Why is business interested in education?

Experiment: Explore causation where there may be none.

I keep coming back to a single question; What is the motivation for businesses to become involved in education? If you’re not convinced that education is moving out of the hands of government and into the hands of business, I highly recommend this book. There are two answers that occur to me, but I’m sure there are many other explanations out there. Maybe business is waking up to its social responsibility or maybe the oligarchy is attempting to control the future. I know those seem pretty extreme and maybe like a false dichotomy, but I’ll explore them a little bit.

I’m enamored with the idea of philanthro-capitalism and social entrepreneurs. The idea that a company can make a profit while having a core principle of making the world a better place is very appealing. We “vote with our feet”  and it easy to imagine that the market forces of consumers interested in making a difference would lead to thriving businesses and reinvestment in society. An example of this that I have dealt with is Better World Books. I donated some old textbooks and purchased a textbook for myself. The company profits and gives through monetary and book donations. If I have the choice between buying an old book from Amazon and Better World Books, I’ll choose the latter. Perhaps for-profit education businesses are hoping for the same. If an excellent, mass-producible model of for-profit schools can reach the millions of children in Africa and South East Asia who are without education then we have made a true difference in the world. These kinds of projects are being funded by charities, the World Bank, and international agencies through for-profit companies. The hope is that the business influences will help the schools be efficient, transparent, and high achieving all while making the world a better place.

The other possibility in my false dichotomy has a much more conspiracy theorist perspective. Education is such a contested and difficult field. It is as close to “herding cats” as you can get in a normally feline-free environment.  Education is every country is different, teachers are all different, students are all different, curriculum is contested, assessment is contested. Even the best ways to judge the quality of a school are incredibly hard to define. Why, with all of these difficulties, would businesses think they could do it better?!? My conspiracy theory is that education is obviously of incredible value to society and that the best way to control the future is to control education. Education embeds us with particular values, social experiences, and ways of judging ourselves. What better way to ensure that the future is based on the system that will guarantee that your company and yourself profit? In a neoliberal view, a personal profit motive wouldn’t undermine a good education and competition between schools would guarantee a great education for everyone.

Personally, I find the entire premise revolting but somehow business is becoming an acceptable (and even celebrated) addition to schooling. Perhaps this stems from the perception of businesses as competent. There is a body of research about the perceived differences between for-profits and non-profits. While non-profits  are seen as warm and socially involved, for-profits are seen as competent and distant. “Thus, nonprofits and for-profits are associated with distinct reputations that fundamentally color consumers’ views and reactions” (Aaker, Vohs & Mogilner, 2010, p. 232). Perhaps, in this era of neoliberalism, we are no longer concerned with the warmth of school but are absolutely obsessed with the competence of schooling. If student achievement on test scores is our measurement, then public perception will be that for-profits are better equipped to deliver education that can meet the bill.

But for those who believe that school is a place of “in loco parentis”, your child’s most important social situation, or that education is for the greater social good rather than your own child’s single achievement, then for-profits seem like a bad fit. A company that sees the parent and child as customers will only do enough to keep their business. Or, even worse, only do enough to appear like academic achievement is happening. In social services and care work, profit can only be maximized by reducing the quality of care (Himmelweit & Polien, 2014, pp. 448-449). The school as a place of caring for the emotional and developmental needs fits perfectly with the perception of non-profits as warm. 

The warm/competent may also be a false dichotomy, I can imagine non-profits that are competent and warm, but I have a lot more difficulty imagining for-profits that are both. When profit is the goal, it will displace any other goals of education or social good. “Here there is a blurring of the boundaries between education as a social good and education as a profit opportunity, which raises concomitant concerns over whether anything for-profit could ever credibly claim the advancement of social good” (Hogan, 2015, p. 304). My recent interaction with Better World Books seems to confirm this. I purchased an out-of-date textbook for 1 pence plus shipping. Looking back, I wonder why they didn’t ask me to name my price to give money that would be donated to their causes. For them, the transaction was just to get books off the shelves without too much fuss. Although they have a social goal as a driving force of their company, it is not able to be the main goal because profit will always displace it. I think even schools that are started with lofty social goals are inevitably slaves to profit. Business just has no place in education because of our social goals for schooling.

As I get to the end of this argument, I can imagine a third possibility. Maybe it is absolute ignorance to the difficulty of running a school. I actually hope that is the case.

Aaker, J., Vohs, K. D., & Mogilner, C. (2010). Nonprofits Are Seen as Warm and For‐Profits as Competent: Firm Stereotypes Matter. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(2), 224-237. doi:0093-5301/2010/3702-0010$10.00

Himmelweit, S., & Plomien, A. (2014). Feminist Prespectives on Care: Theory, Practice and Policy. In M. Evans, C. Hemmings, M. Henry, H. Johnstone, S. Madhok, A. Plomien, & S. Wearing (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory (pp. 446-464): SAGE Publications.

Hogan, A. (2014). Boundary spanners, network capital and the rise of edu-businesses: the case of News Corporation and its emerging education agenda.Critical Studies in Education, 56(3), 301-314. doi:10.1080/17508487.2014.966126

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