Worlds of Education

Marketisation, privatisation & commercialisation in education: defining key terms

published 12 December 2018 updated 12 December 2018

By Anna Hogan, University of Queensland, Australia

This contribution clarifies the terminology used to describe the reorganisation of public education. In much critical policy sociology the terms marketisation, privatisation and commercialisation are used interchangeably. Yet, each of these denotes distinct, albeit related characteristics of contemporary schooling and the impact of the Global Education Industry.


is the creation of a series of policy logics that aim to create quasi-markets in education.

Marketisation refers simply to the introduction of market forces in education, where governments have created policy conditions that promote the development of quasi-markets in state funded and/or state provided services.

The market form in education is constituted through competition, supply and demand, producer and consumer behavior, privatisation and commodification, values and ethics and distributional outcomes. Marketisation, then, is the broad concept under which privatisation and commercialisation present themselves as logical solutions to ongoing challenges in the provision of education services.

Indeed, marketisation requires more market and less state; more individual responsibility and less welfare provision; and more focus on the individual and less on the common good. This market logic explains the shift from top-down, hierarchical education structures to networked structures where governments redefine themselves as facilitators.

A key aspect of this facilitation is managing contracts between the state and private sector organisations that steer education policy, develop curriculum and assessment, and operate schools.


is the development of quasi-markets through institutional and policy structures that privilege parental choice, school autonomy and venture philanthropy, often with the state regulating for public accountability. It happens to schools.

Privatisation is an approach to bring about the supposed benefits of marketisation for education systems. Proponents of privatisation see it as a legitimate and potentially lucrative means of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the state.

Privatisation has challenged the ideology of traditional, state-centred, public provision of schooling, opening it instead to market-based processes of reform. In many instances, forms of privatisation are articulated in terms of ‘choice’, ‘accountability’, ‘school improvement’ ‘devolution’, ‘contestability’ or ‘effectiveness’ and these draw on techniques and values from the private sector, introduce private sector participation and/or have the effect of making public education more like a business.

It is worth noting that the private sector can make valuable contributions to public education. These contributions can be considered valuable if they promote democratic, non-discriminatory and equitable delivery of schooling.

However, research suggests that many business interests in public education are ‘hidden’, with civil society having very little idea of what happens behind closed doors between politicians, businesses, philanthropies and entrepreneurs. Indeed, there is an emerging view that we need greater transparency and better understanding of the extent to which our public schools are being privatised.


is the creation, marketing and sale of education goods and services to schools by external providers. It happens in schools as opposed to happening to schools.

Commercialisation is big business. Many commercial providers generate large profits for shareholders by selling goods and services to schools, districts and systems.

While there are many types of commercial activity, the most common are those directed at teaching, learning and assessment, digital and computer technologies, Professional Development for teachers and principals, and a variety of services designed to support school administrators.

Thus, while privatisation is about the logics of who conducts education, commercialisation is about how actors profit from the ‘commodification’ of education. Commercialisation can occur without privatisation; for example, a public school can purchase assessment support services from commercial providers.

What defines commercialisation is the relationship between centralised, public bureaucracies, and the work that these organisations traditionally undertook, and its outsourcing for the commercial gain of individuals or corporations.

Historically, there has been an ongoing relationship between public and private interests in education; for example, the commercially produced textbook has been central to the conduct of schooling in the US since the early 20th century. However, it is the scale of commercial production, and the impact that the formation of quasi-markets have on the value of public education that is important.


Privatisation and commercialisation are distinct yet related aspects of the marketisation of education. Each of these three terms speaks to different aspects of the reorganisation of public education that has been occurring since the end of the 20th century. Marketisation refers to the creation of quasi-markets in education through policy interventions that create the conditions for these markets to thrive.

Privatisation is the creation of structures that enable the importation of business ideas, techniques and practices in such a way as to shift responsibility for the operation of educational institutions from the state to private entities. For-profit schools, some charter schools and some forms of academisation can be seen as examples of privatisation.  Commercialisation, on the other hand, refers to the creation, production and sale of goods and services to schools to satisfy some educational need.

What remains unresolved is the impact that these are having, and will continue to have, on public education.

Recent policy moves and political appointments in countries such as the US, Sweden and England suggest that the creation of quasi-markets, privatisation and commercialisation will only gather momentum in the next few decades.

Of particular interest, and concern, is the emergence of private companies in the Global South that have contractual arrangements with governments to provide schooling on a for-profit basis. The effects of this will continue to be debated and researched, but at the very least it seems reasonable to argue that we are witnessing a radical restructuring of what constitutes the ‘public’ in public education.

Hogan, Anna & Thompson, Greg (2017) Commercialisation in Education: Defining Key Terms. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford University Press.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.