Corporations in education: Too big to hold accountable?

Large corporations are increasingly involved in the education sector, through investments in technology, private schools and higher education institutions. Pearson is the world’s largest education company, operating in over 70 countries. Its near global monopoly raises questions about who has the authority and capacity to hold it accountable. As the biggest and most powerful meet in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, it seems an opportune time to question the ability of governments to hold large corporations active in education to account.

Until recently, Pearson was known for textbook publishing. In the early 2000s, recognizing the growth industry in digital education, Pearson devised a transition strategy, acquiring several technology-related businesses. In 2015, Pearson reported sales of £4.5 billion and adjusted operating profit of £723 million.

Pearson’s increased market share coincided with a growing wave of assessment-linked accountability reforms in the education sector. Its growing reach into multiple aspects of education, such as testing and online materials, increased concern over unethical practices and conflicts of interest. Small-scale court actions and several antitrust lawsuits were filed out of concern Pearson would achieve monopoly status as it continued to acquire associated businesses. In 2012, 33 US states sued Pearson, accusing it of colluding with Apple and four other publishing companies to fix e-book prices. In 2013 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, after Apple and Pearson won a US$1.3 billion bid to incorporate technology into education, the programme faced multiple problems. Less than 5% of students had access to content, while materials were unsuitable for students with low proficiency in English. Within a year, all schools had stopped using tablets with the Pearson curriculum.

Despite such accountability checks, Pearson’s clout continues. In a move to rebrand and arguably to respond to public opposition, a major accountability initiative came from within Pearson. It also aims to mainstream corporate social responsibility in its business practices and has launched an efficacy framework to measure the education impact of its investment activities, with a focus on answerability to consumers.

How these measures translate to improved transparency and accountability remains to be seen; formal reporting begins in 2018. Critics argue that the efficacy framework focuses too narrowly on some learning outcomes. More importantly, they warn that the expansion of such large businesses may threaten national education policy practices and exclude educators, since private companies like Pearson are truly only answerable to their shareholders.

Read the 2017/8 GEM Report for more conversation about how to hold the private sector to account in education.


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