Flow of Ideas
Globalisation and Education Revisited

Glenn Rikowski, London, 2nd March 2008


In 2002, I wrote a paper for the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs that was involved in an ‘Inquiry into the Global Economy’ (Rikowski, 2002a). At the time, I was a member of the UK GATS Network. The GATS is the General Agreement on Trade in Services, an agreement between the members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to liberalise services, including educational services (see Rikowski 2001, 2002b-c, and 2003b for more on this) [1]. Through the UK GATS Network, specifically through Chris Keane who headed the group, I was alerted to the possibility of writing a paper on Globalisation and Education for this ‘Inquiry into the Global Economy’. I wrote the paper holding little hope that it would be read, let alone accepted by the Inquiry team. Although written in a formal style it did not yield much in terms of its anti-capitalist perspective. Perhaps it caused some of their Lordships to splutter on their prawn cocktails! The paper built on earlier work (Rikowski, 1996; and 2001) but also took my analyses of globalisation and education several steps forward. Here, I will expand on some of the points in the paper where I developed my own thinking.

Four Dimensions of Globalisation

My House of Lords paper attempted to get to the very heart of ‘globalisation’. In the academic literature definitions abounded, but I was more interested in globalisation as a manifestation of capital. Mainstream accounts of globalisation fail to capture this phenomenon. What I called the ‘first dimension’ of globalisation operates largely at a cultural and market level. Standardisation and hybridisation of cultural forms and products is emphasised in this first dimension. Much is made of the meaning and significance of global brands (e.g. Nike, and McDonalds). The focus is on ‘global markets, consumer identities and choice’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.2).

The ‘second dimension’ of globalisation ‘is the familiar ground of much political economy, sociological analysis and studies in international relations’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.2). It charts the erosion of the nation-state in the face of supra-national organisations (e.g. the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), and the integration of states into the global economy (e.g. China). This second dimension ‘completes the descriptive account of globalisation’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.3).

However, it is the third and fourth dimensions that are crucial for getting at the core of globalisation. These dimensions set globalisation as capitalist globalisation; the globalisation of capital. The ‘third dimension’ emphasises that capitalist globalisation presupposes value and surplus-value creation on an expanded scale, which incorporates the commodification of social life. The expansion of capital’s social universe has three aspects. First, value and surplus-value creation moves to fill up ‘all known socio-physical space’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.4) (capital’s extension). Secondly, there is the creation of new commodities. Thirdly, there is the intensification of capital, as it ‘deepens and develops within its own domain’ (Ibid.). Capital develops to incorporate educational services as commodities, and this is an historical process. Capital’s social drive is to deepen its hold; though resistance from labour can delay, deflect or thwart this social drive.

The ‘fourth dimension’ of globalisation rests on the third: the value-form of labour is enhanced, as capitalist expansion entails labour as a value- and surplus-value producing process. This is at the core of ‘globalisation’, and for education this has a number of consequences:

“Old traditional modes of working, professional values, notions of public service and putting community needs before the drive for profit – all become liabilities for capital accumulation as educational institutions shift from becoming public goods to private commodities. Community needs are placed within the context of the market and profit making potential. They are reconfigured” (Rikowski, 2002a, pp.4-5).

Labour in educational institutions increasingly falls into the orbit of capital. This is what ‘globalisation’ promises for education.

Private Parts and the National Faces of the GATS

The GATS aim to liberalise trade in services, including educational ones. For educational services, the GATS seeks to break down barriers to trade in these, so they eventually become internationally tradable commodities. The UK (via the EU) signed up to the GATS in 1994, for both schools and higher education, before the WTO attained formal existence in 1995!

The WTO has attempted to reassure national governments and anti-GATS activists that there is nothing to fear from the GATS as the agreement applies only to public services. Yet as Nico Hirtt (2000, p.14) has argued, this is only so if the whole educational sector (e.g. schools) has no private input. This is not the case for schools in England. There are what I called (in 2002, p.7) the ‘National Faces of the GATS’. These are policies, institutions and process that involve or facilitate the penetration of educational institutions and services by private sector operators and commercial interests. In England, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), competitive tendering, and Academies are examples of the ‘national faces of the GATS’ (Ibid.) [2]. They lessen any protection under the WTO’s international trade law that schools might have, thereby letting in GATS rules and disciplines. At the end of the GATS process is a spectre who shrieks: ‘state subsidy of schools is illegal’!! It restricts trade in educational services, and has to go!

GATS in Limbo

But the GATS process has been stalled. When I wrote the House of Lords paper it was at the point when the GATS process was grinding to a halt. The WTO’s Doha Round was not making much progress [3]. Basically, the relatively poor South and developing countries have blocked the WTO’s trade agenda on the grounds that the relatively rich North and developed capitalist countries need to end subsidies to their own producers, particularly agricultural subsidies. A consequence of this is that there has been no movement in bringing about the stronger GATS agreement that the WTO has been wanting for years. One of the last things Tony Blair did when he was Prime Minister was to try to resuscitate the Doha Round and rescue the WTO’s trade liberalisation agenda. He tried to persuade George Bush that it was crucial.

Conclusion: Drip, Drip Capitalisation of Educational Services

The lack of progress on the GATS has not meant that the business takeover of education in England has ended. It has made the process less frenetic as national governments have more time to respond to a stronger GATS Agreement. Yet the drip, drip business takeover of educational services and institutions continues (Rikowski, 2003a), with New Labour responding to employer organisations (see Rikowski, 2007) and its own attempts to become the ‘party of business’.


[1] Rikowski (2003b) provides an outline of the WTO (pp.24) and the GATS (pp.4-5).

[2] In Rikowski (2002b, pp.8-10) I expanded on the ‘national faces of the GATS’ in greater detail. In Rikowski (2002c) I explored the relationship between private/public in the context of the GATS.

[3] This was started at the Doha Ministerial Meeting in Qatar in November 2001, trying to regenerate the WTO’s trade agenda after the ‘Battle in Seattle’ (see Rikowski, 2001) two years earlier when the Ministerial Meeting was disrupted due to anti-WTO protests.


Hirtt, N. (2000) The ‘Millennium Round’ and the Liberalisation of the Education Market, Education and Social Justice, Spring, Vol.2 No.2, pp.12-18.

Rikowski, G. (1996) Education, Globalisation and the Learning Society: Towards A Materialist Analysis, 8th March, School of Education, University of Birmingham, at The Flow of Ideas web site: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Education,%20Globalisation%20and%20the%20Learning%20Society

Rikowski, G. (2001) The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education, London: Tufnell Press.

Rikowski, G. (2002a) Globalisation and Education, A paper prepared for the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, Inquiry into the Global Economy, 22nd January, at ‘Education-line’: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00001941.htm

Rikowski, G. (2002b) Transfiguration: Globalisation, the World Trade Organisation and the National Faces of the GATS, Information for Social Change, No.14 (winter 2001-02). Available online: http://www.libr.org/ISC/articles/14-Glenn_Rikowski.html

Rikowski, G. (2002c) Schools: the Great GATS Buy, Information for Social Change, No.16 (winter): http://libr.org/isc/articles/16-G.Rikowski.html

Rikowski, G. (2003a) The Profit Virus: The Business Takeover of Schools, Education Studies, School of Education, University College Northampton, February: http://www.jceps.com/print.php?articleID=8

Rikowski, G. (2007) The Confederation of British Industry and the Business Takeover of Schools, a paper produced for ‘The Flow of Ideas’, London, 3rd June: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=The%20CBI%20and%20the%20Business%20Takeover%20of%20Schools

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