Global Education Industry

Private business seeps everywhere into the state’s mission to educate children.  Learning, in all ways, is turning, turning on its head.

I had the wonderful experience earlier this year of discovering just how pervasive New Zealanders, Australians, white South Africans, residents of the UK and USA are in the education markets of the world. I worked with people who had already contributed to the cross-border surge of educational services in China and all other parts of Asia, the Middle East, the far-flung outposts of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Mali and Malawi.  The ubiquitous language of learning is English. The focus of state spending is on leadership and governance.  There are dollars to be made from delivering on-line courses, establishing off-shore campuses, selling qualifications and writing the tests, hosting international students, providing consultancy and professional development services, selling and managing digital software and hardware, and edu-marketing of various kinds. The attraction for people is solid earnings, interesting experiences and an expatriate lifestyle—but zero job security beyond your contract period.

I ended up in Malaysia. The business I worked for was led by a corporate marketer, and its shareholder was a state-owned enterprise.  It was set up as the ginger-group for educational transformation, in a nation where top-down is the cultural norm. It had a pioneering spirit, a money-making agenda, and all of the organisational wobbles that rapidly-growing businesses experience.

I became a cog in the Global Education Industry, the GEI. I wrote professional development materials for school principals and senior managers in schools, to be delivered in seminars and workshops around the nation.  I worked on Floor 52 of a Kuala Lumpur high-rise, the epitome of corporate positioning.  The view included potential customers: a local school and university.  Our materials were based on the high-quality evidence of western researchers in universities in western nations about what good educational leadership looks like.  I became adept at PowerPoint and gathering up professional readings.  I pitched materials to the planned professional growth trajectory from 19th century learning practice to 21st century classrooms.  I planned evaluative materials and in-school follow-up tasks.  And it all had to be faithfully “translated” into the everyday language of Malaysian school leaders.

The biggest managerial emphasis in my contract was on the Intellectual Property that I generated for the business.  My work was “product” for a project that was essentially a contractual arrangement between the company and the Ministry of Education.   Adherence to company policy meant that I could not use terms like “mind-maps” or “brain-storm” or “Post-It notes”.  There was a “company style”. The people who delivered the materials were “facilitators”, and the Quality Management System behind the product required detailed Manuals and copyrighted notes.  The minutiae of private corporate management seeped into the public services we were being contracted to deliver.

Our shareholder’s investment in the learning business fits into a global picture of international financing.  I naively thought that international finance was about defence and Big Oil and Microsoft.  I understand now about what “the gap” in the public sector actually means.  The rising middle classes of Asia, seizing the initiative and recognising the power of education, are no longer satisfied by the plodding educational offerings of technologically clueless public schools.  The accountabilities are poor, their children are missing out.   Globally accredited private schools are an attractive alternative to the rigid schooling options provided by states.  The rise and rise of the International Schools leaves the public schools and their teachers in the dust (with notable exceptions, such as in Singapore).  Parents want qualifications that send their children to the universities of the world, and for them to return as wealth generators.

The world has come to New Zealand’s educational doorstep. We did devolution first. It is now a natural part of the educational landscape, as kiwi as mainland cheese.  All over the world, policy-makers look for evidence about Best Practice.  The mantra is useful, and it helps companies like the one that I worked for to package up their materials so they are attractive to government purchasers—and turn public intellectual property generated by our world-class researchers into private profit.  Referencing is cheap.  That’s handy.

Since New Zealand’s education system became a market in 1989, edu-business here has flourished too.  Pressure on “accountability” seems to be encouraging governments to buy in the expertise of “consultants”. Our home-grown sources of expertise, companies like Cognition and Core Education, benefit from the international search for advice.  The model follows that of the global consultocracy, such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Kensington, and Opus.   That’s globalisation, and it’s handy.

The move to markets pre-dated the arrival of ubiquitous digital technologies, but the market and the technology have converged to create new settings for education.Our National Standards are the least pernicious of these, because they are not a national exam, and they permit learner-focused planning and delivery.  The big educational textbook companies of the world—Pearson, for example, and Scholastic—have grown their markets because standards can be easily applied anywhere.  That’s globalisation, and it’s handy too.

Technology is too; states are beginning to use it to cut costs on the face-to-face training and ongoing professional learning that is so important in a rapidly-changing world.  The digital world is challenging, because simply ‘going digital’ isn’t enough.  Everything in the classroom has to be re-thought.  And the state, schools, and teachers won’t be able to do it alone, since it will involve a massive injection of professional learning.   The over $4 trillion in global e-learning commerce (2013 figure from financial investment experts) is about to be dwarfed by the demand for innovators and experts to work alongside those in the classroom on digitized learning.  The GEI will fill the gap.

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, that secret deal-making that hides agendas, merely formalises what is already happening.  The state was once the exclusive provider of education services, and the horse has truly bolted.  The TPP is merely a facilitator to a learning revolution already on the turn.

See also:

A. Verger, C. Lubienski, & G. Steiner-Khamsi (Eds.), World Yearbook of Education 2016: The Global Education Industry. New York: Routledge