Education International
Education International

Selling out the Right to Quality Public Education for All

published 1 February 2016 updated 27 February 2018
written by:

In this issue we bring together scholars, educators and advocates who have been working with EI in a global anti-privatisation effort. These scholars are working around the world to raise awareness about how and why education is being placed in the hands of corporations or “edu-preneurs”, instead of educators. The articles in this issue lay out both the broad ideological underpinnings of the marketisation of education, as well as, provide evidence of how it impacts schools, classrooms, teachers and students on the ground.

One manifestation of the privatisation movement – often referred to as the Global Education and Reform Movement, or GERM – is both a commercial exercise and an ideology.  In Market Fundamentalism Deforms Education Steve Klees details the detriment of neoliberal policy reforms to education since the 1980s. A global emphasis on the market has led to education being blamed for unemployment and other economic problems, while private business and market practices have distorted perceptions of education as a public good. In the presence of these corporate driven reform policies, Klees suggests that EFA and the MDGs were empty promises, and warns the same of the SDGs if we do not make significant changes in how we fund and support the public sector, including education. His plea is to abandon neoliberal ideology about education and to re-establish the legitimacy of government and participatory democracy in schools.

Other articles in this issue illustrate how GERM is led by powerful and influential “edu-businesses” and “edu-preneurs” across the world with enormous power and resources devoted to undermining and circumventing funds from the public sector. Policy ideas such as school choice, competition, accountability, as well as standardised tests and curricula, pedagogy and teacher evaluation, are increasingly being promoted and ‘sold’ to governments by corporations and private foundations. In her article Long Division: When Private Interests Into Public Education Simply Do Not Go! Susan Robertson suggests that countries around the world are committing themselves to a particular form of market logic: “that education will be more efficient if it operates according to the rules of competition  (choice, standards, information about performance, and so on leading to better quality) and that private firms will deliver goods and services more efficiently than governments (leading to cost savings). ” Robertson explains that the market model can be contrasted with a public investment model; “a comprehensive education system premised on universal access, the preparation of citizens for the economic and wider political society, and equality. The mechanisms to ensure quality include the preparation of high quality teachers, equitable funding to schools, high quality infrastructures, and whole child pedagogy. The drivers of outcomes are that public ownership, public responsibility, and accountability through democratic processes will ensure better quality teaching and learning environments for teachers and students and thus better learning outcomes.” Additional articles in this issue begin to explore in more detail the mechanisms and drivers of the current increasingly corporatised system.

Under the market logic of reform edu-businesses are promoting and positioning themselves as offering ‘solutions’ to the national policy problems of raising standards and achieving education improvements. Their self-promotion extends to active participation in policy making and forming networks as a means to agitate for policies which offer further opportunities for profit. In a summarised excerpt of Hidden Privatisation scholars Stephen Ball and Deborah Youdell discuss hidden forms of privatisation that effect education systems across the globe (for the full report, please click here).  Ball and Youdell argue that hidden privatisation tendencies in many cases are not named as privatisation, but are inserted in policies that bring about a new language. This language becomes the new norm and assists the state in making the public education system to look and function more like a business.

The long-term challenge for ensuring the right to quality public education is when governments outsource education activities and service provisioning to profit-making corporations, given the ability of private actors to assert their influence in policy processes and steer education agendas in ways that may not be in the best interest of students, teachers and societies at large. Throughout the world we’ve seen increasing activities of private for-profit actors enter the market through the new education technology sector (e.g. selling software and data management systems to address new accountability measures; providing one-stop shopping for online curriculum, assessment, and teacher training models; creating “schools in a box” that can be purchased and distributed globally; etc) that standardise learning and divert resources that could have gone toward more teachers and education support personnel, facilities or programmes for students in the public sector. In the article, Myth: Blended Learning is the next ed-tech revolution: Hype, harm and hope, Phil McRea discusses how on-line learning is not a new or revolutionary idea, as suggested by corporate education reformers and business training firms, who tout the virtues bringing the world to poor kids through e-learning that are sourced through private companies. He cautions that in its current state these knowledge solutions undermine teacher knowledge and autonomy and make students passive consumers rather than empowered learners. These models not only control the content of the curriculum and tests, they extract teachers and replace them with "facilitators" or "individual learning specialists." He argues that technology should be used to help employ students learning abilities, not replace the authority of the teacher or their role in the classroom.

Turning to more directly to impact of corporate reform and GERM on teachers and teaching, contributions by Toni Verger, Hülya Altinyelken and Mireille de Koning have compiled a set of case studies that exploremore in-depth the role that teachers play in global policy processes, and the effects of market-based policies on teachers’ labour and professionalism. Global Managerial Reforms and Teachers shows that corporate sector educational reforms based on teachers’ work fall mainly under the global tendencies of new managerial and high-stakes accountability reforms. They refer to them as Global Managerial Education Reforms (or GMERs) and show how they set out to improve countries’ competitiveness by upgrading students’ learning achievement and, at the same time, enhancing the efficiency of education systems. Their findings suggest that reforms aim to drastically transform the way the public sector operates in education by introducing private sector participation, incentives and a new culture of competitive performativity. More specifically, GMERs advocate that the public sector should learn from the private sector managerial culture and adopt their rules, values and techniques. GMERs promote managerialism through new methods of teacher evaluation, new developments of competence-based curriculum, new decentralisation processes that emphasise school accountability. However through a series of case studies Verger et als find most of these reforms put more pressure on teachers’ everyday work and transfer the entire responsibility of student achievement onto teachers themselves. The vast majority of these high stakes accountability policies ignore the social context of teachers’ work and the structural conditions of the learning processes. What is more, incentive-based mechanisms like merit pay are usually punitive and almost never related to work and performance in schools located in underserved areas.

While many of these reforms are as Ball and Youdell suggest “hidden” and not always understood as “privatisation of public education”, what is increasingly becoming very visible is how certain prominent figures in financial circles and at large foundations have become interested in corporate education reform. This includes setting up for-profit schools and service providers for education, encouraging their expansion throughout the world and providing grant support to some of them. Several of these edupreneurs, saw a market opportunity and started running schools for profit, for example, allowing the introduction and expansion of so called “low-fee” for-profit private schools, corporate backed and owned school chains, such as Bridge International Academies (BIA) and Affordable Private Education Centres (APEC). A key focus of EI research in this area has been on Pearson, Bridge and other privatising edubusinesses.

Hogan, Lingered, and Seller’s article Always Learning: The Rise and Rise of Pearson PLC analyses the growing role of commercial companies in public education and how increasingly influential edu-business can affect public interest when their main priority is profit-making. The authors take a particular look at Pearson PLC, which recently defunded their philanthropic foundation and declared they would pursue their corporate responsibilities through the social impact of its everyday business. Through its Efficacy Framework review process and The Learning Curve reform recommendations, Pearson has laid out for education providers both their policy “problems” and the “solutions,” available for purchase through Pearson products. Hogan et als conclude with a warning that the increased involvement of nondemocratic, commercial entities in public education corresponds with the diminishing involvement of democratic, public involvement in education policy. The authors show how Pearson is able to deal directly with national governments and multilateral agencies and can provide “one-off” solutions to national and international development problems.

Additional research on the multinational corporation Pearson and its related subsidiary PALF has been undertaken in article by Curtis Riep who examines how, why, and with what consequences, corporate-led privatisations in Philippines education are taking shape, through an analysis of APEC (Affordable Private Education Centers). Government failure to provide quality education for all Filipino youth has resulted in commercial opportunities for private corporations to participate and help fill the “governance gap” through market-based service delivery. So-called ‘low fee’ private schools (LFPS) like the APEC in the Philippines are being sold to poor families on the promise that they appoint highly committed teachers and provide learning outcomes superior to public schools. Despite claiming to offer better schooling to poor households, LFPS schools often remain inaccessible to the poorest families, unable to afford the daily fees.

Research on such schools in other countries throughout the world (such as Kenya, Ghana, India, South Africa, Uganda, and elsewhere)  indicates that they predominantly enrol children who were previously enrolled in other schools, rather than reach out to those who have never attended school. Fees may require up to 40 percent of household income per child from the poorest households. There is evidence that in some countries, poor households favour paying fees for boys rather than girls if choices have to be made.

In addition, the quality, affordability and equity-effects are highly contested. LFPS usually employ teachers who are unqualified, paid extremely low wages and employed on short-term contracts to drive down costs. Similarly, in order to increase profit, several schools operate a so-called ‘school in box’ model where teaching and learning are standardised. Despite claiming to target poor households, LFP schools often remain inaccessible to the poorest families, unable to afford the daily fees. Making matters worse, these schools may divert public funding and support for state-run schools, thus weakening public schools systems, particularly in contexts where government spending on education is already low.

Despite all the evidence showing that the application of market principles to the provision of education has a negative impact on students by deepening segregation and inequality, many governments are complicit in what amounts to a de facto dismantling of public education. EI and commissioned authors stand ready to play a full part in the campaign to roll back so called low-fee private schools and hidden costs to education in the global south where aid budgets from the global north are being plundered by the privateers to increase their profit and simultaneously killing off any state-provided school systems.

EI is now at the forefront of an anti-GERM, anti-privatisation campaign which seeks to challenge directly the edu-businesses that profit from our children. Since 2014, as result of work by EI affiliates, a major campaign has been launched at global level. The Global Response to Edu-Business and the Commercialisation of Education is EI’s answer to the rapid expansion of for-profit activities in education around the world.   The Global Response campaign has sought to engage parents, students and the wider school and education community in the struggle for an education system which is free, fair and inclusive for all.

We begin this special issue with an article by Angelo Gavrielatos, Director of EI’s Global Response, explaining how EI is responding to the growing threat against quality education for all by education corporations/edu-businesses, hoping to harness collective energy and influence to advocate against the expansion of profit-making in education. Through research, advocacy and creating alternative platforms EI is putting the spotlight on education corporations and for-profit education/education services, while also working with governments to ensure every student has access to high quality free public education.


This Special Issue of Worlds of Education grew out of numerous conversations started during meetings of the Critical Friends Working Group at Education International, and reflects an important compilation of scholarly work produced by researchers and activists working with EI on the Global Response.

I want to thank all of the authors who contributed to this Special Issue for their ongoing contributions to the Global Response and to EI in general. The struggle to save and reimagine high quality public education in schools across the world continues, and a concerted and rigorous research response to corporate privatization is required.

Thanks also to the graduate students in New York University’s International Education program: Alexandria Martinez, Jill Knapczyk, Jimena Cosso, Katherine Vallario and Kayla Sorin who organized, edited and compiled articles for this issue. I'm hoping this will be the beginning of building the next generation of scholar-activists through these forms of engagement with education organizations like EI.

Finally, I want to thank educators and advocates of public schooling who, despite the risk of losing their jobs and sometimes their lives, continue the fight for public education. Their stories and challenges are told within these pages.