Curtis Riep, University of Alberta
Pearson PLC, the self-adorned “world’s leading learning company” is a market-maker and enabler of shifting political logics and processes connected to neoliberal globalisation that is transforming basic education into a marketable and tradeable commodity, sold and delivered by multinational education corporations, rather than redistributed via state patronage as a de-commodified and societal good.
Market-making activities of Pearson in the global-South have come in the form of ‘low-fee’ private schooling. Pearson’s edu-business activities in the global-North, by contrast, have primarily focused on testing and accountability, data management and digital learning.
‘Low-fee’ private for-profit schooling sold to the poorest learners in countries such as Ghana, India, South Africa and the Philippines has been pushed by Pearson as a cost-effective and efficient ‘solution’ that can help universalise access to basic education—and to do so profitably. Since the right to education sold by Pearson also comes with a price-tag, it is a type of “inclusive capitalism”, in which Pearson intends to accumulate large amounts of capital from its provision of primary and secondary schooling sold as commodities to learners at the margins of the global socio-economic order.
As Pearson claims: “There are about 4 billion people around the world who live on less than $2 a day, and this low-income population suffers the most from poor quality education. While there has been progress in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education, there are still more than 70 million primary-age children not in school.” Pearson intends to profit from this untapped market at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
As public demand for accessible, quality basic education for all has grown more rapidly in the global-South than government provision and supply, multinational education corporations like Pearson have entered the sector to both fill the governance gap and pursue new commercial opportunities.
Pearson established the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) in 2012 as a “for-profit venture fund, in response to the vital market and government need for low-cost private education in the developing world.” The purpose of PALF is to create and develop an enterprise and market-oriented ecosystem in regions that are presently underserved by existing education systems by investing private equity and venture capital in for-profit companies that sell ‘low-fee’ private education. By 2020, Pearson expects PALF to help provide “millions of the poorest children in the world with a quality education, in a cost-effective, profitable and scalable manner.”
In 2012, PALF made its first investment in a for-profit chain of ‘low-fee’ private schools in Ghana known as Omega Schools. Omega is based on a Pay As You Learn system in which customers pay a daily fee of US$0.65 per day per child for schooling services, which amounts to roughly US$140 in annual tuition fees. Like other large-scale chains of ‘low-fee’ private schools invested in by Pearson, Omega intends to benefit from economies of scale by selling a high volume of standardised services, at a low cost, in order to increase profit margins. Omega hires unqualified teachers, predominantly locals with a high school education, whom are paid a fraction (15-20%) of that which public-sector teachers make in Ghana. This is a cost-cutting technique designed to increase profits. And because Omega teachers are unqualified, the method of instruction is based on scripted lesson guides. Pearson and Omega claim their services in Ghana are extending access to basic education among the most marginalized, however, this is not the case. Since the lowest-income households in Ghana would have to expend approximately 40% of their earnings to send one child to an Omega School. Fee-paying private schools for the poor like Omega, therefore, involve a distinct and unmissable structural inequity, user fees, which deny access to those already marginalized by poverty.
Elsewhere in the global-South, Pearson continues to invest in similar for-profit chains of ‘low-fee’ private schools. In the Philippines, Pearson has led the establishment of APEC (Affordable Private Education Centers) in order to capitalise on an overburdened and under-resourced national education system. APEC is a rapidly growing chain of affordable private schools that aims to serve 250,000 fee-paying customers in the Philippines within the next 10 years. Each APEC student pays an annual fee of US$500; representing a highly lucrative venture for Pearson. Similar to Omega Schools, APEC has implemented a number of cost-cutting techniques in order to minimize production costs while increasing profit margins. However, what differentiates APEC is that it explicitly intends to produce a repository of cheap and flexible labour that can be employed by multinational corporations operating in the Philippines. APEC has developed its own “reverse-engineered” curriculum in order to inculcate the skills, values and knowledge in demand by industry. In particular, APEC aims to address the skill shortage in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and call center industries in the Philippines by focusing on English communication skills.
We need to unmake Pearson, the market-maker. We need to undo and remake the parameters by which education corporations like Pearson try to implement for-profit experimentations in education. In the global-South this involves stricter regulatory oversight by governments and regulatory compliance by enterprise. It involves reversing neoliberal economic and social policy and cultivating the political will to finance public education adequately instead of rationing it and turning it over to the commercial interests of private enterprise.
We need to deconstruct and expose the corporate brand and image of Pearson for what it truly is: always (l)earning,since in the global-South, Pearson is aggressively advancing a project to educate to accumulate, rather than educate to liberate.