The rise of ‘edu-business’: what it means for the education profession
Assistant Secretary/Treasurer Paul Giles discusses the global threat of ‘edu-business’ infiltrating the Australian school system with multi-national companies, such as Pearson, contributing to the increased commercialisation of schools and resources.
At the joint IEUA-QNT and QTU Restoring the Balance: Professional Issues Conference in September last year, UQ Professor Bob Lingard spoke about the rise of edu-business and the “commercialisation of the education policy community” as a global threat to quality education.
As Lingard outlined, for-profit companies are attempting to instil their private commercial interests and embed them into the curriculum – in many cases they have succeeded with their business model. This is a pattern that has been observed in other countries where edu-business is seeking to shape education policy agendas. However, this involvement in each stage of the policy cycle – agenda setting, research for policy, policy production, implementation, evaluation, data analysis, management and provision of support materials - is undermining quality education. By pushing corporate growth and profits, this overshadows the voice of teachers, parents and students in education programs.
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kishore Singh, has warned that “soon, it may not be an exaggeration to say that commercialisation is supplanting public education instead of supplementing it… inequalities in opportunities for education will be exacerbated by the growth of unregulated private providers of education, with economic condition, wealth or property becoming the most important criterion for gaining access to education.”
The problem is compounded by governments outsourcing their responsibilities for such functions as policy development, professional development and implementing national standardised testing. The voice of teachers is increasingly being muffled by for-profit businesses, who are ‘selling’ education into the system with its products that fit into market niches.
The case of Pearson
In 2014, Pearson recorded $7.9 billion in revenue. The company boasts a large business portfolio in over 90 countries, from testing and assessment products, to professional development courses and teacher education services such as Information Technology (IT) certification.
Lingard calls this a “quasi-privatisation of the schooling policy community and of policy production and enactment”. Conservative governments in Australia have attempted to involve more and more edu-business within schooling. Under the former Howard government, education policy leant towards satisfying private investments and interests. This resulted in trends such as the move towards establishing education as a commodity in a competitive market.
As Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia, Alan Reid, puts it: “It can be bought and sold in an education market where schools compete and are expected to win market share by appealing to and satisfying the needs and wants of individuals (parents and students) now described as ‘consumers’.” What is increasingly apparent is the ever-changing design of curriculum, by government and organisations, for the purposes of sorting, ranking and selecting students coupled with providing comparative information for consumers through mechanisms such as NAPLAN and other standardised testing.
The Australian context
The current Federal Government, under former Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, further reinforced the rise of edu-business through its exclusion of teacher unions and their representation on the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s (AITSL) board and its committees. Education unions have also been excluded from decision making processes from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) by government. Retaining the voice of the profession in these associations when it comes to the direction of education is paramount.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) and New South Wales Teachers Federation have joined forces with Education International (EI) to stop the influx of for-profit schooling in Australia. The AEU also launched a campaign and report, AEU National Plan: Global Response to Edu-Business and the Commercialisation of Education. It revealed the pervasive trend had already found its way into the Australian system, and represents a $3.8 billion economy.
NSW Teachers Federation President, Maurie Mulheron, spoke of the need to fight back against global edu-business, with Pearson dominating the international education market, particularly in terms of online learning resources and text books. The AEU’s report also states that the contestable funding model that has caused havoc to TAFE with the enormous growth of for-profit training within the VET sector is a warning sign for schools that edu-business must be kept at bay.
Solidarity against commercialisation
The commercialisation of education also took centre stage at last year’s 7th World Congress of Education International (EI) in Ottawa, Canada. Noting the threat of edu-business to quality education, more than 2000 Congress delegates resolved that there needs to be a global response to for-profit education.
In solidarity with colleague unions, the IEUA has condemned the actions of Bridge International Academies which led to the arrest of Canadian, Curtis Riep, who was undertaking a research project commissioned by EI. Bridge’s operations are supported by Pearson and EI has strongly criticised the for-profit company for leading a witch-hunt against Mr Riep. Bridges published a newspaper advertisement in the form of a “wanted poster” in an attempt to discredit Mr Riep’s research on the impact of Bridges operating in Uganda. He has since been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Our members and other education unions must continue to work collectively to develop strategies to protect the profession from commercialisation by any company associated with the rise of edu-business.