Education International
Education International

Experts warn against wave of for-profit education

published 6 April 2016 updated 15 April 2016

Academics and union leaders are looking behind the false claims about the commercialisation of education, revealing its devastating effects on schools, society and democracy.

During the second day of the international conference that brought together union leaders and experts from over 30 different Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in Rome, Italy, participants heard about the threats looming behind the increasing commercialisation and privatisation of education.

Education as a commodity

“Free, universally accessible public education remains a precondition for achieving a better world,” said Education International (EI) President Susan Hopgood during her opening remarks. She expressed many of the participants’ concerns when she labelled the continuing push for the commercialisation and privatisation of education as the greatest threat to the achievement of quality education for all. “It is giving more and more prominence to education as a commodity, a private, positional good as opposed to a public, societal good; it is undermining social cohesion and democracy,” she said.


The purpose of the conference, according to EI’s deputy general secretary David Edwards was threefold:

  • To promote the holistic, equitable, inclusive quality education system that educators envision as professionals
  • To interrogate and interpret the current trends in education
  • To defend national democracies and societies by building solidarity around the actions that education unions can take (both on the offence and on the defence) in the face of the privatisation and commercialisation of education

Challenging assumptions

During the conference, participants heard from leading academics Susan L. Robertson, Anna Hogan and Antonio Olmedo. They questioned and countered the belief that private education is more efficient and helps students to perform better. They introduced the audience to an analysis that lays bare the inequality of the global economy and explains the pillars of the public conversations educators need to have if they want to provoke a change.

Robertson: Privatisation threat

In her presentation, “Long division – when private interests into public education simply do not go”, Robertson highlighted the widening social gap across the globe with the involvement of profit-making firms in education provision. She gave examples of how private interests are being promoted in national and global education policy making spaces, and how this represents a threat to democracy and accountability.

Olmedo: Power of networks

Antonio Olmedo presented new policy actors and networks that are operating at multiple levels and forming new partnerships buoyed by philanthrocapitalists. He questioned the role of governments in these contemporary networked political frameworks, and explained how the network becomes a key policy player in different spaces, including education.

Hogan: Influence of Pearson

Hogan, a lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia, illustrated Robertson’s and Olmedo’s analysis by highlighting the influence of Pearson, a global edu-business, on education. She explained that, as the world’s largest for-profit company operating in the sector, Pearson’s sales generated Stg£4.9 billion during 2014, increasing dividends for its shareholders again in its 23-year profit-making history.

The public is also invited to send a clear message to Pearson that every child has the right to a free, high quality public education. Visit www.tellpearson.org to add your name to the campaign.

Public funding needed

As participants woke up to the release of the Panama Papers, the Conference re-stated the need for an increase in public funding in order to guarantee quality education for all. Hopgood reminded the audience that it was a “question of political will” on the part of governments to invest in education and to consider it as a human right and not as a commodity that responds to market values.

Despite the serious nature of the topics discussed, the second day of the Conference adjourned on the positive note with the release of Mahdi Abu Deeb, founder and leader of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA) and Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab Teachers' Union. Due to his role in the Bahraini uprising, he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Following international pressure spearheaded by several organisations including EI, Abu Deeb was released on 4 April.