A couple of weeks ago, the leader of the opposition in Antigua, Jamale Pringle, called for the resignation of the Minister of Education, Michael Browne. Why?
The heat has been turned up over the matter of some 6,000 e-books due to be used in secondary schools. These books were contracted from an Indian firm, FortunaPix, for $9 million. The heart of the debate lies over an additional licensing fee of US$250 for every eBook user per year, totaling $5 million per annum, that was never brought to the attention of the Cabinet.
The Education Minister is being accused of not following correct contractual procedures. Some are even questioning whether he received kick-backs during the procurement, while leaving the country with this annual bill. This has resulted in the Prime Minister warning of consequences for those who signed the contract. It also led to the Education Minister telling the 2019 budget debate “There was no hanky panky. There was no attempt to deceive, there was no attempt to cover-up, there was no effort to hide.”
This is not the first time the government has decided to launch into e-books. The same initiative was tried in 2016, with the following statement on the government’s press release “The move to digitize the textbooks is expected to significantly reduce the expense incurred by the Board of Education. The statutory body spends more than four million dollars annually on textbooks to meet the demands of students.”
The objective of reducing the cost of textbooks is wholly valid. On average globally, households are picking up one fifth of the bill for education, which is often due to the cost of school materials. How much textbooks cost per unit depends per country, ranging from between US$2-4 in sub-Saharan Africa and US$0.33-0.66 in Vietnam, for instance – still far less than the terrifying $250/unit individual bill Antigua now faces!
An interesting facet of this story is that the last contract the government had for e-books in 2016 was with the same company – FortunaPix. So, the finger of blame, you could say, should not just be pointed at those in the government, who missed a trick, but also at the company for attempting the trick in the first place.
The 2017/8 GEM Report on accountability dedicated a whole chapter to the need to hold private actors to account in education, whose involvement in the sector is growing year on year. Spending is expected to reach US$250 billion by 2020 on education technology, for instance. Far stricter regulation by governments of private sector involvement is needed, the Report warned, to ensure that profitability does not trump equity and quality.
Antigua, we showed, is not the only country to fall prey to issues of this kind. Many governments have partnered with private tablet and laptop providers to overcome the ‘digital divide’ among students and schools. However, many such initiatives have benefited vendors, not students, owing to poor procurement and contract enforcement, as in Thailand, where a private provider of laptops could not deliver 800,000 tablets, refused to pay late fees, filed for bankruptcy and terminated the contract. In India, too, a public-private partnership for tablets, named Aakash, ended up primarily benefiting the vendor due to inadequate government contract enforcement.
The hope is that FortunaPix decides to break the contract, now that it has been shown to be so evidently unsustainable. And, the next time a contract is created, the government must fully commit to ensuring transparent processes, checking that there are no negative equity implications, and monitoring compliance.