friedrich Von Hayek are the two most important thinkers of neoliberal ideology, and their works during the 1980s–1990s became a showcase to the New World Order. It could be said that this was an orchestrated reaction from the right, against the continuous failures of left-wing governments in managing the economy successfully and which ultimately led to a backlash against workers’, women’s, children’s, and minority groups’ entitlements and rights. For instance, in the 1960s and 1970s, the United Kingdom was often called the “sick man of Europe” due to its poor economic performance when compared to its peers (e.g., in 1967, the pound was devalued; 1973/1974, the period of the Three-Day Week; 1976, the IMF has to bail out the country; and 1978/1979, the Winter of Discontent). So the failures of the left provided fertile ground for the right to implement its new agenda.

It is arguable that the great beneficiaries of these changes are business owners that take advantage and profit from the situation because governments, worldwide, refrain from stablishing more rules, constraints, and overview procedures, on the production, distribution, access, and consumption of goods and services (McLaren and Farahmandpur 2001, p. 273) – and we would add that some governments have in fact done away with these. Under the discourse of “less government,” private capital takes over services that before were considered functions and part and parcel of the state, such as electricity, communication, transportation, healthcare, and education. Thus, while in classical liberalism it is understood that the state must stay out of market relationships, but ensuring security and the basis for free enterprise, in neoliberalism the state becomes a servant of the private sector. This is so because under neoliberalism, the state must open all sectors to the free market, should deregulate through legislation the use of natural resources, must flexibilize labor laws, and needs to build infrastructure, or be open for companies to do it, so to support private enterprise (McMurtry 1999, p. 58; p. 6). On the servitude of the state to the market, Olssen and Peters (2005, p. 314) affirm that this relationship is, from the dominant part’s point of view, a positive conception of state’s role in creating the appropriate market by providing the conditions, laws and institutions necessary for its operation. And McLaren and Farahmandpur (2001, p. 285) corroborate this thesis, maintaining that whereas state power can be used in the interests of the large multinational corporations, it cannot be employed in the interest of the working-class. Accordingly, those who defend neoliberalism become willing servants of the market, understanding that the state should be free of ideologies and that this will make the nation more democratic.

Henceforth, within the neoliberal system, some forms of citizen’s participation are stimulated, while others are criminalized. The World Bank’s document Social Capital: The Missing Link?, published on April 1998, endorsed actions that help the poor to live with inequalities, but the same publication manifested its disagreement with any kind of movements that fights against these inequalities (World Bank 1998). By taking this position, this institution, one of the most influential in the organization and definition of public policies worldwide, empties the political and democratic dimension of social relationships under the discourse of free enterprise, personal merit, and naturalization of inequalities. According to Miraftab (2009, p. 39), the neoliberal system accepts some types of public action and citizen’s participation, but just those that do not challenge the system; he says: “They celebrate grassroots and their collective actions selectively, applauding those that help the poor cope with inequality, while criminalizing the others. Planning practices that celebrate inclusive planning through citizens’ participation yet remain uncritical of the complexities of inclusion and resistance in the contemporary neoliberal era are complicit in the binary misconception of civil society and public action.” Thus, questioning the neoliberal system, its understanding of human freedom and of democracy, becomes difficult (McLaren and Farahmandpur 2001, p. 273), especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are prevented from conceiving of a life beyond the limits set by the “free market.”

However, it is important to note that these policies are implemented differently in parts of the world. As Connell (2013, p. 101) notes, in the Global North, neoliberalism dismantled the welfare state, the system based on a state-regulated capitalism, and basic services that were stablished after World War II, and in the Global South, neoliberalism dismantled the strategy of autonomous economic development, and broke up the social alliances around it. It puts pressure on developing economies through multinational companies, financial help, trade agreements, and so forth, stablishing an international relationship based in dichotomy between the center (i.e., developed countries) and its periphery (i.e., developing countries).

Neoliberalism, thus, is a new manifestation of imperialism (Kaščák and Pupala 2011, p. 148) that amplifies the concentration of wealth among people and countries. It is a form of imperialism because it seeks to affirm its own truth as the unique truth, not only in the economic sphere but also in all spheres of life, individual, and social. According to Grenier and Orléan (2007), in 1979, Foucault affirmed that this new kind of liberalism, which was beginning at the time, was not just economic and political choice but was also a way of being and thinking. Indeed, it is possible to find in Foucault’s writings the following sentence on (neo)liberalism: “It is also a method of thought... It is up to us to create liberal utopias, to think in a liberal mode... Liberalism must be a general style of thought, analysis, and imagination” (Foucault 2008, pp. 218–219). In this way, neoliberalism is a new kind of metanarrative (i.e., it creates all the dispositive for the narrative to be realized, fulfilled), and it is perhaps one of the most influential we have seen in our time. The success of neoliberalism as a dominant approach in almost all areas, trade, finance, work, and culture is because, on the one hand, the twentieth century experienced a number of ideological crises that compromised some utopic understandings of reality and their metanarratives and, on the other hand, because neoliberalism does not portray itself as a utopia to be realized in the future but as the truth. As such, it depoliticizes relationships, between individuals and countries, portraying them as mere market relationships, in which everything is exchanged as a commodity. Kaščák and Pupala (2011, pp.149–150) comment:

The neoliberal metanarrative thus represents a totality of a variety of discursive and non-discursive practices, which often operate disparately, subliminally and diversely. It is not a homogenous ideology, but rather a number of heterogeneous discourses and measures, which ultimately converge and strengthen one another.

It is for this reason that neoliberalism is today that which Foucault called “episteme,” a way of thought that shapes the foundations of social reality. This “new episteme” seeks to convince individuals in all possible ways that any opposition to it is a waste of time, a feeble and irrelevant attempt in the face of the social-political and economic processes.
This can be clearly seen in the neoliberal takeover of international financial institutions, such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in the 1980s, when developing countries in need of aid were put under the Structural Adjustment Programs that aimed to stablish deregulated markets, guaranteeing advantages to companies (e.g., low-wage regimes, loose environmental legislation, consumer market, and so forth). However, it is also undeniable that neoliberal policies have had an impact in developed countries too, generating not merely new forms of dynamics within the metropole but “in the relation between metropole and periphery” (Connell 2013, p. 100), between Global North and Global South. According to McLaren and Farahmandpur (2001, p. 281), the process leading to the disappearance of the working class in developed countries needs to be understood alongside the reappearance of assembly lines in China, Brazil, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere, where there are fewer restrictions to profit-making. In addition, under the discourse of “minimum state,” which gained further support after financial and budget crisis, countries have been forced to implement austerity policies, opening more space to private enterprise. It is arguable that the result of these austerity policies in the Global South was the collapse of economic security and public services, currently experienced by Argentina and Turkey but also to a lesser extent by Brazil and South Africa – in the Global North this was perhaps less acute. These policies are always implemented through a discourse advocating the good use of public money. Further, it is possible to add that, by and large, devalued jobs in developed countries are currently being done by immigrants and are not desired by unemployed citizens born in these countries – in turn, this seems to have led to an increase of xenophobia and the rise of the far-right. Thus, the outcome of Structural Adjustment Programs, imposed by the financial institutions such as IMF and World Bank on developing countries seeking aid, as well as the self-imposed restrictions implemented by other emerging economies, has caused the public sector to shrink, wages to be frozen in the public sector, deregulation of economic and work relationships, cutting taxes or taxes breaks, and dependence on international capital linked to a requirement of strict inflation controls and national debt servicing as the top priority (Connell 2013, p. 101). Yet according to Connell (2013, p. 101):

The commodification of services and the privatization of public sector agencies demands institutional and cultural change. The profit-seeking corporation is promoted as the admired model for the public sector, and for much of civil society too. Schemes of organization and control are imported from business to public institutions. In an ‘audit society’, public institutions have to make themselves auditable, on a model imported from business accountancy.

As a way of thought, neoliberalism needs to control the educational discourse to inculcate its values in children and young people, particularly with regard to individual success (self-determination) and freedom of choice in the marketed relations between the individual and others. Pongratz (2006, p. 474) corroborates this when stating that schooling and further education, educational institutions and social work are gathered together in a strategic complex which aims to recode relations of power on the basis of a new neo-liberal topography of the social. Within this thinking, failure and poverty are blamed on the individuals because “they are too lazy, ignorant, unskilled” (McLaren and Farahmandpur 2001, p. 276). It is a perfect strategy because the system has conveniently taken no responsibility toward an individual’s living conditions while advocating that it is possible to overcome hard conditions, and this is only achieved by those that are obedient to the market and are enterprising. As neoliberalism seeks to stablish itself as the truth, the educational field becomes one of the most important ones within this project: it is necessary to prepare people to conform to a New World Order, an order under the government of free market.

The Neoliberal Concept of Education

As is the case in the economic and social fields, neoliberal actions in the educational field can be rather fluid. Generally speaking, in the economic and social spheres, it is possible to affirm that the fragmentary characteristic of neoliberal policies is a very convenient strategy that allows the system to adapt itself in the face of resistance and crisis. According to Pongratz (2006, p. 475), with a fragmentary discourse and partial reforms, neoliberalism managed, step by step, to stablish a centralized control of education, a new metanarrative that is a new way of governance of the school sector. Pongratz (2006, p. 477) refers to Foucault and affirms that the strategy of “soft power” by competition, rankings, and disputes for status stablishes a form of control based on self-control that is allied to the idea of personal responsibility for success or failure. This is connected to the discourse of democratization and improvement of academic standards, as well as an attempt to disguise non-egalitarian relationships between those within educational processes. The ideal citizen in the neoliberal era is the one who accepts the system and internalizes the self-responsibility and self-control ideals.

With a veneer of freedom and democracy, the kind of education supported by neoliberalism is a deeper manifestation of normalizing education. Gur-Ze’ev (2001, p. 332) commented on this and stated that “normalizing education is founded on such an unchallenged consensus and is committed to security its self-evidence.” Normalizing education does not just introduce a set of values, but it also establishes and naturalizes what it considers to be relevant and valid and, consequently, what is irrelevant and non-valid; that is, those concepts that reinforce the normalizing ideology are considered as being true, and those concepts that question the normalizing ideology are considered as untrue (Gur-Ze’ev 2007, p. 164). Through a series of standardized tests and rankings, among which the most important for basic education is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), normalizing education, as set by the neoliberal project, establishes what should be taught in schools and communicates the results of evaluation processes so to praise or shame schools and educational systems. In this way, it pressures schools and educational systems to organize the curriculum, practices, teacher education, and so forth, in accordance with its own initiatives, such as PISA, heralded by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) for its member countries or for any other country that wishes to join the organization. According to Pongratz (2006, p. 472), the OECD included PISA in their framework for global politics and economic agenda since 2000; and in general terms, PISA’s aims for education are very neoliberal in nature, since they aim at the “implementation of private sector management principles in the public sector, restructuring of education and research institutions according to business principles, introduction of market and management elements to all process levels” (Pongratz 2006, p. 472).

Thus, in education, the normalizing characteristics of neoliberal policies mean that we must direct efforts toward human capital development. In order to achieve this, it is common to use the values and practices of humanist traditions and, even, from critical pedagogy but certainly without an effective critical perspective and disregarding its transformative social drive; that is, these are emptied of their original meanings. Further, active learning and collaborative environment – something borrowed from constructivist psychology – are some of the most cherished concepts used by the neoliberal pedagogical perspective to attenuate the emphasis on competition and individual success (Carter and Dediwalage 2010). According to Kaščák and Pupala (2011, p. 150), neoliberalism is very ingenious in trying to connect various strands, which normally is to be seen as being at odds with it, which are used for human capital development and the normalization of individuals. Pongratz (2006, p. 473) corroborates this:

Seen in this way, PISA can be seen as a nodal point in a disciplinary network, using an extensive arsenal of partly familiar, partly innovative modes of intervention. This apparatus extends from new modes of administration through budgeting, sponsoring and privatisation to certification, centralised performance control, creditpoint systems, Total Quality Management, and not least, PISA. In a certain sense it remains irrelevant whether one supports the new reforms (more selection, more encouragement of elites, more performance, more competition, more control) or their philanthropic opponents (more self-organisation, more individual profiles, more (school) autonomy, more (self) responsibility, more democratic participation). In each case one can see a disciplinary strategy at work in the wake of the current educational reforms.

This means that the individual is, at the same time, a victim and an enthusiastic supporter of this kind of education because, in principle, anyone can be successful and anyone can become rich, and this only depends on the individual’s performance and efforts; that is to say, it is the individual’s responsibility. As Connell (2013, p. 109) points out, the internal base of values and technical knowledge promotes a sense of satisfaction that hampers any criticism of the system. There is a complex combination between external- and self-subjection and external- and self-control characterizing the neoliberal restructuring of educational systems (cf. Pongratz 2006, p. 479). As Olssen and Peters (2005, p. 314) affirm, while in the classical liberalism the individual is characterized as practicing freedom, in neoliberalism, as a faithful and obedient servant of the system, the individual seeks to create a competitive entrepreneur. Thus, the individual’s interests in a world of a free market, of free enterprise, and of competition are understood as the only possible option. In this context, the instrumentalization of knowledge is favored, and, very often, some disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, and art are understood to be irrelevant, being gradually withdrawn from the curriculum because they are conceived as being of no importance in a competitive world. According to Peters (2001, p. 66), “The curriculum must also be redesigned to reflect the new realities and the need for the highly skilled flexible worker who possesses requisite skills in management, information handling, communication, problem solving, and decision making. As the metanarrative has grown it has also been transformed to encompass a new emphasis on regional educational standards.” Similarly, as Connell (2013, p. 109) says, “Corporate interests globally have mounted a fierce and well-funded attack on science when scientific findings challenge profit-making.”

Without opposition, educational institutions tend to become themselves a market-orientated service (Pongratz 2006, p. 479), and with all concerns directed at it, education becomes, in theory and practice, a product, a good, or, better, a commodity. Connell (2013, p. 109) notes that this leads to the development of a “corporate identity,” a “corporate behavior,” and a “corporate design” within a “permanent quality tribunal” that stablishes and intensifies competition among teachers, students, schools, and universities. The university is no more an institution for producing and sharing knowledge but instead becomes an institution for profit-making. As a commodity, the neoliberal conception supports a ranking system between schools so to establish a criterion for parents to choose which schools their children should attend. This system shows parents the right place for their children (Campbell and Sherington 2006). In perfect accordance with the market perspective, within this discourse the school becomes a service provider and parents become costumers. In some countries, it also favors private schools within this “educational market” through a voucher system; that is, the government pays for places in private schools and universities instead of investing in improving and expanding the public sector. This means that families from disadvantaged backgrounds, largely unable to compete for places in elite schools, must place their children in public schools, which normally direct their curriculum toward technical training aimed at occupying less prestigious posts in the labor market. The exception to this are some of the more prestigious public schools that establish a rigorous selection system that in fact hinders the enrolment of students from a disadvantaged background, who do not achieve good results in the selective processes (Connell 2013, p. 103). Thus, education becomes a privilege.

The Imperialist Neoliberal Reforms in the Global South’s Education

The term Global South refers to those countries primarily located in subtropical or tropical ecosystems (Karlsson 2002, p. 54) and that were, in the past, colonized by European countries or indirectly by the United States. This might be an oversimplification, as there is great diversity among these countries and in the kind and level of neoliberal policies implemented by them. However, it can be clearly perceived that, in general terms, under a discourse of modernization, in the Global South, “an entitlement to political and social rights does not necessarily guarantee substantive rights to livelihood” (Miraftab 2009, p. 40). Miraftab (2009, pp. 40–41) comments:

that in this neoliberal moment the hypocrisy of modern citizenship can be most clearly observed in the global South. In the liberal democracies of the global North, citizens experience the pretence of neoliberal capitalism through the shrinking of the public sphere and some infringement on civil liberties. In the global South, however, for example in Brazil and South Africa, new found universal citizenship rights are starkly contradicted by the material inroads on citizens’ lives made by neoliberal capitalism. Their political citizenship and abstract formal rights have expanded, yet simultaneously their economic exploitation and the abdication of public responsibility for basic services continue, and their livelihood erodes. In societies that have emerged from a colonized legacy, ‘citizens have gained rights they cannot eat!’. (Mifaftab 2009, pp. 40–41)

In the light of our argument thus far, let us look at some concrete examples in the Global South: Chile, Brazil, and South Africa. As already mentioned, Chile was the first country to experience “neoliberal reforms,” which happened in the 1970s. Other developing countries in the Global South followed suit and liberalized their trading and external capital regime under guidelines, or determinations, of IMF and World Bank, especially during the 1990s. Even countries governed by left-wing parties implemented a reduction of taxes and conducted the privatization of public companies, which is something in accordance with the Washington Consensus (McLaren and Farahmandpur 2001, p. 280) and the logic of the market (Connell 2013, p. 102). (The Washington Consensus is a term coined in 1989 by John Williamson, a British economist working at the Institute for International Economics, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., and it is a set of ten points that should be implemented by countries facing economic and financial crises (cf. Williamson 1989). Thus, Chile served as an “experiment” and a “showcase” for other countries in the Global South.

In 1973, after a coup d’état, Augusto Pinochet established a right-wring dictatorship in Chile and under the guidance of the Chicago Boys opened the country to the world market, privatized public assets, and implemented changes in the educational system as public universities started charging tuition fees (González and Espinoza 2011, p. 95). According to Assaél Budnik et al. (2011, p. 306), Esquivel Larrondo (2007, p. 42), and Redondo (2005, p. 103), it is very common to refer to this educational reform in Chile as “the educative market experiment” because it was done during the dictatorship period, without dialogue and without any empirical evidence; it was based on the dictums of Friedman’s and Hayek’s theories.

In this connection, it is important to note that until the beginning of the 1980s, there was a public educational system which served about 90% of enrolments in basic education (Assaél Budnik et al. 2011, p. 307); however, around this time, Pinochet started an educational reform based on four pillars: (1) a new regulation system for education, (2) the creation of a management model for formal education that introduced new agents as stakeholders, (3) a new way for school funding through vouchers or portable subsidies to students, and (4) the restructuring and privatization of higher education. These pillars are still in place, even after almost 40 years (Assaél Budnik et al. 2011, pp. 307–308; Falabella 2015, p. 703; Inzunza et al. 2011).

Further, under the discourse of the failure of the state as an education provider, Chile adopted the discourse that education is the responsibility of the family, and as a consequence of this, education stopped being understood as a social right (Ruiz 2010; Falabella 2015, p. 704). Primary and secondary educations are still mandatory and funded through a system of vouchers that covers about 92% of students, who attend public schools. According to González and Espinoza (2011, p. 96), the cost of private education is very high, approximately 5000 dollars per year, and because of this, only 8% of young people are able to attend private institutions. The national curriculum was revised, and as Falabella (2015, p. 705) affirms, there was an alliance between neoliberals and conservatives; that is, between a Christian view of the world and the market logic, which established a “minimum curriculum,” with a “humanistic and Christian” character, to form, as the dictator Pinochet wrote, “good works, good citizens and good patriots” (our translation; cited in Falabella 2015, p. 705) Thirty years have passed since the end of the dictatorship period, and no changes to these structural pillars have been made by democratic governments (Assaél Budnik et al. 2011, p. 308; Falabella 2015, p. 707; Carrasco et al. 2013; Garcia Huidobro et al. 2014; Herrera et al. 2015).

The government is responsible for the assessment and publication of rankings so that families are able to choose schools for their children. This assessment is done by standardized tests, such as PISA, which is done under the National System for the Measurement of the Quality of Education. This system seeks to introduce competition between schools, because the best ranking schools become the most sought after by parents, and, therefore, they are those who receive most money, either from the families themselves or from the state through the voucher system (Assaél Budnik et al. 2011, p. 310). According to Garcia Huidobro et al. (2014) and Herrera et al. (2015), underlying the discourse of educational reform is the implementation of traditional pedagogical practices seeking to improve human capital, capable of working in an open and competitive economy. In this context, the state is very important, not as a provider but as a supporter and a regulator which rewards the best and encourages those who are not doing so well to improve their competitiveness – the state becomes a servant to market interests. The Ministry of Education of Chile (MINEDUC 2014) acknowledges that there is a great issue in this system that must be resolved: the subsidized private sector gets advantages over the public sector because there is no regulation for the criteria of selection and expulsion of students, and thus, the private school can choose the least expensive and best students, who usually come from middle or upper classes. In 2006, the Preferential School Grant Law was implemented trying to resolve this problem, but this was to no avail because of the complexities involved according to Assaél Budnik et al. (2011, pp. 312–313).

Despite all these issues, Chile has managed to improve its results in standardized international tests. Budnick et al. (2011, p. 316) affirm that this has occurred not in general and widespread terms; rather, students that come from the most favorable classes have improved their performance, while those that come from the less favored classes continue to score low in tests. This is used as evidence for the argument that public schools do not function properly and that the private schools are a better alternative – this discourse is normally done without any consideration of important differences in living conditions. With the aim of improving positions in the rankings, the standardized test becomes the motor for changes in education, from management solutions to school results (Assaél Budnik et al. 2011, p. 316; Falabella 2015, p. 713). All this means that the effects of the 1980s neoliberal educational reform gave rise in Chile to an educational apartheid, where students only study with people from their own social class and who share the same values.

Let us look at the case of Brazil. In Brazil, neoliberal ideas started to be implemented with the National Plan for Privatization under Fernando Collor de Mello’s government (1990–1992), but it was under Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government (1995–2002) that an effective set of neoliberal reforms was developed in the country. According to Frigotto and Ciavatta (2003, p. 95), during the 1990s, by and large, public policies were based around concepts such as globalization, minimum state, productive restructuring, information society, total quality, employability, and so forth (cf. Leher 2001, p. 162). Reforms were in three areas: deregulation, decentralization, and privatization. Deregulation meant revoking old laws or passing new ones that favored the laws of the market. Decentralization meant the transfer of the operations and management of public services to states and municipalities, with less interference from the federal government. Privatization meant allowing private companies to profitably exploit the provision of public services and offer complementary or parallel services.

Thus, under the three pillars (deregulation, decentralization, and autonomy-privatization), Cardoso’s government implemented the Law of Guidelines and Bases of National Education (LDB) (Saviani 1997, p. 200; Dourado 2002, p. 241; Frigotto and Ciavatta 2003, p. 110) which is still in force, and consequently neoliberal elements entered all subsequent National Plans of Education and its derivative laws. In addition to this, the adequate level of investment was never reached by the state, which means that the system is not functioning properly, and the middle and upper classes have either migrated to or kept their children in private education. Recently, further changes have been implemented. Under the discourse of modernizing secondary education, one of the first decisions of Michel Temer’s government (2016–2018) was to reform the system, reducing the timetable for history, geography, biology, physics, and chemistry and prioritizing maths and Portuguese language; further, this reform extinguished philosophy, sociology, art, and physical education as compulsory subjects. The focus on maths and Portuguese language is largely regarded as a demand from the labor market while the exclusion of disciplines such as philosophy and sociology as an attempt to hinder critical thinking. With regard to these reforms, Lima and Maciel (2018, p. 21) write that “[t]he adaptability of the curriculum results in the erosion of the right to basic and professional education, whose root lies in meeting the demands of the capitalist crisis, which, by choosing to stifle the State’s social ‘expenditure’, intends to appropriate the public fund in order to serve the interests of the rentier capital, represented by neoliberal and neoconservative sectors in Brazilian politics.”

Changes in the higher education system were also implemented, which at the same time affirm the autonomy, decentralization, and flexibility to institutions, but also implement controls through a standardized process of assessment. According to Dourado (2002, p. 242), key points of this policy were to provide incentives for the creation of for-profit institutions in the educational sector, to expand educational credit finance through state and private resources, and to encourage distance learning and the creation of a system of measurement in favor of teaching activities rather than research activities (cf. also Dias Sobrinho 2002). Through the standardized evaluation process, the federal government can provoke changes in management processes and on the institutional culture of higher education institutions, especially universities, which are now ranked by the National Examination of Courses and the General Index of Courses (Dourado 2002, p. 244).

Interestingly, and to attend to the demands of students from less wealthy backgrounds, in 1999, the federal government created the Student Financing Fund for Higher Education (FIES), and in 2005, it created another financing device called University for All Program (ProUni), which provides full or partial grants to students from less wealthy backgrounds to study at private institutions – in practice, these are voucher systems, by which the state pays for places at private universities. Thus, it is possible to affirm here that if there is still a great presence of the state in the provision of basic education – although the curriculum is being influenced by market interests – it is possible also to affirm that higher education, especially at undergraduate level, is highly dominated by market forces and players. According to Sguissardi (2015, p. 869), there is a certain neoliberal control of higher education in Brazil, dividing the system in two: (i) higher education institutions providing high-quality education and research focused, encompassing public and some private universities, and (ii) higher education for-profit institutions providing mass education and of low quality. In the last 20 years, access to higher education has been treated as a commodity, which has led to a large expansion of the sector, but with a considerable impact on the quality of provision. The last significant event occurred in 2017 when a law was passed by the federal government prohibiting the expansion of public investments above inflation and the growth of gross domestic product in several sectors, including education and health, for the next 20 years, and this leaves it open for a considerable expansion of for-profit companies and organizations (Amaral 2017).

The last case we wish to look at is South Africa. The regime of apartheid was officially institutionalized in 1948 and only ended in 1994. During this period, the movement against apartheid in South Africa had as one of its most important demands equality in the field of education, rejecting the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which enforced segregation in educational institutions (Christie 2016, p. 435). It is often claimed that this policy aimed at directing black and nonwhite youth to blue-collar and unskilled jobs; however, Kiyaam Govind, Minister of the Native Affairs at the time, denied this claim and affirmed that the policy aimed at solving South Africa’s ethnic problems by creating a system for each ethnic group (cf, Byrnes 1996). After the end of the apartheid regime, the aspiration of “Education of equal quality for all” encountered problems in the government’s national unity formation and was laid aside in part because new challenges emerged. In 1996, the South African Schools Act restructured school governance, introducing a system of parental fees to school and a system (i.e., equitable share formula) that distributed part of the educational budget differently among schools classified by a poverty scale (Christie 2016, p. 439). This represented a great opportunity for neoliberals to occupy the educational field, through the creation of “affordable private schools” which targets students from a disadvantaged background (Tooley and Dixon 2005). According to Languille (2016, p. 1), the supporters of low-fee private schools affirmed that this would aid the state to offer access to education with good quality and conditions. More than 20 years since the end of apartheid regime, educational access has improved, but the performance is still poor, with great differences between schools attended by a majority of white children and those attended by black youth (Languille 2016, p. 1; cf. also Motala and Dieltiens 2008; Nordstrum 2012; Motshekga 2015; Phadi and Ceruti 2011)). This is so because “access to quality education is unequally distributed, along social class, racial, and spatial lines” (Chisholm 2005). According to Christie (2016, p. 435), in the “Rainbow Nation”:

Despite some shifts in apartheid’s race/class configuration, the burden of poverty and poor education are still shouldered disproportionately by black people. The imaginary of liberation has scarcely been touched – let alone achieved – despite the formalities of a modern state being put in place. The practices of everyday life (including education) follow the rhythms of a fundamentality unequal neoliberal political economy.

The case of “affordable private schools” is significant, because according to Mcloughlin (2013, p. 15) and Languille (2016, p. 2), these schools do not cater for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds; rather, it caters for the emerging, predominantly black, middle classes seeking to use education as a way to further improve their lives. These developments in South Africa are similar to a neoliberal trend experienced worldwide. During the transition period, the democratic government discarded the option of free compulsory basic education (so even public schools are allowed to charge tuition fees) while, at the same time, established education as a right. This seems to be a paradoxical situation.
After the end of the apartheid system, the majority of South African universities subscribed to international metrics of success, joined cross-country rankings, and adopted systems of management, very similar to for-profit companies (Muller 2017, p. 58). If in the beginning it was possible to affirm that these changes were directed at overcoming isolation and to improve quality, nowadays it is the reason for a series of problems. Muller (2017, p. 63) notes that the majority of South African universities are public institutions and that, even if this is the case, they must engage in a competitive system for funding. The author affirms that there are three popular and influential themes in the current higher education system’s thinking in the country: (i) an emphasis on “indigenous knowledge,” that is, aims to develop local know-how; (ii) the importance of “internationalization,” that is, to gain a certain status among institutions abroad; and (iii) a focus on the university’s role in the “knowledge economy,” that is, to add value and potential for raising funds for academic research and production. The author continues:

The most notable problem with the system is that it encourages publication in lower quality (local or international) accredited journals. This is simply because the reward for publication is the same across all accredited publications, but the preparation, submission and revision costs – in terms of actual time and ability required – are lower and the probability of acceptance is higher for lower quality journals. In some instances these incentives may even induce individual academics, or academic institutions, to engage in fraudulent – or ethically questionable – publication practices. (Muller 2017, p. 63)

Shrivastava and Shrivastava (2014, p. 7) remind us that in 1996, the higher education reform in South Africa was implemented under the framework of “Growth, Equity and Redistribution”; however, this was adopted only in discourse because in practice a very competitive system was implemented. In addition, public resources for higher education fell since from 4% in 1999 to 2.5% in 2007 of the national budget. This forced universities to raise tuition fees sharply, and, “as a consequence, as student numbers grew steadily due to urbanization and increasing population density, faculty numbers at universities remained static, further contributing to the disturbing 45% dropout rate among higher education students in South Africa” (Shrivastava and Shrivastava 2014, p. 7).As a way of trying to solve this situation without state support, most universities formed increasingly larger classes, some of them with more than 200 students, and started to use ICTs, distance learning, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to support their students (Shrivastava and Shrivastava 2014, p. 9).


It can be argued here that under neoliberal ideology schools and universities are in danger of not encouraging true education but instead promote normalizing education. For this ideology, the role of these institutions is to prepare individuals through competitive training to compete for privileges (Connell 2013, p. 110). However, this does not occur without opposition. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century in Chile, Brazil, and South Africa, student protests have questioned and opposed the system – such as in 2006, 2011, and 2012 in Chile, in 2016 in Brazil, and in 2015 in South Africa. While these movements must be understood in their own complexities and historical contexts (Miraftab 2009, p. 43), it is possible to affirm their claim that education is a human right not a commodity and true education should not normalize people. Thus, the following question posed by McLaren and Farahmandpur (2001, p. 279) is still very significant: “Why try to help young people adapt to a system that is designed to exclude them?”. This question does not exclude the importance of posing questions about education, but it refuses to accept the neoliberal normalizing education as the essence of schools and universities.

If, according to Foucault (2008, pp. 218–219), there is a utopic dimension to neoliberalism insofar as it tries to establish a “general style of thought, analysis and imagination,” then education, not normalizing education, must become a form of resistance against this utopia that seeks to turn people into uncritical defenders of the system. As Biesta (2018, p. 26) affirms:

This does not mean, of course, that the economy does not matter, but the challenge is to ‘do’ economy differently, in ways that are more sustainable, more caring and more democratic. It also suggests that we should question the focus on competition – which is fine as long as one is part of the winning ‘team,’ but becomes nastier when the table turns – and ask how co-operation and collaboration can become more central in how we conduct our lives together. And it means – and this is perhaps the most important issue in face of the half-truths that seem to govern global education – that we need to make a shift away from sheer survival towards an orientation on life. After all, survival entails an orientation on the question how we can adapt and adjust to ever changing circumstances, whereas the question of life asks us that we first explore whether the circumstances we find ourselves in are worth adapting to, or whether the first task is actually to try to create better circumstances.

Certainly, there is no guarantee that true education will succeed. However, in the neoliberal era, true education must resist social imaginary and market logic and affirm that education is the opportunity to try and create possibilities for life and to face risks (Biesta 2018, p. 28). To create possibilities for life and to face risks means having the opportunity to conceive an anti-imperialist view of the world. According to Miraftab (2009, p. 45) and Biesta (2018, p. 28), to resist neoliberal thought implies resisting half-truths and openly facing the complexities of reality, in which the other exists, rejoices, and suffers, and acknowledging that the market-stimulated competition can greatly amplify this suffering.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, PUCRSPorto AlegreBrazil
  2. 2.Federal University of Fronteira Sul, UFFSChapecóBrazil