Flow of Ideas
Are We Loving It? McDonaldization and Education

Glenn Rikowski, London, 23rd January 2008

“Back in the nineties, the author of the McDonaldization Thesis noted that soon the university will adopt many of the managerial models and practices associated with the spread of this hamburger chain [1]. According to the American sociologist George Ritzer, new forms of quality control and consumer orientation would be integrated into the existing structure of the university. My initial reaction to Ritzer’s thesis was that although it was a clever idea, the arrival of McUniversity was far off. Today, when virtually every university brochure, mission statement and web-site is indistinguishable from one another, I am not so sure” (Furedi, 2007, p.7).


When George Ritzer’s book The McDonaldization of Society appeared in 1993, the McDonald’s chain of fast food outlets seemed to be on the crest of a wave. With outlets opening in Eastern Europe post-1989 and in China, McDonalds appeared to be on a growth trajectory. Yet only a few years later McDonalds began to suffer a bout of bad publicity. In taking legal action against Helen Steel and Dave Morris (the “McLibel Two”) for producing leaflets focusing on shortcomings in its products, its operations and in its employment practices, the company stirred up heaps of negative publicity [1]. Eric Schlosser’s Fast-Food Nation (2002) and the film, Super Size Me, in which ‘documentary maker Morgan Spurlock wrecked his body by eating McDonald’s for a month’ (Hickman, 2006), cast further doubt over McDonald’s food and image. McDonald’s was also investigated by the Commission for Racial Equality in 2004 when workers at a Manchester site were order to speak English at all times (Tozer, 2004). Even after a re-branding exercise by McDonald’s UK in 2004, all this negative publicity could not stop sales at British restaurants that had been trading for more than a year falling in 2005, leading to 25 closures (Hickman, 2006). The heat was kept up; for example, Schlosser wrote in The Guardian (2006) how fast food companies were bombarding kids with adverts, seducing them with gifts and toys and then filling them with additives – though Schlosser also throws in Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut into the mix in this article.

McEducation: Higher Education for Sale

Just when McDonald’s image was becoming seriously tarnished, Sir John Daniel, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, argued that perhaps the McDonaldization of higher education might be something to celebrate. He argued that:

“The hue and cry about the ‘McDonaldization’ of education should make us reach for our critical faculties. First, despite their ubiquity, McDonald’s restaurants account for only a tiny proportion of that food that people. Second, McDonald’s is successful because people like their food. Third, their secret is to offer a limited range of dished as commodities that have the same look, taste and quality everywhere” (Daniel, 2002).

Daniel argued that McDonaldized higher education need not be a threat, and indeed holds many benefits for students, especially in less economically developed countries. It brings poorer students ‘greater freedom and wider choice’ as higher education becomes mass produced, standardised and therefore cheaper (Daniel, 2002). Furthermore, argues Daniel, when products such as educational services become commodities, this leads to competition, which would also benefits higher education consumers (Ibid.). He also lauds countries that develop ICT for mass higher education. However:

“Commoditizing education need not mean commercialising education. The educational community should adopt the model of the open source software movement” (Ibid.).

Thus, teachers can create their own courseware without buying it off commercial companies, and learning materials can become freely available on the web. But Daniel here misunderstands the nature of commodities, as argued below. In the aftermath, Daniel’s view sparked off a significant e-debate, with a number of people working together to generate a collective critique of his higher education visions (see Jain and Others, 2003). As Jan Visser (und.) argued in response to Daniel, just as McDonald’s has failed to solve the world’s food problems ‘commoditization of education is not a major response to the learning needs of the world’ (p.2).

Education and Standardisation

Daniel also seems to misunderstand McDonaldization, contradicting himself in the process. Having argued for standardization, he then seems to argue for breaking it down through customisation – in true Post-Fordist fashion. Hence, McDonaldization only seems to be a good thing to the extent teachers in higher education break away from its basic principles! Neither does he take into account the labour required for customising courseware, thereby raising its costs.

Tuffs (2006) argued against standardisation in the context of schooling in England, noting how teacher creativity and autonomy are undermined by it (e.g. the National Curriculum). It could be surmised that such factors also apply to higher education. Furthermore, Daniel bamboozles his readers when noting that although commoditizing higher education services is fine, institutions need not get into grubby commercialisation.

First, if commodities are not sold in markets, their value (and any surplus value and hence profits) are not realised. Selling higher education services would involve all the paraphernalia of marketing, advertising etc.; in short, it would involve commercialisation. Yet if these higher education commodities are not sold, then how can they be viewed as commodities at all? Second, Daniel seems to ignore that higher education institutions have been involved in constituting themselves as businesses for some time; often encouraged in this by national governments, companies and employers’ organisations. Thus, the individuals involved in customising courseware may want to sell it, or be cajoled or forced into selling it by managements seeking to open new ‘income streams’.

Daniel’s Deep Confusion

Daniel also seems blissfully unaware that a unique commodity that is partially produced by higher education institutions is labour power – the capacity to labour (Rikowski, 2007). Thus, he seems ignorant of Marx’s distinction between the general class of commodities (which includes higher education services) and the unique class of one: labour power, the living commodity that exists in the body of the worker and creates new value (see Rikowski, 2000).

In arguing strongly for commoditization in higher education, Daniel appears not to know the full import of what he is saying. The logical outcome of his thinking is that insofar as higher education institutions are involved in the social production of labour power, i.e. enhancing its commodity status, then this is a good thing. On this basis all higher education values are sacrificed to the enterprise of nurturing labour power as a commodity, thereby sanctioning government projects such as forcing universities to focus on ‘employability’ or creating ‘work-ready’ graduates. At this point, Daniel’s impoverished notion of higher education becomes apparent.


[1] For a succinct outline of the ‘McDonaldization thesis’, see UNITEC Institute of Technology (2004).

[2] See the McSpotlight web site for more on the “McLibel Two”, at: http://www.mcspotlight.org


Crowley, N (2001) McEducation – and its bits on the side, Spiked, 18th July, online at: http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000002D1A0.htm

Daniel, J. (2002) Higher Education for Sale, Education Today: The Newsletter of UNESCO’s Education Sector, No.3 (October-December), p.1, online at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001299/129980e.pdf

Furedi, F. (2007) Do Academics Still Think? In: H, De Burgh, A. Fazackerley & J. Black (Eds.) Can the Prizes Still Glitter: The Future of British Universities in a Changing World, Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

Hickman, M. (2006) We’re not loving it: McDonald’s forced to close restaurants, The Independent, 1st March, p.5.

Jain, S. and Others (2003) McEducation for All? Opening a Dialogue around UNESCO’s Vision for commoditizing learning, August, online at: http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/mceducationforall.htm

Rikowski, G. (2000) That Other Great Class of Commodities: Repositioning Marxist Educational Theory, a paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference, Cardiff University, 7-12 September, online at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00001624.htm

Rikowski, G. (2007) Marxist Educational Theory Unplugged, a paper presented at the Fourth Historical Materialism Annual Conference, 9-11 November, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Marxist%20Educational%20Theory%20Unplugged

Ritzer, G. (1993) The McDonaldization of Society, London: Pine Forge Press.

Schlosser, E. (2002) Fast-Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, New York: Perennial.

Schlosser, E. (2006) Stuff the kids, The Guardian (G2), 24th April, pp.6-11.

Tozer, J. (2004) McDonald’s accused of racism for ordering staff to speak English, Daily Mail, 19th November, p.4.

Tuffs, A. (2006) To Teach or Not To Teach? The Dilemma of a Left-wing Student, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23 (Summer), online at: http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/B2%20Alison%20Tuffs.pdf

UNITEC Institute of Technology (2004) Ronald Rulz OK? Defining McDonaldization, produced for the Ministry of Education, Wellington, New Zealand, 27th July, online at: http://www.learndev.org/dl/SenseNonsenseMcDo.pdf

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