By Ben Williamson, University of Edinburgh, UK
The global education business Pearson has established itself as a major player in higher education around the world. With core business interests in data-driven education, digital online courses, and alternative HE models, Pearson is actively promoting the further marketization, commercialization and privatization of Higher Education (HE). By positioning itself as market leader in a global HE industry, it is also reshaping the very purposes and practices of universities internationally.
Pearson is a major, multi-billion dollar market actor with huge global business interests in digital, data-driven education. Within higher education, Pearson has invested considerably in data-driven educational technologies. It even has a partnership with IBM Watson to create ‘AI tutors’ to track a student’s actions and progress, and then ‘interact’ to ‘improve student performance’. These kind of data analytics and AI technologies require access to vast databases of student information.
In the UK, serious concerns arose about students’ data being shared with private companies when Pearson was granted legal access to the national HE student dataset by the government. Responses raised the risk of student data being exploited for profit, threats to student privacy, potential re-use or sale of the data for undeclared purposes, and Pearson’s role in furthering its business interests in HE.
Through its efforts to collect huge databanks of student information, new forms of market exchange are being created between students and Pearson, where students surrender their information in exchange for personalized learning support.
Privatized HE infrastructure
Providing infrastructure for online learning services is one of the fastest-growing parts of Pearson’s business. Through partnerships with universities the company is establishing itself as a value-for-money provider in a competitive market for ‘international education’ programs. Several UK universities have signed 10-year deals for Pearson’s ‘full-service approach to creating online degree programs or individual learning solutions’.
In this way, Pearson is helping universities to make themselves more market-focused. They speak the same language of ‘flexible online study’ and meeting ‘the demands of the evolving labour markets’. Its online learning infrastructure is designed to enable institutions to be more innovative, digitally-focused, and accessible to a wider international pool of fee-paying students.
At the same time, Pearson is reshaping HE providers to act more like competitive businesses with customers to attract. Pearson provides the privatized infrastructure solutions to allow these new forms of market exchange between student consumers and HE service providers.
Industry supply and demand
Pearson is actively intervening in the creation of a market of ‘alternative’ HE provision. It established Pearson College London in 2012, the only UK FTSE 100 company to deliver degrees. The college advertises itself as ‘powered by industry experience’ and a distinctive market provider which is ‘transforming higher education’.
Pearson has also predicted a shift to ‘demand driven education’ which would ‘focus more strongly than ever on ensuring graduates are job-ready and have access to rewarding careers’. It even highlights AI and ‘predictive talent analytics’ to match students to career paths. As a result, Pearson emphasizes marketable ‘future skills’, while reframing universities as market providers of ‘valuable’ demand-driven education services, and assisting industry partners to become suppliers of HE services.
Finally, Pearson is constructing a market in ‘direct-to-consumer’ digital learning platforms. Its chief executive officer has described students as ‘the Spotify generation’ who may themselves ‘pay for use’ of services ‘that are directly relevant to their course and their outcomes’.
It is already building ‘on-demand’ educational platforms. ‘Silicon Valley companies create the benchmark for the digital experience by being platform businesses,’ Pearson’s chief information officer has claimed. ‘It would be game-changing for not only Pearson, but for the entire industry if we could create that single platform, similar to Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon’.
Pearson is therefore building a global digital learning platform on the pay-to-access business model of social media streaming services. By making a market of student consumers who might pay for on-demand educational content, it is also seeking competitive market advantage in the commercial HE industry.
Previous studies have shown how Pearson is constantly mutating as it seeks new markets for its products. Higher education is one of its current core interests, and it is seeking to shape the sector to fit its own business model, infrastructure, and vision for the future of education. In these ways, it is actively shaping a number of mutating HE markets.
Pearson is making markets out of student data, by creating ‘valuable’ exchanges of personalized content for access to information. It is selling infrastructure services to universities, making universities more ‘marketable’ as innovative, internationalized institutions while establishing Pearson itself as a market leader in the global HE industry.
At the same time, it is prioritizing labour market preparation as a key purpose of HE, and marketing its own products to students as on-demand streaming services based on the platform business model of Silicon Valley.