Global education business, Pearson, continues to find new ways to make a profit from the education of children around the world. As its influence and profit growth stagnates in many economically developed countries, where it has made billions of dollars from providing standardised testing regimes and associated services, it has turned its attention to economically developing countries.
Pearson is growing its business in counties in Africa, South America and Asia, including India, where nations struggle to provide national systems of schooling. I believe what it is doing in these developing nations is perhaps even more insidious than the way it profited from helping impose a testing mentality to almost every major schooling authority in almost every developed democratic country.
Why Pearson is losing influence in economically developed democracies
Pearson is a big provider of textbooks, learning resources, assessment services, online learning needs and teacher professional development. Providing these services to economically developed countries such as the USA, UK and Australia has proved lucrative for Pearson over the past decade. Just last year it made over $5 billion in global sales and over $1 billion in adjusted operating profit. While these figures are comparatively strong, since 2012, Pearson hasn’t experienced any significant overall growth as a company. In fact, last year Pearson suffered a 40% drop in share price performance and has recently announced the need to cut 10 per cent of its global work force or 4,000 jobs.
This performance can be explained by a number of factors to do with the stabilisation and even reduction in sales in Pearson’s core markets. For example, let’s consider Pearson’s assessment business. At the turn of the 21st century standardised testing could be found at the core of many education systems, and the mandate for annual testing worked to open the space for commercial education providers to prosper.
Against this backdrop, the education market was reinvented around test development and preparation, data analysis and management and the related provision of online curricular and remedial services in an attempt to improve students’ performance outcomes.
Yet, the weight of evidence suggests that standardised testing has failed to improve education outcomes. Instead, standardised testing has been blamed for a narrowing and simplifying of curriculum that has undermined both teaching and learning. Given this, policy has started to change. The passage of the Every Student Succeed Acts (ESSA) in the USA (a reform to the No Child Left Behind policy) has given power to the States to decide how they test their students.
To put this in context in Australia, the USA has effectively scrapped their NAPLAN type tests and allowed their states and territories to decide how, when and what they will assess their students on. This move has obvious consequences for Pearson. Without nationally defined standards many of the large-scale tests developed by Pearson for national use are no longer required. This means that the testing market has been opened up to competition from lower cost alternatives, confirming Pearson no longer has the monopoly it once did.
Pearson’s ‘growth’ plan for developing nations
However, the answer to some of Pearson’s testing woes in economically developed countries has presented itself in economically developing countries.
Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) has made an $80 million investment in low-fee private school chains in Southern Africa, Asia and India. Pearson’s rationale for investing in low-fee private schools is based on the charitable notion that it is delivering an education to students in countries where access to public education is limited or nonexistent.
These low fee private schools are about making a private profit at the expense of poor families and poor economies
While such schools might be low fee, they constitute a high percentage of the disposable income of poor families, often resulting in gender discrimination where boys’ education is given priority over girls’ education in the same family. Moreover, low-fee private schools that will generate profit is economically dependent upon the employment of un- and under-qualified and very lowly paid, non-union organised teachers often using scripted pedagogies. These schools have few physical resources (e.g. computers, science labs, sporting facilities), large class sizes and there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of low-fee private schools.
This business strategy is based on the growth ‘markets’ that exist in countries of the developing world. Pearson says there is a ‘unique opportunity to capitalize on the emerging middle class’of almost 3 billion people who now earn enough money to invest in education to either improve their own or their children’s lives.
The Pearson plan undermines the development of quality public school systems
The outcome of this investment by Pearson challenges the aspiration that a free, high-quality public education for all is central to democracy and a socially just society. Through PALF, Pearson is working to replace or negate the responsibilities of governments to develop a public education system that affords the right of every child to access a free education. Many of these countries do not have strong legislature around for-profit schooling and even welcome the ‘solution’ that low-fee private school chains offer. Thus, Pearson has a new market to flourish in.
As I see it educators need to call out the significance of Pearson’s actions. The social, political and economic fallout for the countries where low-fee private schooling is growing are inevitable and may well have global consequences.
Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the privatisation of Australian public schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy and Critical Studies in Education.