When private corporate interests into public education do not go: the case of Bridge – by Susan Robertson

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This article was originally published on 10th October 2016 by Unite4Education at www.unite4education.org

In November 2015, I was asked to give the annual lecture in the UK Parliament in honour of the fierce campaigner for comprehensive education – Caroline Benn. Benn was well known for her work on challenging the deeply divided education system in the UK which reproduced its highly divisive class system. This division was fuelled by a system of private education, which in turn produced its political and economic elites. In the lecture I argued Benn had not only drawn attention to this division but like the sub-title of my lecture that evening – When Private Interests into Public Education Simply Do Not Go – pointed to the dissonance between exclusive private education systems and the necessary underpinning for democracies.

Education for Benn was a profoundly public matter and therefore one of fundamental public concern. It is also a matter of State responsibility, not only to ensure that education was free, but that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the State was also responsible for ensuring that an individual liberty, like choosing a school, did not undermine the social-equality right dimension of the right to education.

There are, however, new challenges on the horizon around private interests and education that would have left Benn seething with rage, and reeling with the scale of the task ahead. This challenge is shown very clearly in Curtis Riep’s research report on the role of Bridge International Academies, and in this case their operations in Uganda. Uganda is of course not the only country where Bridge operates (it also has operations in Kenya and Nigeria, amongst others), but its model is the same. This is a pared back, digitised pedagogy delivered by unqualified teachers, in many cases teaching students in sub-standard buildings with poor infrastructures. All this is aimed at extracting a profit from aspirational poor families living under $2.00 a day.

However, the facts of the matter – at least in the view of both Riep and the Ugandan government – are even more disturbing than this. Bridge International appears to have conveniently forgotten that permission to open 1 school does not give them carte blanche permission to open a further 62 schools. Poor quality education, unsafe schools, unqualified teachers and the flouting of Ugandan regulations as to who has a right to open and operate schools was cited by the Ministry of Education as the reason for closing down Bridge’s operations.

Bridge have contested this, and have sought to appeal the decision in Uganda’s High Court. It is hard to imagine what Bridge’s case is against the Ugandan State. As I noted earlier, in international law the State is responsible for ensuring an entitlement to quality and not sub-standard education, on the one hand, and an education that complies with the principles of social and economic justice, on the other.

But there are other facts around this case that warrant airing. Events came to a head in June, 2016 when Riep was picked up by Bridge lawyers and the Ugandan police, and charged with impersonation and trespass. Several days prior, a ‘wanted’ add was placed in the local press.   No evidence could be provided that this was the case, and indeed, like an exemplary researcher, and in this case a PhD researcher, Riep could show that he had followed the rule-book around ethics, and good research practice. The police did not press charges as it was clear that there was no evidence to support Bridge’s accusations. But it did leave me thinking that our research methods courses in universities in no way help young researchers to prepare for what Riep was confronted with; a powerful corporation flexing is muscles to protect exposure of its business model, and its rentier attitude to the poor. As education systems around the world move further and further in the direction of commercialisation, this problem is likely to increase, rather than decrease.   And this is a problem for education as societal good and a human right, as it is a public interest matter even if privately provided,

So why is this case before the Uganda High Court important? First, because this is a moment for reckoning between the Ugandan State and a corporation, the latter with lots of venture capital backing it. The Ugandan government will be taking on Bridge as a profit making company that has targeted delivering education at scale (the target is 10 million learners if you read their prospectus) in so-called ‘emerging markets’ (oops did I not say poor, aspirational families). And they are not the only one. Other commercial interests are out there looking to plunder education as if it were the new gold. Once profit as a logic is involved, then we know from any other industry that differentiation, different pricing structures, value chains and margins for profit are the name of the game.

Bridge happen to be offering the classic ‘no frills’ product – where economies of scale and scope, one-size-fits-all, machine managed education tries to limit the cost of labour, ignore context, and erase the significance and importance of situated cultural knowledge. In short, it offers a model of learning that is a long, long, way from the State’s obligation under international law.

It does make me wonder, too, whether Bridge,  in contesting the Ministry’s decision, are using bully tactics against a low-income country to accept a level of education provision that  would be unacceptable in a high income country.  It is to be hoped that the facts will speak for themselves and Bridge is forced to either comply with the State’s regulations or stop trading.

But it is also important for a second, wider, reason. Education is being negotiated as part of global and regional trade agreements. In these deals, it has become clear that the corporations see governments and politics as getting in the way, and that they want the economy (in this case education as a commercial activity) placed beyond politics (in this case a State charged with the responsibility for ensuring quality socially-just education as an entitlement).

Governments must take a stand using their institutions and other regulatory capacity to secure the space of politics, and to ensure that corporate power does not ride rough-shod over rights and the bases for building democracies. Holding States and their governments to account must be those individuals and organisations who are fundamental components of democracies, and whose role in this instance is to show that they care about the fundamental purposes of education – not as shoddy commercial ventures – but as a place for the possibilities for each individual to become someone. This is a profoundly important agenda, and one that needs our urgent attention.

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact: slr69@cam.ac.uk