Confronting the global corporate education agenda

We spoke with Angelo Gavrielatos, Project Director at Education International (EI), about the international forces shaping education policy and the union movement’s response 

Can you tell us about Education International and your role within EI?
EI is our international union organisation. It represents more than 32 million members in 400 organisations in more than 170 countries around the world.

Members of the AEU in all states and territories are part of the global union federation of teachers and other education workers, Education International.

My role at EI is to lead our global response to the growing commercialisation and privatisation of education. That means working with member organisations to build campaigns to resist, expose, halt and reverse this commercialisation and privatisation, which we consider the greatest threat to the achievement of quality education for all.

Angelo is a former Federal President of the AEU

What do you mean by the commercialisation and privatisation agenda in education?

Education is currently valued at about $US5 trillion per annum globally. It is considered a growth industry and as such we are seeing corporate actors moving into the education space to hoover up some of this value.

Commercialisation and privatisation are occurring, regrettably, in virtually every country around the world. They take different forms, and they tend to look quite different in the developing compared to the developed world.

In Africa, corporate-backed players are seeking to enter the space of education. They set up, for example, chains of schools, which they often describe as low-fee schools, and seek to exploit children and the aspirations of families.

In advanced economies like Australia and the US, commercialisation and privatisation takes a different form. In these countries we have relatively strong systems of education and to varying degrees, systems that attract a fair amount of respect from the broader public.

‘Commercialisation and privatisation are occurring, regrettably, in virtually every country around the world’

In these countries, corporate entities look for a point of weakness to enter the education market. In the US, that point of weakness was assessment. So for a global corporate actor like Pearson, one of its core products is a standardised test, so it has sought to take over assessment.

This is seen as the thin end of the wedge. First assessment, then standardised curriculum and you soon then start to take over teacher evaluation. Once you have done that, you start running teacher education programs.

From there, it is a small jump to operate a couple of chains of charter schools and the like, and what they are doing right now, is looking at moving into the digitisation of education, which could result – and would result according to their own literature – in the significant undermining of the profession.

The next step will be demanding teachers get out of the way because in this way of thinking, technology and artificial intelligence will solve all of our issues, basically destroying the social and human dynamic that is a pre-condition for quality education.

We have seen elements of that here in Australia, with the proposal to introduce robomarking and NAPLAN online, for example.
Exactly. And let’s not forget that in Australia, Pearson is one of the players with the contract for NAPLAN. In Australia we are seeing elements of a strategy that is being employed in other countries like the US to try and commercialise and privatise education.

Why do you think governments around the world are following this agenda? Is it as simple as cost-saving or are there other elements to it?
There are two factors at play here. One is clearly cost. But also, governments are increasingly influenced by neo-liberal ideology which seeks to abrogate their responsibility in terms of guaranteeing and providing public services.

Two years ago Prime Minister Scott Morrison and federal Finance Minister Matthias Corman were quoted asking what is wrong with education being outsourced to private companies? This is part of a global ideological push that we are seeing and it is being promoted by international finance institutions like the World Bank, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others.

‘Curriculum and schooling are two of the most important, powerful institutions and forces in our society’

The other thing it illustrates that is ideological is that it is about power. Curriculum and schooling are two of the most important, powerful institutions and forces in our society. They determine what we expect future generations to be able to know and be able to do and what future generations will be.

It’s quite daunting to think about trying to tackle these issues at a global level. How have EI and the global union movement been doing this?
Five or six years ago, there was a realisation amongst a number of education union leaders that we are taking on forces the size and strength of which we had not adequately appreciated in the past. We are talking about entities that are more influential than many countries combined.

No one union, no one country could deal with this global agenda individually, and that’s why it was determined that we had to build a global response to build programs identifying common targets to ensure that that the sum of our global presence would be greater than the sum of our individual parts within the confederation of Education International.

Are there some particular examples you could point to in terms of effective campaigns?
There has been some success along the way. For example, a couple of years ago the government of Uganda announced the expulsion of this rogue, corporate actor, Bridge International Academies. It determined it was operating illegally in its country and ordered that it be shut down.

Bridge, supported by Pearson, the World Bank and others, then took the government of Uganda to the High Court, challenging its decision. The High Court upheld its government’s decision, saying it is an illegal operator that set out “to operate illegally”. So that is a success.

‘There are examples of great campaigns being run in Latin America’

Now, the campaign is not over there, because one of the challenges we have got in places like Uganda and many countries around the world, is enforcing these positions. This company continued to operate in contempt of the courts, in contempt of the government, even though it was deemed to be an illegal operator.

What is striking about that, is that global institutions like Pearson, like the World Bank, continue to support, politically and financially, an operator deemed to be operating illegally, by a sovereign country.

There are examples of great campaigns being run in Latin America. For example, in Uruguay, the teachers’ union is campaigning together with other anti-privatisation movements. The anti-privatisation movement in Uruguay is very big. They have a major issue with the privatisation of water.

So, the teachers’ union is joining forces with the anti-privatisation movement, the broader union movement, with students, with farmers, all of those groups, saying that it is one struggle. The privatisation of education, the campaign to stop the privatisation of education is as critical as the campaign to stop the privatisation of water.

So, there are signs and evidence around the world which give up hope and motivation to continue.

This interview was first published in the Term 2, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator magazine.