Acts of im(p)unity: a tale about education, commercialisation and current trade deals – by Susan Robertson

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Photo: Mar Candela – unite4education.org

Originally published by Unite4Education on 7th November 2016, https://www.unite4education.org/global-response/acts-of-impunity-a-tale-about-education-commercialisation-and-current-trade-deals/

Imagine you were located in a community, and used the human, material, and natural resources of that community to run your business. Somehow you had managed to convince the local political elites that you be accorded special status; one which meant you and your business activities were immune to the ongoing democratic decision-making processes and outcomes in the community. Your immunity from the community’s regulations was guaranteed with impunity, now and into the future. Only one condition, and one condition alone, would alter this. You would accept a change in the community’s rules if you were compensated for the earnings you might have made into the future from your business.

Heads you win. Tails you win. You had convinced the local political elite to play by a set of rules from which you could never lose. Immunity from community rules, and you can manage the business how you like, with few cares for about the outcomes for the community. Giving in to decisions made by the community, with such extraordinary compensation, and you also win. It is like winning the lottery every day. The rules always worked in your favour.

Most of us would shake our head and say; surely this is simply the stuff of a bad fairy tale. For one thing, the local political elite can’t be that stupid; a fractious community facing worsening work conditions and experiencing a yawning democratic deficit would demand this political elite be shown the door – on account of being either stupid, complicit, or corrupt, or all three. What’s in it for the local political elites, I hear you say? Surely this is not just a story about being duped, and the politicians can see some value of this kind of arrangement for them?

There are two kinds of possible responses we might countenance here. Either an unswerving commitment to free-market ideology trumps good sense. Or, could it be that corporate power and money has (as we know when we look at the rapid commercialisation of education in countries like the USA and UK) been ploughed back into influential think tanks who in turn advise government, used to boost the lobbying machine, shape election campaigns, and used the media to sell a monologue; that unfettered capitalism is freedom?

But what if this fairy tale were not a fairy tale? What if it was actually true? What if the political elites (aka two or more countries who were also trade partners) had agreed with each other that the economic elites (large transnational corporations) will be allowed to buy, sell, capture rents and tender for government procurement contracts in the education services sector under a set of conditions which, over time, were no conditions at all because the political elites of the two countries had agreed to progressively relax and liberalise their trade rules?

A noisy public, demanding their education services sectors back, are now confronted with the fact that if they want to rid their education systems of this kind of corrupt commercialism, they would have to pay the education corporation lost earnings well into the future, easily adding to hundreds of millions of dollars. Heads the corporation win. Tales the corporation wins. For the corporation, the stakes are high. Being a major player in turning education into a commercial business – there are big dollars to be made with no questions asked if nosy and messy politics are kept out of the marketplace.

This is a true story about the ways in which powerful countries and their political elites are agreeing to place economic activity beyond politics. In other words, the rights of the big corporations, to trade in services like education with fewer and fewer regulations in place, are to be placed beyond democratic politics, and thus the deliberations of their communities.

This story is also about real trade deals that include education, such as the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement. It also includes the ongoing Trade in Services Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. All of these deals have been negotiated in secret, though not without protests from concerned citizens.  All these trade deals have a common aim and thread; to limit state regulation over the terms and conditions of international trade, including employment standards and other social protection measures. Immunity to state’s rights to regulate means bigger bottom-line profits. Immunity to unhappy communities with other hopes for education – such as a societal good – means ignoring democratic processes. Immunity with impunity, with education fated to be a commercial good in perpetuity, throws our collective futures to the indifference of the corporate winds.

We can, and must, demand a different story we can tell about education. We can point out how the moral compass, social insight and political grit were garnered from our own education experiences can be used challenge the opportunism, short-termism of the political elites, and the profit -motives of the corporations. We can tell a future generation how we said no to the immunity and impunity of commercialisation, corporations and corrupted governments. As educators, we owe this to the future generations.


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