For everyone Jane Caro on the threat of edu-business

Remote and online learning has given edu-businesses more scope than ever for exploiting the education ‘market’. Privacy, equality and teacher autonomy are just some of the things at risk as they continue their expansion, writes JANE CARO.

Globally, the commercialisation of education has come to be worth an estimated $6 trillion, with edu-corporations seeking to play an ever-greater role in everything from school curriculum, lesson plans, assessment and teacher professional development.

The increasingly high-stakes educational environment in developed countries has provided perfect conditions for exploitation by for-profit companies. Public schools are using limited budgets to purchase commercial resources, and parents are buying NAPLAN practice books at the supermarket. Now, with the shift to online learning during the COVID crisis, edu-businesses are seizing every opportunity to capture the market.

So, where did this all begin?

From citizens to consumers

After World War II, the factories that had rolled out tanks, planes, armaments and all the hardware of war turned their attention to producing goods and products for use in households. The almost three decades-long post-war boom had begun. People went from being citizens to being ‘consumers’ – and consume they did. Whitegoods, TVs, household appliances, packaged foods and products of all kinds rolled off the re-tooled production lines and fortunes were made. Standards of living rose and so did expectations, especially in the West.

During the post-war boom, capitalism was happy to concentrate on the markets that were the easiest to exploit. However, by the end of the 1970s, business was facing ‘saturated markets’. Households were chock full of stuff and all they were buying were replacements.

The exception was new technology. However, in order for most manufacturers to continue growing, they had to cut costs and find new markets. That’s why the 80s became the era of shedding workers, closing branches and increasing automation. It’s when businesses stopped answering the phone.

The 80s was also the decade when business turned to parts of the economy they had previously left to government – from public transport to utilities, infrastructure, prisons and, of course, education. The pro-privatisation rationalisations of ‘increasing efficiency’ and ‘improving standards via healthy competition’ were covering up the need for business to continue growing its profits.

The education market

Having spent 35 years working at the coalface of capitalism in ad agencies, I am sceptical about the benefits of privatisation, which largely seems to drive prices up rather than down. Since the 80s, we have seen the loss of many safety nets and the exponential growth of the gap between those who are wealthy and those who are not. Billionaires have done brilliantly. The rest of us not so much.

But it is the effect of privatisation on education that is most concerning for anyone who cares about equality of opportunity for every child.

From the 1980s onward, schools became the centre of a different kind of opportunity – a market opportunity. Angelo Gavrielatos, current head of the NSW Teachers Federation has been warily watching the growth of the global education industry for years.

“Having identified the lucrative nature of the education market (valued at approximately $4.9 trillion per annum USD in 2015 and predicted to grow to $6.3 trillion by 2020) and how much of a limitless, sustainable resource our children represent, global education corporations have set about trying to control education to satisfy their profit motive,” he says.

 

Marketers from the global education industry have spent decades persuading us that public education is ‘failing’ and needs fixing.

Schools have always had connections with private industry, from Commonwealth Bank saving schemes to textbook publishers and the school photographer. But, by and large, the business of pedagogy and what teachers do in their classrooms was left to educators. Tests were written by teachers. Exams, even state-wide exams, were the business of education departments and curriculum authorities.

Now, there is a program and a product available (at a price) for everything a school could wish for. Many standardised tests are written, controlled and marked by private, for-profit companies – all of which serves to erode teacher autonomy wherever possible, with materials and processes that sideline the need for any professional judgement.

Digital technology has exploded into our classrooms. The data alone that giants like Apple and Microsoft gain from school children, just by virtue of them doing their lessons, is frightening – but it is very hard to see what schools can do about it. All of us have had to accept a comprehensive loss of control over our own privacy in return for the benefits technology offers.

No doubt parents have become more aware of the hold technology has over children during the COVID-19 lockdown. Technology may have offered a lifeline during the restrictions – to more fortunate kids, at least – but that does not mean it should not be approached with caution.

Another serious concern is how the increasing need for kids to have access to technology at home is widening the gap between those kids with and those without.

As Anna Krien points out in her recent essay in The Monthly, ‘The Screens That Ate School’, something as simple as signing permission slips has become fraught. Signing a slip (or should that be a form) allowing a computer company to use photos of your child in unspecified ways feels irresponsible – but not signing means your kid misses out. Not agreeing to all the terms and conditions for a particular platform offering an educational experience may be ‘your choice’, but may also mean your child gets left behind.

Another serious concern is how privatisation and the increasing need for kids to have access to technology at home as well as at school – none of which is free – is driving the yawning gap between those kids with and those without. Something else brought into stark relief by COVID-19.

But there are other issues too.

Selling the education ‘problem’

Selling a product designed to make a profit is different from developing a program designed to help kids learn. Salespeople are not educators. The current and rather bewildering so-called ‘reading wars’ are a case in point. Those on one side of the debate are adamant that phonics is the only effective way to teach reading. On the other, there is equal passion that one size does not fit all, and that the evidence for phonics is not conclusive. On both sides, people are endorsing commercial products that use their preferred methods.

Who is right? Who is wrong? And do commercial imperatives have no bearing on the debate and the passion with which it is waged? How do our kids avoid being the meat in the vested-interest sandwich?

Marketers always claim their product is the solution to any problem. And if there wasn’t a problem, they’ll be sure to create one. No wonder, according to US public education advocate Diane Ravich in her book Slaying Goliath, that marketers from the global education industry have spent decades persuading us that public education is ‘failing’ and needs fixing.

As Ravich says, Americans were generally very happy with their public schools until the ‘global education reform movement’ (cheekily referred to as ‘GERM’ by Pasi Sahlberg from the Gonski Institute) told them that not only was there a crisis, but that only ‘they’ – billionaires like Bloomberg, Gates, de Vos, Zuckerburg, etc – could be trusted to ‘reform’ it, saving our kids’ futures from the ravages of lazy teachers, rapacious unions and the horror of ‘failing schools’.

These ‘reformists’ and their foundations then offered ‘solutions’ like charter schools, vouchers, academies and the continued intrusion of business interests into the business of educating children – taking particular hold in America and the UK, where none of it appears to have solved very much at all.

If that wasn’t bad enough, COVID-19 has given these global tech giants an unprecedented opportunity to embed themselves even further into our education systems. New research commissioned by Education International, conducted by Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan, suggests “we could be experiencing an evolutionary leap and mutation of the global education industry”. They warn that “a continued shift in authority to private actors will further undermine democratic control of public education”. Which is just another way of saying that it will undermine democracy itself.

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