The ARC Linkage Team was represented at the 2015 TASA Conference: Neoliberalism and contemporary challenges for the Asia-Pacific, hosted by the Cairns Institute and the College of Arts, Society & Education at James Cook University – November 23-26, Cairns, Australia.

Flexible learning in the neoliberal Australian political economy—Grassroots perspectives on educational policy and praxis

Mark Thomas
James Cook University, Townsville

In the last three decades, neoliberalism has come to dominate the Australian political discourse, with education increasingly measured against its contributions to the national economy (Rizvi & Lingard, 2009). The lion’s share of a growing body of literature critiquing the so-called ‘globalisation’ of education in Australia takes a ‘top-down’ approach, unpacking the meta-level ideational content of free market capitalism and the impact of neoliberal policy in education. Less work has been undertaken to chart the production and reproduction of neoliberal modes at the level of individual schools and classrooms. This research focuses on experiences of neoliberalism among educators in Flexible Learning Options (FLOs).

FLOs may be registered independently as schools or comprise adjunct programs of educational institutions or non-governmental organisations, but common to all FLOs is the core focus on the wellbeing of at-risk young people in order to prevent disengagement and promote the successful transition of young people into further education, vocational training or employment. I conducted fifteen semi-structured interviews with practitioners at three structurally distinct FLOs in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory. His research focuses on the ways that these educators conceptualise, internalise, operationalise and contest neoliberal constructs relating to the role and ‘value’ of education.

This research makes two primary contributions: first, I discuss the impact of the neoliberal valuation paradigm within Australia’s flexible learning sector; second, I explore empirically how a particular aspect of neoliberalism—the so-called ‘performativity agenda’—is experienced by flexible learning practitioners in the classroom.

In flexible learning, youth wellbeing is seen as critical to meaningful reengagement. Yet a tension emerges between the need to foster the wellbeing of highly at risk young people and the quantitative assessment regime that privileges standardised testing and formal accreditation. This study contrasts the ways practitioners in different FLOs experience obligations to performativity in their classrooms. I posit that teachers’ agency to manage this tension is strongly mediated at the corporate-institutional level. My findings suggest that in FLOs with high organisational capacity, educators have greater liberty to realign student assessment around the concept of ‘distance travelled,’ i.e., the individual progress a young person makes relative to her own starting point. FLOs with low institutional capacity, on the other hand, seem to remain more closely obligated to the standardised accreditation rubric of mainstream education. As a result, practitioners in different types of FLOs have markedly different experiences of the pressures brought about by Australia’s contemporary ‘productivity agenda.’

Mark ThomasMark Thomas is a PhD candidate at James Cook University. His thesis research considers the influence of the neoliberal valuation paradigm upon FLO goal setting, program design, beneficiary selection, and program cycle management. As part of the Linkage Team’s Quantitative investigation, Mark hopes to broaden the economic valuations of flexible learning and strengthen the empirical basis for educational policymaking in Australia.


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