Strategic ignorance, political elites and the false economy of education privatisation – by Susan L. Robertson

Originally published on 13 September 2017 by United for Quality Education

I often puzzle over how it is that though we know so much about the spectacular failures of privatisation initiatives in the social and education sectors, international agencies and governments, from the UK to the USA and Liberia, are hell-bent on pursuing more, and not less, of this decidedly dodgy product. And this is despite the accumulation of facts: that we, as a public, are worse rather than better off.

Look around, and public services from education, water, transport, health, prisons and other essential services, are being broken up at a rate of knots and outsourced to private business. This is accompanied by the shady promise: that private means ‘more efficiency’ and ‘more equity’.

Proponents of turning public services into market exchanges point out that markets are more efficient because competition generates ‘innovation’. Yet there is evidence that not only have new private sector monopolies been created ─hence, buying up competition generating innovation┬ but these giant conglomerates trade in everything from prisons to education and the repatriation of asylum seekers. There is little evidence of innovation here unless under-investment and asset stripping counts.

On the equity front, they also argue that ‘the market’ does not care about our social class, gender, or indeed the colour of our skin. As a result, the indifference of the market —as opposed to a bureau colonised by middle class interests—regarding these social facts makes it a far superior organiser of social goods and services.

Yet again, the evidence is compelling. That where market ideology has dominated the reorganisation of societies and their social and education sectors, as in the case of countries such as the UK, the United States of America, Australia, and indeed Sweden, the direction of travel is more rather than less social inequality.

A huge number of best sellers in 2014 – from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to World Bank economist Branco Milanovic’s  The Haves and the Have Nots– all pointed this out. And yet, still, the pursuit of the marketising and outsourcing of everything has gone from strength to strength rather than the reverse.

Faced with such facts, is this a case of illusion, delusion or what? Surely we are not that stupid to be constantly complicit in being duped?  Or, to be quite concrete; in the face of the evidence, why is it that the Liberian government, as an example from a much longer list of candidates, continues to rush headlong into outsourcing its education sector when the headlines all shout that this is a stupid decision.

Surely governments and corporations have a lot to lose in terms of legitimacy by such a consistent set of evidences on performance. Legitimacy, of course, was something the sociologist, Max Weber, was particularly interested in regarding the state and the conditions for political rule over a population. Governments need to be elected, and a disenchanted electorate could make its vote count in the ballot box. Right?  This is something market enthusiasts also point out.

For corporations, loss of legitimacy as a fair trader and employer can hurt the bottom line, a fact that James Tooley – arch proponent of education markets serviced by large corporations – has also continued to insist on.

But if these two things are true, then why is it that governments have not been voted down, or corporations booted out from holding contracts in service sectors, as their failures mount in spectacular fashion?  Instead the solution is more and more markets, rather than less.

Strategic ignorance
Linsey McGoey, a sociologist at the University of Essex, offers some interesting insights into this puzzle. She coined the concept of ‘strategic ignorance’ to describe the wilful and thus witting ignoring of evidence.  She argues that despite evidence of failure, a climate of social silence emerges on unsettling facts (such as huge losses of money; poor quality services; lower wages; corruption) which then enable such activities to endure. Furthermore, such silences are then harnessed as a means of absolving the offenders from their poor practices and losses, with the promise that they will do better next time.

One example of strategic ignorance is that the rise in social inequalities could have been predicted in terms of how neoliberal theory would work in practice – as competition always has, by definition, winners and losers. Losers are more likely to be, as we have seen from the Brexit and Trump votes, those who for social and economic reasons already start with less in the competition stakes.

Similarly, the Liberian government, in deciding to outsource its education sector to venture capitalist backed Bridge International Academies, currently fighting cases in the Ugandan courts around illegal operations, could be seen as adopting a stance of strategic ignorance.

But there are costs to pay, and the costs are likely to be borne by those who are already less well-off socially. In other words, markets are not some kind of disinterested means of coordinating buying and selling. They place sellers – like large corporations-, into unequal relationship with buyers ,such as poor populations who can be ridden rough shod over, particularly when governments assume a stance of strategic ignorance.

Strategic ignorance helps us to understand the wilfully blinkered, or head in the sand stance, of governments and international agencies around education privatisation. But it seems to me that this strategy is given potency by the way in which private sector investors and factions of the political elite have joined forces. Economist  Julie Froud from the University of Manchester, UK, and colleagues – in a recent article on elites and power after the 2008 financial crisis, point to the ways in which the political elites have deliberately overlooked, or looked elsewhere, regarding the failures of large conglomerates like Atos, Serco and Capita in delivering public services. This close link between private sector investors and political elites, in many cases sharing similar kinds of education biographies and social circles, tells us that Hayek was completely wrong when it comes to a disinterested market and a pervasively interested state.

Rising inequality, a political project
Both are profoundly interested in advancing and protecting their class project, which is to build up an unequal share of economic and other resources.  It is this relationship that Piketty argued was part of the root cause of the rapid increase in social inequalities, especially after the financial crisis of 2008.

If education is now regarded as a sector to be invested in so as to accumulate power and resources, then corporations will–you can be sure about this–pressure the state to cave into demands for limits on the state’s financial (taxes) and regulatory (e.g. competition law/fair wages) duties toward its citizens.A complicit political class, adopting a stance of strategic ignorance toward corporate investors in education, is a dangerous combination which needs to be named and exposed.

We have a great deal to lose when we lose control over one of those social institutions – for all of its problems in making fairer worlds – to investors whose motives are not learning, but profits. Strategic ignorance by the political elites also undermines the conditions for democracy, and offers us an impoverished set of options for making better futures. Let’s take back education from the investors, and put the political elites on notice, that enough is enough.

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:

As Liberia Privatizes its Schools, An Unforeseen Result: Hungry Students

The Bridge International Academies partnership School in the town of Cinta, Margibi County

In a longer school day, students complain of hunger and drop out

“As you can see, the green plum, everything is finished,” says Sinneh Binda, pointing to a tall mango tree. Towering over the courtyard of the Cinta Public School, about an hour’s drive from Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia, the tree is barren, devoid of the fruit that should be hanging from its branches. “When we get hungry, we can just be eating everything in the tree,” she explains.

Binda is a student at the Cinta Public School, which was taken over by US-based Bridge International Academies this year as a part of a controversial public-private partnership with the Liberian government. Under the pilot phase of the partnership, a mix of for-profit and charity education providers have assumed control of 93 Liberian public schools, including 25 managed by Bridge.

Often described as an “experiment,” a key selling point for the privatization program was the extension of the school day from 12:30pm to 3:30pm. But parents in Cinta say they were misled by Bridge and the Liberian government about an accompanying program to feed students during the longer school day, and that as a result many have dropped out due to the effects of hunger in the classroom.

“A child can not stay in school from seven up to almost four without feeding,” says Moses Flomo, chairperson of the Parent-Teacher Association in Cinta. Flomo claims that when representatives from Bridge presented their plan to take over the local public school, they assured parents they would work with the government and other charity organizations to implement a school lunch program.

But with the school year nearly finished, the program has yet to materialize, and Flomo says both Bridge and the government have been unresponsive to his appeals for them to address the issue.

“I have made requests several times for them to fulfill the promises they made,” he says. “Every time they say we should wait, even now.”

Flomo explains that under the public school system, children typically left school around noon to join their parents on the family farm, where they would share a light lunch of plantains or cassava. Most families in Cinta cook one large meal at night, and don’t have access to containers to pack a lunch for their children to bring to school nor the financial means to afford it. While an extended school day provides more class time for students, Flomo says the absence of the promised feeding program has led to a high rate of dropouts.

Samuel Nyah with his son Benedict, 16, a student at the Bridge-run Cinta Public School

“I’m not satisfied with Bridge partnership,” says Samuel Nyah, who has three children enrolled in the school. “They told us when they launched their program that they would have a feeding program, but they never fulfilled their promise.”

Nelson Gwe, chairperson of Cinta’s school board, concurs, saying the lack of food during the longer day has contributed to the reduction of class sizes in some cases to less than half of the 45 students who initially enrolled.  “Some days you will find only 20, or 15, or 18,” he says.

Binda says that some of her friends left school due to the discomfort of not eating during an eight-hour day. “When we’re on the campus, there’s nothing for us to eat and no safe drinking water,” she says. “And when we become hungry, we can’t pay attention.”

According to Binda, after dropping out of the school, a friend of hers became pregnant. “They said, we can’t stand the punishment, it’s too hard,” she says, explaining why her friends left school. “We can’t be here with hunger. At least when we’re in the town we can hustle and eat.”

Teen pregnancy in rural Liberia is a deeply rooted, complex problem, and the circumstances around a young girl becoming pregnant can’t be ascribed to any one factor. But experts say that girls who do not attend school are far more likely to become pregnant than those who do.

“Girls out of school are at higher risk of pregnancy given the prevalence of poverty and their vulnerability to sexual exploitation,” explains Lakshmi Subramani, acting country director of Action Aid Liberia.

Sinneh Binda, 13, a student at the Bridge-run Cinta Public School

For students in Cinta who drop out of the Bridge-run school, there are limited options. The school is the only one in the town that doesn’t charge a fee, and the nearest public school is ten kilometers down a busy highway. Few parents in Cinta can afford the cost of transportation to send children to that school, and they say that if children leave the Bridge school they tend to join their parents in working on the family farm.

Representatives from the National Teachers Association of Liberia, an umbrella organization that collects dues from members and advocates on behalf of Liberian teachers, say that the problem of hungry students isn’t limited to Cinta, and that similar issues are popping up in most of the newly privatized schools across the country.

Cuts to Kindergarten and First Grade Cause Frustration Among Parents

Both Flomo and Gwe say that despite some reservations, most parents in the town were initially excited about Bridge, mainly due to the company’s use of computers in its lesson plans. But they say patience is now wearing thin. In addition to the lack of a feeding program, they say Bridge cut kindergarten and first grade from the school, causing frustration among parents who now have to supervise their young children during the day, and who are concerned they won’t be prepared to enter second grade.

To address the issue, parents in Cinta have pooled scarce resources and labor to begin construction of a makeshift kindergarten out of bamboo and sticks, although Flomo says the town is struggling to find funds to pay for a zinc roof.

David Paye, a parent in Cinta, posing next to the makeshift annex the town is building to host kindergarten classes that were cut by Bridge.

“We really wanted to reject [Bridge] at the time,” says Gwe, describing the realization among parents that kindergarten was being eliminated from the school. “But by that time the contract was already signed with the government, so we couldn’t say any other thing.”

The Liberian government has signaled its intention to scale the partnership program upwards to as many as 100 additional schools next year, most of which are likely to feature the same extended school day. However, an update on the pilot circulated by the Liberian Ministry of Education in February makes no mention of issues related to school feeding. The report acknowledges the costs of running the schools have been high for providers, saying that “hard decisions will need to be made” regarding the need to keep the schools affordable. There is little to suggest that plans are being designed to feed students during the longer day, nor that the problem will be addressed in a potential expansion.

Multiple requests for comment sent to the Ministry of Education on the issue of feeding programs in partnership schools went unanswered.

“We are not feeling fine,” says David Paye, a parent of three students at the school in Cinta. “But we can’t do anything to them, because they got their agreement with the government. But the way they are functioning is not easy for we the parents.”

(*) Disclaimer: This reporting mission was supported by Education International.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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


Photo: Mar Candela –

Originally published by Unite4Education on 7th November 2016,

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:

Vote Brexit, or Capexit! – by Susan Robertson

img_0477June 23rd, 2016 is etched on the nation’s memory, not only because it was a day when the pollsters, punters and polis would have their respective says and day of reckoning, but somehow life in the days that followed quite literally felt as if   the earth had been jolted from its axes and shifted more than a few degrees off on a different course.  Night would no longer follow day in quite the same way.

Around the bars, coffee houses and dining tables, most of the chattering classes –a term used Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew to refer to the middle classes – sipped their beers, expressos and wines, confident their Referendum vote that day – to ‘stay in’ or ‘leave’ Europe – would confirm the Brits would stay.  To be sure the British relationship with its continental cousins has never been an easy one. But at the same time, cheap travel, holiday homes and retirements in the Mediterranean, the UK’s dependence on an international labour force across multiple industries, were all reasons to cling to the hope that a more open-minded, and if not cosmopolitan then a pragmatic, attitude would win the day.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.  In the early hours of the 24th  June, the direction of travel in the results was visible.  By 4.00 am, the decision was clear. The UK had voted ‘LEAVE’.  After months of turbo-charged boosterism by both Eurosceptics and Europhiles about the economic and political benefits to be had from leaving or staying, the  distinct feeling was that if not sanity, then the tendency toward the status quo would hold  the day.  The Machiavellian manoueverings of those with political careers to be made and prejudices to be aired would be outed by a now weary sensible voting citizenry, eager to get on with a reluctant summer.

When a decision that big has the capacity to change the course of a nation, not only has the earth’s axis moved but so, also, has the very fabric of the lives and fortunes and futures of whole groups. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned immediately. So, too, did his right hand man, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two of the contenders to the now vacant top job in this now post-referendum show-down were quick to draw their swords on each other, and twist the blade.  Nursing an ambition to be Prime Minister from her teenage years, Theresa May stepped into the breach, donning the crown pronouncing in her new role, Brexit Means Brexit.

But what does ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, really mean? It is easy to draw the conclusion this was an informed vote to leave Europe, and at one level it was. But the voter profiles tell us that in many ways this was a vote made by those who have been left behind in the globalisation race. Falling wages, fewer opportunities for decent, properly-paid work, the collapse in social mobility – when contrasted with the concentration of wealth in a tiny economic elite whose fortunes have been enabled by the political elite – and the conclusion stares you in the face. This was a working class protest (albeit also racist) vote cast by those who tried to turn the hands of time back in search of being great again.  As writers like Thomas Piketty have shown, the working and middle classes paid dearly for the excesses of the banking sector and its eruption in a spectacular global financial meltdown in 2008. The sadness here is that they have let themselves be hoodwinked into blaming migrants rather than the greedy upper classes for their diminished fortunes.

But ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ – if it does, eventually, lead to exit – will have major consequences for education, and most particularly for higher education. The basic economic facts of the matter are all too stark.  13% of undergraduate students, 38% of post graduates, and 28% of academic staff, come from outside the UK. And whilst clearly not all of these students and academics are from Europe, many are. But decision to leave, with its racist undertones promoted by right wing parties like UKIP, narrow minded tabloids, and right-wing Euro-sceptics has meant that being ‘from somewhere else’ in post referendum Britain has left many feeling unwelcome.

The university sector has not just depended on this continental labour markets, but European students have buoyed the universities dwindling coffers with much needed finances, whilst its towns and cities have benefited from the costs that are incurred in simply getting on with normal life; rents, services, food.

The UK university sector has also been a major beneficiary of research funds – close to 0.8 billion pounds per year go into the sector. With the UK set full sail ahead with is compass set in the direction of becoming a competitive knowledge-based economy, much of its necessary ballast – funds, brains, confidence in the future – is in jeopardy.

There is little doubt that in the days and weeks that will now follow, what Brexit actually turns out to mean will be the stuff of very difficult politics. Behind all this political certainty is complexity, and the potential for considerable chaos and heightened xenophobia. Divorces this difficult generally result in losses for all, aside from the lawyers.

But it does also have important implications for those of us who think a lot about what role education could play in reshaping our social worlds so we share the benefits of our labours more equally. Is it possible for educators to spark a global debate about the wider and deeper causes of growing social inequality – so that those casting their votes  – whether for staying or leaving  – have a chance to think about narrow minded nationalisms, political opportunism, and the consequences of neoliberal capitalism…the list goes on? What political decisions do we want made that in turn create the conditions for producing more open-minded, tolerant individuals, who value rather than vilify those whose fortunes and futures are, at the end of the day, not much different to their own.

If there is any vilifying, perhaps the target could be the unchecked nature of unfettered capitalism and those it has benefitted. Now there’s a fight worth having, and a vote worth casting. Let’s vote for CAPEXIT.

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:

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

Screen Shot 2016-10-13 at 20.44.29.png

This article was originally published on 10th October 2016 by Unite4Education at

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:

Out of place? On Pokémon, foxes, and critical cultural political economy – by Jana Bacevic

Originally posted on 2 September 2016 at

Isle of Wight, August 2016

Last week, I attended the Second international conference in Cultural political economy organized by the Centre for Globalization, Education and Social Futures at the University of Bristol. It was through working with Susan Robertson and other folk at the Graduate School of Education, where I had spent parts of 2014 and 2015 as a research fellow, that I first got introduced to cultural political economy.

The inaugural conference last year took place in Lancaster, so it was a great opportunity to both meet other people working within this paradigm and do a bit of hiking in the Lake District. This year, I was particularly glad to be in Bristol – the city that, to a great degree, comes closest to ‘home’, and where – having spent the majority of those two years not really living anywhere – I felt I kind of belonged. The conference’s theme – “Putting culture in its place” – held, for me, in this sense, a double meaning: it was both about critically assessing the concept of culture in cultural political economy, and about being in a particular place from which to engage in doing just that.

Cultural political economy (CPE) unifies (or hybridises) approaches from cultural studies and those from (Marxist) political economy, in order to address the challenges of growing complexity (and possible incommensurability, or what Jessop refers to as in/compossibility) of elements of global capitalism. Of course, as Andrew Sayer pointed out, the ‘cultural’ streak in political economy can be traced all the way to Marx, if not downright to Aristotle. Developing it as a distinct approach, then, needs to be understood both genealogically – as a way to reconcile two strong traditions in British sociology – and politically, inasmuch as it aspires to make up for what some authors have described as cultural studies’ earlier disregard of the economic, without, at the same time, reverting to the old dichotomies of base/superstructure. Continue reading

VIDEO: Professor Raewyn Connell – A conversation about knowledge.

‘A conversation about knowledge’ is a video recording of a keynote address by Professor Raewyn Connell (University of Sydney, Australia), which was commissioned by the organisers of the 2nd International Conference on Cultural Political Economy: Putting Culture in its Place in Political Economy.

The conference was an important part of the ongoing development of a theoretical and empirical engagement with Cultural Political Economy, and was hosted on 25-26 August 2016 by the Centre for Globalisation Education & Social Future at the University of Bristol.

To find out more about the conference, please visit the conference website:


Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 14.55.20

Higher education and the region – Mercosur – by Aliandra Barlete

Foto_Norte es el Sur

Mural – Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires

I compose this post from a cold morning in downtown Buenos Aires, where I have been conducting a pilot study for my PhD project about the cultural political economy of higher education in the Mercosur region.

Broadly speaking, Mercosur ( is a South American regional organisation created in 1991, during the global boom of regional trade blocs in the early 1990s. Today, Mercosur has six member countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela – and a volatile political history (such as the current heated debate over Venezuela’s democratic status to take over the region’s Pro-Tempore Presidency from July to December 2016).

Thanks to a Santander Travel Grant, I was able to run a preliminary study to explore the impact of Mercosur in four of its member countries, in order of visit: Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina (where I currently am), and Paraguay. Since June 2016 I have been diving into the world of Mercosur Educativo ( – the sector which proposes and coordinates higher education projects among the member countries. However, as my research slowly uncovers, education organisms across South American countries are getting involved in different capacities with the Mercosur Educativo.

Logo Mercosur 25Doing field work has been an interesting experience from its conception. I have come to learn the impact of exploring the field in person, and getting insights that do not appear in the literature. So far, I have been meeting people willing to share their honest insights about the regional process. Some have had 18 years of experience, some no more than two. Some are sceptical about the regional project, some are ‘believers’. Either position has resulted in thought-provoking accounts of their experience and critical analysis.

Without a doubt there are a lot of (new) questions and ideas arising during these days, as with any researcher going into field work. Prior to travelling, a good friend of mine advised that “Field work is a work in progress…always evolving”. I can see now what it means. As the study advances, I feel more and more confident in explaining my project, choosing the participants, and improving the interview questions.

I am looking forward to return to Bristol to critically analyse the data and make sense of this adventure theoretically. And, of course, return to my bed!

Edificio Mercosur Montevideo

Mercosur Headquarters, Montevideo

Editor’s note: Aliandra Barlete is a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures, University of Bristol. Her research explores the changing relationship between higher education and Mercosur. Contact:

‘Gratuidad – the fight continues’, by Hazel Price with the collaboration of Javier Campos-Martinez


The Chilean student movement of 2011 is widely perceived as a successful social political and cultural refusal of privatisation in Higher Education, reaffirming education as a public good and that citizens have a right to free and quality education. This momentous achievement was celebrated by many supporters around the world, especially given the heavily market-driven context and highly stratified educational system in Chile. Michele Bachelet was re-elected as president in 2014 with a presidential programme that mirrored the demands of the student movement.  The stage was set for the introduction of Free Education or “Gratuidad” – in other words, free higher education education accessible to all regardless of socio-economic background.

However, in the first half of 2016, the protests have returned with fresh anger. Many young people are unimpressed with the level of progress achieved to date. They feel betrayed and instrumentalised by the very politicians who they thought were on their side. Over the weeks to come many higher education students are deciding whether they will join the strike called by the student federation, and high-school students are taking over their school buildings and preparing to escalate a longstanding conflict.

A number of authorised and unauthorised marches have taken place with some  ending in violent clashes between students and the police,  rocks being thrown, and tear gas and water canons launched. Last week at lunchtime  I was walking through Plaza Italia – a central meeting point for social movements – feeling the harsh sting of tear gas hanging in the air following an unauthorised protest. Seeing riot police everywhere gave new meaning to the idea of fighting for education.

protest with sticks (1 of 1)

Photo credit: Travis Toll

riot police (1 of 1).jpg

Photo credit: Travis Toll

The Gratuidad policy was introduced for the 2016 intake of students. But rather than free participation for all, it is in fact only students from the poorest 50% of households who are eligible. In this first year, around 125-130 thousand students have benefited from the reform which estimates suggest is a coverage of around 14% of total enrolment. These students are spread amongst the 25 traditional ‘CRUCH’ universities as well as 5 new private universities.

The low level of coverage it not the only issue here. Perhaps more importantly the policy as it stands fails to deliver on the fundamental model of what was promised. This is not ‘free education’ for everyone (or even all of those who struggle to pay), but rather an unstable system of higher education scholarships without a sustainable funding plan. According to the government the scaling back of the reforms has been necessary due to an economic downturn. But that explanation does not satisfy everyone, especially given that there are powerful private and religious groups in Chile with both financial and ideological interests in opposing or dampening the reform.

Bachelet has 1 year left to serve this term and her public address last weekend did not suggest any dramatic changes over the remainder of this time. The student movement also represents a broader threat to the existing balance of political power, pushing to change the highly unequal legacy left by previous generations. Unsurprisingly, it is met with resistance.

Who knows what the future will hold and whether the student groups will feel that they have really been listened to this time but access is only one (albeit very important) part of the problem. If this does not go alongside addressing social and educational inequalities that manifest much earlier in a young person’s life, as well as a reassessment of what goes on in universities and how they connect with and relate to wider society, then this fight may never have the impact that it hopes to achieve.

Figures from OPECH (2016) Minuta sobre gratuidad en Educación Superior

Editor’s Note: Hazel Price is an ESRC funded doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol and a member of the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures. Her research investigates the multi-scalar making of quality assurance policies in Higher Education in Latin America and interactions with processes of regional integration. She is currently completing overseas doctoral fieldwork in Chile and Bolivia.

Javier Campos-Martinez is a doctoral student in the Social Justice Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his research interests includes the examination of teachers identities from a social justice perspective as well as the effects of neoliberalism on schools and teachers’ work conditions. He is also a current member of the work-group “Education Policy, education inequality, and the Right to Education in Latin America and the Caribbean” of the Latin-American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).

Who Needs ‘Really Good Friends’ When This is What They Are Up To? Trading Away Education as a Human and Political Right! – by Susan Robertson

Just as the 18th Round of Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) negotiations gets under way on the 1st June, 2016 in Geneva, Wikileaks has again been the source of a major leak on the status of these ‘secret’ negotiations.

It seems that this self-named set of ‘Really Good Friends of Services’, as they have described themselves, composed of 23 parties making up 50 countries led by the USA and the European Commission (which is the single negotiator for the 28 countries making up the European Union) has agreed to a sweeping deregulatory and political agenda that has gone further than many of us could have imagined.

In secret, Wikileaks reveals that the TISA negotiators have agreed to restrictions on state-owned enterprises arguing they need to operate like private sector businesses.   When coupled with an agreement to deregulate corporations, and mechanisms that ratchet up liberalisation whilst locking in the interests of the corporations into the future (any challenge will require that bidders will have to pay future lost earnings to these corporations), we can see that the conditions are in place for the expansion of a global capitalist market that gobbles up all before it. This includes human and political rights we thought we had to determine the shape of our public services, like education.

What  this latest TISA Wikileaks also reveals is that we should be highly circumspect of any assurance given by the negotiators that  service sectors, like education,  will be protected.

Together the TISA countries represent 70% of global trade in services, and they want to not only protect, but extend, their hold on trade in services like education as a competitive advantage, this time with ‘lock in’ and dispute settlement mechanisms that make it impossible to break their hold.  Thank you, Really Good Friends, but no thanks!

Following the challenge to, and stalling of, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) under the mandate of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by around 2005, many activist groups had felt that they had won the day.  Looking back, it is clear that this was never the case. Rather, this was only a temporary win in a longer game being played out aimed at bringing services sectors – like education and health – inside the ambit, and thus subject to the disciplines of, global trade rules.   Not to be deterred, a new cat and mouse game swung into action. A proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements were advanced and locked in – largely bilateral in character –by the USA and the EC.IMG_0741

Source: Image by Bianca Soucek

By 2011, a combination of governments’ post-2008 crisis narratives and pressure from corporations and their peak interest groups,  set in train a new round of secret negotiations on multiple fronts. These include the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) between 12 Pacific countries dominated by the United States, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) involving the EU and the USA.

All have education in the frame as a services sector and not as a human right. If successful at securing their mission, all will remove education from the purview of people, electoral politics, and wider debates, as to the purpose of education, of how it is regulated, who gets what, and what regulatory and other devices are put into place that ensures it creates the conditions for a more equal, respectful, socially-cohesive and socially-just society.

If the Really Good Friends have their way with TISA, we will be delivered a set of regulations that will frame and shape education sectors into the future which we have not seen, not debated, not voted for, and not been consulted on, but which we cannot challenge and change. More than this, when interested parties like unions and their workers have asked about how they might be engaged as key stake-holders, the doors have been kept firmly closed.

This state of affairs is as far from processes touted as ‘democratic’ as you can imagine. Worse than this, it is uncomfortably close to authoritarian and fascist politics, and needs to be challenged, named and resisted.figure 3

 Source: Image by Susan Robertson

If education is to play a role in our societies as one of those institutions that the public has a right to hold to account because of its distributional and relational effects, then we need to resist the overtures of the Really Good Friends and name their tactics for what they are: anti-democratic, corrupt and self-serving.  We insist that public services, like education, are precisely that. Public, and ours, and need to be protected as a publicly-owned  state enterprise accountable to the people!

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. 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: