Monday, 29 February 2016

I don't think I'm a neoliberal but I'm not sure...

Alex Ding has an excellent blog here - both scholarly and passionate. Recently, he posted on neoliberalism in EAP, questionning why this topic doesn't seem to be covered much in discussions of EAP. Rather than try to summarise, I'd recommend you check out the post. However, I'll take the liberty here of quoting a few points which I found of particular interest:

"The nefarious and pernicious effects of neoliberal ideology on universities are damming and vast. One pernicious effect (among many) of this is the positioning of students as consumers and teachers as sellers of educational products."

"Employability and student satisfaction are now key metrics in determining how desirable a university is."

"In an important sense EAP is a product of neoliberal policies and our existence (apart from perhaps as a somewhat esoteric discipline) depends on capturing international students."

Obviously, Alex is here talking specifically about the situation in the UK. Here in Ireland, I am not sure if the situation matches completely but the view of students as consumers would not be alien. And students are frequently asked to evaluate their teachers/lecturers and course content, perhaps not as regularly or systematically as in the UK, but it happens. So, although my teaching situation may differ to that described in Alex's post, there are sufficient similarities for the post to strike a chord. 

Since reading the post a few weeks back, I've been reflecting a lot on the challenging nature of the topic. In reading up on the subject, I came across another interesting article by Chun (2009) which looked at the way in which neoliberal ideologies influence the marketing of EAP courses and the materials used on such courses. Again, the picture painted was disconcertingly familiar. 

As someone who works in EAP, I think there is a challenge here. The challenge, as I see it, is to consider your role as an EAP practitioner, both in how you interact with your students and as an employee of an educational institute. In writing this post, I am hoping to tease out my own understanding of my role in light of the ideas explored in Alex's post. There is much that I agree with in Alex's post, but I find myself disagreeing with one particular point. 

The point would be thus: as a consequence of neoliberal policies, the student is now viewed as a consumer and the teacher as providing a service. In the post, this concept is seen as a negative, and the idea is taken up and supported in the comments section. 

How does this concept affect me as an EAP teacher? If I am quite honest, I do not have a great deal of trouble reconciling myself with the idea of student as customer/consumer. Obviously, like all teachers, I would first see the student as a human being and there are many aspects to the relationship. But I think there are positives if one were to include the 'student as customer' perspective as one aspect of the student as a whole. I should stress that I am speaking in terms of positives for the relationship between student and teacher as opposed to positives on a wider, institutional level. 

For a start, if someone pays to be at university, then in a very real sense it would be wrong not to consider them a customer or consumer. If the problem is the very fact of paying in the first place, if you believe that university should be free, I would still see no problem in viewing a student as a customer. If university were free, if books and materials were free, there would still be a cost to the student or their family (lost earnings for instance). Viewing them as a customer acknowledges the sacrifice that they have made to be there. 

It seems to me that the problem with viewing students as customers only arises if the position is taken that as customers they must be kept happy at all costs (with the concerns about attendant consequences like grade inflation etc.). I don't see why this has to be the case. If I go to a French restaurant and demand Italian food, then I will not get what I want. The French restaurant has made it clear what they provide via their menu - within that, they can make every effort to accommodate me, but if I go outside that, they can legitimately disappoint me. Similarly, by clearly defining the role of the teacher and what is expected of the student, the perception of the student as customer does not necessarily entail academic compromise. Within these roles, the student can legitimately expect certain things (e.g. that the teacher generally arrive on time and prepare their lessons), just as the teacher can (e.g. complete your work on time, take ownership of your work, etc.). Regardless of the label - customer, empty vessel, co-learner - this is what the student has signed up for. But anything beyond those roles (e.g. give me an A because I paid so much money to be here) is not legitimate. It is not what the university is offering. 

* Since I started writing this post, Alex posted again on the topic here and he expands further on the issue by raising the objective of EAP. Again, it is a fascinating discussion and has caused me to reflect more on the objective of EAP from my perspective as a teacher. I think I've waffled enough as I try to get to grips with my reactions to these two posts but I would be curious to hear from other teachers of EAP - what they see as their purpose and whether they find the perspective of student as consumer/customer problematic. 

** I've conflated the terms consumer/customer - not sure that people posting on Alex's original post (or Alex himself) view these as synonymous. I did so because I think the "customer is always right" slogan is part of the reason why people object to the view of students as customers - despite the fact that in many businesses, the customer is often deemed to be mistaken. 


Chun, C.W., 2009. Contesting neoliberal discourses in EAP: Critical praxis in an IEP classroom. Journal of English for Academic Purposes8(2), pp.111-120.

Ding, A., 2016. Neoliberal EAP: are we all neoliberals now? Teaching EAP, [blog] 25 January. Available at: [Accessed 22 February 2016].


  1. Really interesting! I work in EAP in Germany, where there are no tuition fees, so I suppose the situation is really rather different. I have taught at 3 different UK universities as an exchange and I do feel that the dynamic in the classroom is different to what I know from here in Germany. I felt that in the UK there was more of an 'OK, come on then, I've paid, now teach me' attitude that I found it hard to get past in terms of encouraging them to take responsibility for their learning and ownership over the work they were producing as part of their learning process. But I wonder who is 'responsible' for generating this attitude - really the students alone? Or maybe this is how there were treated by previous EAP tutors? I also taught within a German department and the vibe was very similar, even stronger actually ... which is also something to ponder.
    So I don't think I've really added much to what you said above, but I hope it was interesting for you to hear my random thoughts from this slightly different perspective...!!

    1. Hi Clare,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment - I really appreciate it.

      Your thoughts are really interesting - I think a lot of how we see things is shaped by the context in which we teach. Most of my teaching life has been in the private sector and this experience is the prism through which I look at the situation. As I have mostly worked with international students, I don't have a great deal to compare with. But I have seen students who take ownership for their study and I have seen students who don't. My contention would be that the reasons for this are very complex and not solely linked to whether or not they pay to be there. Perhaps, if the students view themselves as consumers and the teachers as selling an educational product, then they may become passive and expect the knowledge to be served up to them. But I am really not sure that this is the full picture. I think the attitude you described "Ok, come on then, I've paid, now teach me" is not the inevitable conclusion of the marketing of universities. I can see many negatives and agree with many of the points Alex Ding raised in his original piece. But I also see huge improvements in universities. EAP, which can be seen as a money generator for the universities, can also be seen as a serving a real need for international students. An EAP course can help a student prepare for, and enter, university - a student who may otherwise spend lots of money, time and heartache trying to pass an International language test. Although I may be naive....

      Again, thanks for your comment. Your question as to responsibility is very interesting and gives me something else to think about.

      All the best,