Education and Capitalism: Behind the Massey-McDonald’s partnership

Morgan Welch

Massey University has formed a partnership with McDonalds Restaurants that will allow a number of McDonald’s store managers to cross-credit their prior learning towards an undergraduate business degree. An in-house course run for McDonalds by an external provider, Service HQ, provides managerial staff with the National Diploma in Hospitality, a New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) accredited qualification.

The head of Massey’s College of Business, Professor Ted Zorn, told the New Zealand Herald “We have gone in to McDonald’s and looked at what they are doing…We assessed the content [of the in house training], and found there was a pretty good fit with some of our first-year papers.”

This agreement was initiated by McDonalds, who approached several tertiary institutions before selecting Massey, though director of teaching and learning for Massey’s College of Business, Shirley Carr, told Fairfax News that she hoped it was the first of many such arrangements with companies as part of the university’s drive to forge closer links with business.

The situation is telling when it comes to how education happens in what is sometimes referred to as late capitalist society.  The agreement has been decried by supporters of the humanities and the social sciences, seen as a further blow to the battered liberal arts education that has suffered cuts as funding for science, technology and trades education has increased. This publication aims to provide a critical analysis of society, and as such recognises the importance of the disciplines broadly defined as ‘the arts’.

However, placing the arts as in competition with other disciplines is not useful, given that any society, capitalist or post-capitalism, will require people with a diverse range of skills and knowledge- including even some of the ‘management’ skills Massey will teach McDonalds employees. A blended work and study model of education is actually something that has been advocated by Marxist educationists at various times in history, and has been a demand of the organised labour movement.

In addition to this, arguments that come from a defence-of-arts perspective can veer toward an ahistorical line that supposes a past where education in those disciplines was provided widely and comprehensively, this has never actually been the case, and education serving the interests of the employing class is nothing new.

Education and early capitalism

When capitalism emerged in the United Kingdom it grew to become the dominant economic system through mass production, which divided the production of goods into a series of small tasks, people concentrated in factories could be taught quickly the task they needed to perform. Mass production is much more efficient than individual production, and meant wealth could be created in great excess to that required to provide workers with the means of subsistence, which was paid in wages.

At the time of the industrial revolution in Britain people had little formal education, which was not required for the new factory jobs. Primary education for children was provided by churches with the support of charity, and some public funding from the 1830s. Primary education was not compulsory until 1870.

Secondary education throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century consisted of grammar schools; academic schools covered by student fees that prepared students for university, and the new tax-funded technical schools, providing students with the education required for new jobs that had been created by industrialisation, but required more skills than production line factory labour.

Universities at this time remained elite institutions, but the wealth created by capitalism meant a small proportion of the population could be engaged in study and research, this is the reason the nineteenth century is also associated with great advancement in science as well as industry. The social sciences- economics, sociology, anthropology- also emerged at this time.

The British model of education was spread to the colonies, including New Zealand, and the two countries followed a similar path, both making secondary education universal in 1944. Universal secondary education had been a demand of the labour movement and in the New Zealand context was among the reforms of the first Labour government. Of course this was not as comprehensive as secondary education today and many students left at sixteen or even younger.

The post war boom

In the economic boom following world war two a substantial amount of society’s wealth was available, via high taxation on the rich, for higher education and research. In the USA in particular, this meant the huge financial support for science and engineering which laid the foundation for the space programme and the internet. Money was also available for the arts, and when popular movements pushed for new disciplines such a woman’s studies (gender studies) and ethnic studies programs, these could be provided.

Tertiary education in New Zealand was free, and a prosperous economy meant students could choose their field of study with little concern about the lack of career options it provided, or fear of poorer economic wellbeing in the future compared to studying an alternative. It’s important to note however that the mid twentieth century wasn’t a golden age of higher learning, today a third of New Zealanders aged 55 to 64 have a tertiary qualification compared to almost half for New Zealanders aged 25 to 35. Secondary school examinations at this time were designed to fail half of the students taking them, regardless of ability, so university education was not an option for many.


The post war economic boom came to an end in the 1970s; in the decade following the election of the infamous fourth Labour government in 1984 changes to what was provided by the state were made across the board, including in education. In 1992 (under a National government elected the previous year) tertiary education was commoditised to an extent with the introduction of user pays. The state would still fund each student to study, but the student would pay a proportion of the costs themselves.

With “user pays”, education became an individual rather than a social responsibility. In line with the ideology of individualism that accompanied neoliberal economic reforms, students became consumers of education in a marketplace. When secondary examinations changed to the modern system of NCEA, which ended the arbitrary process of failing perfectly capable students, those who studied a discipline that didn’t lead to a prosperous career (along with those who choose not to study at all) were seen as making a poor choice, and ultimately responsible for further low wages or unemployment.

The growth of some disciplines and decline in others is not entirely the result of students (incredibly restricted) choice. The capitalist class is incredibly influential in what kind of education the state funds, when politicians talk of matching education to the needs of ‘business’ ‘the market’ or ‘the economy’ what is literally meant is using public money to educate workers to a level required to perform today’s jobs. “Success in education is essential to the Government’s goal of building a productive and competitive economy.” Reads the State Services Commission website, “It also helps New Zealanders develop the skills needed to reach their full potential and contribute to the economy and society.” Far from mere rhetoric, both these statements are accurate.

Education today

As manufacturing jobs continue to move overseas and other low skilled jobs are automated, the New Zealand working class of the future will need to be more highly skilled than previous generations. This is why the current government has put emphasis on increasing the number of 18 year olds with NCEA Level 2, and the number of 25 year olds with a level 4 qualification, as well as from 2014 providing all level 1 and 2 courses to under 25 year olds for free- this is, completely state funded, with not payment from students as individuals.

To oppose the expansion of tertiary education for the working class would be misguided, while the major beneficiaries is the capitalist class, a worker also benefits from increased education. Universal tertiary education (though unlikely to be free education under capitalism) is the direction New Zealand is heading in, and the form that education takes is likely to be different than tertiary education has been up until now.

As mentioned previously, the blended model of work and study that McDonalds managers will be undertaking is not dissimilar than models advocated by Marxist thinkers on education, and practised in the first decades of the Soviet Union. Educational ideas oppositional to capitalism can become absorbed into it – this has happened many times before- though this doesn’t mean they suddenly become bad ideas.

There are serious shortcomings with the Massey-McDonalds scheme, the only ones with access to degree level education subsided by McDonalds will be managers. In practice managing operations and managing people are not separate. While skills such as providing training and overseeing payroll are essential in any workplace, manager’s authority over workers means they can often join the wrong side of industrial disputes -like the recent McStrike campaign- education provision could mean more managers seeing their interests with those of the corporation rather than the rest of the work force.

McDonalds likes to play up the fact that most of their management -even at a senior level- have risen up from the shop floor, but the hierarchical structure of the business means the vast majority of workers will not advance to that level and gain the opportunities that come with it. McDonalds provides sub degree education (with NZQA accredited hospitality qualifications) to all long serving employees, though this is only the first step, not a complete pathway to a hospitality career.

Fundamentally, training schemes are not something to oppose. The New Zealand Nurses Organisation and the Service and Food Workers Union have long advocated for an educational pathway for aged care workers to become qualified nurses (arguably this is far more socially beneficial than training restaurant managers) and there are many other industries where this model could be applied. However, skills-based education must not be tied to corporate demands.

Where does this leave the arts?

Student groups and education unions have had limited success in defensive campaigns to keep arts education.  While an arts education is valuable, it does not necessarily have to be a thing apart from work or other learning. Arts subjects could be provided alongside science and/or practical training. With more people gaining tertiary education, including through mixed work-study models, perhaps the next step is for the various stakeholders in education; students, educators, unions-  to advocate for a more comprehensive tertiary education, combining technical and scientific subjects with social science and humanities.

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