Education on sale

At what cost?
May 1, 2000

This week, Vancouver is host to the "World Education Market." According to the Reed Midem Organization, the show's Paris-based organizer, this event is a unique opportunity for key players in the global education business "to create dynamic business partnerships and joint ventures." With far more modest resources, the Coalition for Public Education is sponsoring a two-day counter-conference focusing on the dangers of corporate intrusion into our schools. What is all the fuss about?

Picture this. On the beautiful waterfront of downtown Vancouver, thousands of "education industry" delegates make deals at a flashy international exposition, complete with free cocktail parties and fancy dinners at the elegant and very pricey Pan Pacific and Waterfront Hotels. Meanwhile, a student is moved to write a letter to a local newspaper about rationed paper and out-of-date textbooks in his school. The contrast is striking, and herein lies the problem with so-called "partnerships" between business and our schools, colleges, and universities. The contest between corporate values and interests and those of public education is terribly unbalanced.

Talk to anyone who has been in a public educational institution recently and they will tell you that money is scarce. This is not surprising given the massive decline in federal transfer payments to the provinces for education and other social programs. BC has so far opted to run a budget deficit in order to compensate for federal cutbacks, but provincial funding is still far from adequate due to population growth, rising demand, and the constant need for innovation. Public schools at all levels have been forced to become more "creative" or "entrepreneurial" in trying to fill the gaps.

This is where the for-profit "education industry" comes in. Corporations are jumping at the chance to cash in on the estimated $2 trillion spent on education world wide, and on a captive audience of student-consumers. The level of corporate influence in public education is already alarming. From exclusive product agreements, sponsorship of recreational activities, advertising in hallways and on washroom walls, to the use of mass-marketed standardized testing services and teaching materials, to support for specific research projects and teaching positions, corporations are gaining new customers and, increasingly, steering the content of education.

Why should we be concerned about this? Because corporate intrusion undermines the goals and purposes of public education. Education is recognized as a basic human right. Education prepares us to take jobs and become productive and engaged citizens. More importantly, education also provides us with the ability to participate in our communities, and in our democratic society. The public education system was established in order to guarantee equality of access to education.

The objectives of private sector corporations are both different from and incompatible with those of public education. In a market economy, corporate success is based on making profits and financial efficiency--these are the only goals that matter. When they target education, corporations are interested in three things: gaining customers for their products; making money by directly providing educational services; and, more broadly, advancing a "corporate culture" that values consumerism, competition, and the financial bottom line above all other considerations.

Dependence on private sources of funding creates competition and inequities between schools, communities, and students. Somehow I just cannot imagine the Nike's and IBM's of the world taking much interest in the school I attended in a tiny farming community in Saskatchewan. Fortunately, I was a student before the latest round of cutbacks and, thanks to government funded student loans, I was able to use the excellent education I got in my hometown as a stepping stone to university. I now have a Ph.D., a job, and pay income tax without complaint. I worry about the future for my nephew, who has just started school in that little prairie town, and all the other kids in Canada who need and deserve a quality, commercial-free education.

The challenge for all of us is to hold fast to a vision of education as a fundamental human right and an essential foundation of a truly democratic society. How can we make this vision a reality? Surely the first step must be to adequately fund our public education system through the tax system. If the corporate sector is so interested in education, let them show it by paying their fair share of taxes.