By Keith Somerville
In a series of interviews with media such as the BBC’s Hardtalk and the Independent Sir Michael Barber, the chief education adviser for the Pearson global publishing and education giant, has been pushing hard the idea of for-profit schools for the very poorest in Africa. The idea is that, to quote his Hardtalk interview, the poorest will pay 3, 4 or five dollars a month to go to school at primary level and 10 to 12 a month at higher levels of education.
He says the aim is to help achieve the UN target of getting all children into at least primary education by 2015 – a goal which Africa is lagging behind in it attempts to attain. Pearson would invest $15 million in the scheme and would hope to sell out its minority share in each enterprise at a profit in 7 to ten years. Barber said there is huge potential in the vast global education market and that there is an important role for profit in education.
Citing alleged successes in for-profit schooling by Pearson in Delhi and Karachi, he said this showed that schools for the poorest in society that charged a fee could work to improve educational provision while making a profit for Pearson and local majority investors. What he didn’t say was just how poor the families were that used the schools and how many of the poorest just simply couldn’t afford it. The view was that if it worked in India and Pakistan it would work in Africa.
But there are huge questions to be asked and in his interviews he evaded them or wasn’t pressed hard on them (as far as one could see from what was published or broadcast). These questions revolve both around the amount of income the very poor have available to pay for schooling, the problem of making very broad brush comparisons between South Asia and Africa and the likelihood of private investors in Africa being willing to put up sufficient funds over a long enough period to fund schools without endangering the far more extensive and important government-run education sector while having a level of sustainability.
Poverty and the lack of sufficient cash income is the key issue, though. Delhi is India’s richest area – its per capita income exceeds that for anywhere else in India and vastly exceeds that of most of Africa – including Accra in Ghana (where Pearson has started a school). The average per capita income (and yes, there are huge disparities between rich and poor in India) in Delhi is $3,020; in Accra (richer than other areas of Ghana and far richer than most of rural Africa) it is $1,519, with the lowest quartile on $195. If you pay the lowest rate quoted by barber of $3 a month that is still more than a sixth of a poor family’s income to educate just one child at primary level. At higher level at his lower figure of $10 a day, it is nearly two thirds of an annual family income to educate a child. The Pearsonn executive said that the schools had been hugely successful in India and Pakistan making up 70% of provision in some areas – but he was not asked what happened to government schools in those areas and what proportion of the poorest in those areas could not afford to pay and could then lose out completely if government schools close.
Barber is right in saying that in much of Africa government education is not free because of costs of schoolbooks, uniforms etc, despite there being no basic fee for going to school. But it is still below $36 a year for primary education, as he admitted. For-profit education, whether in Africa, Asia or Europe, is a system that has as its aim profit. Companies like Pearson are not in it for altruistic reasons but to make money – even Barber at his most circumlocutious couldn’t hide that. Africa has been a source of profit for too many for too long and to start selling off education to global multinationals desperate to find new sources of profit seems a step too far even in our increasingly rapacious, profit-seeking capitalist-dominated world.
Diane Ravitch, a bestselling writer on US education reform, was quoted by the Guardian as saying that in its dealings with education for-profit in the United States “Pearson is overstepping the bounds of the role of a profit-making business. The corporation is acting as a quasi-government agency in several instances, but it is not a quasi-government agency: it is a business that sells products and services….At what point do conflicts of interest arise? Is it acting in the best interests of students, of the nation, or of its own business? These are questions that must be raised and answered.”
If powerful states, with strong and well-established institutions (albeit run broadly in the interests of those making profits) cannot cope with Pearson and the way it becomes so closely involved in educational decision-making and has big, fat fingers in running education as well as exam systems (such as Edexcel in the UK) and a global educational textbook business, what hope does a weak, poor African government have?
Pearson, through executives like Sir Michael Barber, has been able to gain huge influence over educational policy, notably in Britain, where Barber was Tony Blair’s adviser but then wrote two key education reports for McKinsey, the management consultants, that are widely cited internationally. He then joined Pearson. The potential for conflicts of interest and monpolising school management, textbook supply, exam systems and debate on education are staggering and potentially very dangerous in Europe and North America. The dangers of loss of control for people and governments are even more severe in Africa, where the power of international companies is magnified by the weakness and lack of accountability of governments.
Barber made no secret of the fact, in his interviews, that Pearson would be interested in contracting out entire education systems to the for-profit sector. The dangers for education in Africa are huge and very, very obvious. In Britain, Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is critical of corporate influence in education, was cited by the Guardian as warning, “This stuff frightens the life out of me. My concern is that business dictates the nature of education, and especially the aims of education”. The danger is all the more extreme for Africa, where business interests can really reign supreme.