By Susan Robertson, University of Cambridge
Over the past two decades, education systems around the world have been faced with nothing short of a revolution in how they are to be governed. This revolution, of course, is the ongoing effort by ideologically-interested governments, multilateral institutions like The World Bank, corporations and their corporate foundations – such as like Pearson’s and the Gates Foundation, along with venture capitalists, to open up the education sector to profit-making and the making of the new entrepreneurs.
Transforming public education into a private good is not a straightforward task. After all, for many families around the world, education is the means through which they acquire the knowledge and skills to participate in their respective communities and societies as economic, political and social actors. Families are also well aware that education can – if managed well by socially-progressive governments – put a brake on widening those social inequalities which are endemic in many societies, by redistributing resources and thus opportunities to become someone.
Contesting the transformation of education into a private good and profit-making is also not straightforward. This is because the concept of private has been present in many education systems since their early beginnings. This form of private in education was often, though not always, tied to elite formation, and in many cases too involved religious or other community groups.
In different parts of the world the proportions of public versus this kind of private varied; much depended upon the early histories of these societies, and their relationships to social class and social mobility. Schools run by missionaries, for example, are private, but they served a public good function in the broadest senses of what this means.
Instead, the revolution I want to point to is premised on a rather different way of thinking about the private in education. The is, first and foremost, an ontological move. That that citizen is constructed as a consumer. In the education context, this means the family is now cast as a consumer of education services. Here they either make good or bad choices, for it is up to them what the outcomes are.
And when writers like Prahalad ask: what about the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ and ‘why can’t the poor be consumers’ – he is suggesting that democratic societies are those that distribute the right to this new kind of consumer identity across all of its population.
Such an understanding of the individual, as a free and autonomous being, draws from liberal theory. It is only with this way of thinking about what it means to be human in a society that one can arrive at the kind of conclusion that Milton Friedman did – and that capitalism and freedom are two sides of the same coin, and not the antithesis of each other.
That is quite a revolution in thinking! But it is this that drives the ongoing efforts to inject a healthy dose of capitalism into the education system. The more it works like a capitalist market, the more freedom we have! We’re right to react with a huge dose of scepticism. Many Chilean families, whose education experiences have been shaped by Friedman’s Chicago School Boys policies, would be hard pressed to feel that they had been delivered freedom. Far from it.
The second is a political move, now tied to the first. Armed with this kind of understanding of the citizen, governments now pass over their responsibilities to the market and the citizen its and with it social justice outcomes. Streeck (2014) calls this ‘market justice’.
Scratch the surface and we can see that quite the opposite is the case. Rather, the excess of neoliberal and other market-oriented policies, creates new injustices: extreme inequalities in those societies that have rushed headlong into embracing this new ideology (OECD, 2014). Here determined interested parties, including governments of the left and the right, have emptied out older understandings of the right to free quality public education in the old state-citizen contract and now replaced it with the idea that the private sector can deliver better quality more efficiently.
Some version of what is called ‘new public management’ now casts its long shadow over the delivery of public sector goods. Public sectors have to work like private firms: have in place indicators and testing, standardise teaching and learning, see their worry about league tables of performance, and so on. The myth here is that this leads to improvement.
In fact quite the opposite is the case. For sure there are areas of government’s public sector work that might be more efficiently delivered by the private sector. But the complete abdication of the system – including provision – to a market logic and the privileging of private for-profit interests, represents nothing short of a failure of government.
What is particularly intriguing about this sleight of hand is that the revolution has gathered pace, despite considerable and growing evidence that the presence of for-profit and other private actors in the sector has neither made the sector more efficient, and nor has it made it more equitable.
There is also a long and lengthening list of corrupt practices, poor infrastructures built by private contractors under Public Private Partnerships, levels of government indebtedness as a result of servicing private-sector contracts, and widening social inequalities.
We ought not be surprised. After all, chasing profits means prioritising profit above all else. If the margins are too slim, the investor aims to slim down the promise or service, or cast their glance elsewhere.
Private interests in public education, the case of Argentina
The new report La privatización educativa en Argentina sheds more light on this topic. It is a careful documentation of the privatisation tendencies in Argentina right now. The team have mapped the various actors in the sector – some of them very recognisable – like the Varkey Foundation and the franchise ‘Teach for America’ – as these are global education players and brands.
The missionaries of yesterday, have been replaced by a new kind; one whose faith in the market, in entrepreneurship, and in landing the bottom line – profits, now guides the policy-makers decisions. The conclusions the Report’s conclusions add to the evidence-base and also unfortunately reminds us that no part of the globe is exempt.
Governments have a global responsibility to deliver high quality public education to its citizens. Wise governments look at evidence and take this into account in their decision-making. This report adds to the stockpile of evidence that private for-profit interests in education generally delivers poorer and not better outcomes.
Wise governments take seriously the responsibilities they have to mediate the inevitable inequalities in their societies arising from access to different levels of resources. Education is no exception. Failing to mediate the distribution of resources in education so that those without resources have absolutely no chance, is a failure in the part of government to make the world a place of hope. And wise governments also understand that the greater the degrees of equality in their society, the higher the level of productivity and social cohesion.