The education bridge to nowhere

published 7 June 2016 updated 8 June 2016

For-profit education provider Bridge International Academies revealed its true colours after orchestrating the arrest of a Canadian researcher investigating its operations in Uganda, a country where the company’s expansion plans were recently put on hold.

Curtis Riep knew his line of work wasn’t always popular among his research subjects, but the doctoral student focused on private education providers never expected it to land him in jail.

Shortly after arriving for a pre-arranged meeting with Bridge officials at a café in in Kampala, Uganda, Riep found himself being escorted away by school security and the police.

Little did he know five days earlier the for-profit education company published a ‘wanted ad’ in a national newspaper accusing Riep of impersonating one of its employees, an allegation proven to be false. Now back home in Canada, the University of Alberta PhD candidate is convinced that the incident was set-up.

“[Bridge] definitely orchestrated the whole thing. Literally two minutes after I sat down with executives from Bridge for an interview, their ‘detective’ and two police officers were there to arrest me,” recalled Riep of his 30 May arrest in email correspondence. “In the car that took me to the police station there was a lawyer from Bridge. When we arrived at the police station four media outlets were already there to snap photos of me.”

The behaviour of Bridge International Academies, or BIA, comes as the Ugandan Government has ordered the company to halt its expansion plans after the company failed to meet curriculum and infrastructure standards. Bridge currently has 80 pre-primary and primary schools in Uganda run by American founders Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May.

Bridge, operating so-called ‘low-fee,’ for-profit schools in Uganda, Kenya, and most recently Liberia, is financially supported by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and education conglomerate Pearson Ltd. It is also supported by the World Bank and DfID-UK. Bridge’s business model, which depends on public money to operate fee charging schools run by unqualified teachers, has faced heavy criticism.

Although it promotes ‘affordable’ education to some of the world’s poorest children, Bridge forces families to pay for inadequate scripted lessons read from tablets. Many children are left to learn in questionable environments, such as classrooms lacking proper materials, including desks and chairs.

Among its most outspoken critics are teachers’ unions, led by the global federation Education International (EI). Uganda was the research project Riep undertook following his studies on Omega school operations in Ghana and on APEC schools in the Philippines.

In an open letter addressed to May, EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen said that Bridge’s “actions have been exposed as not only unwarranted, but also irresponsible. We consider this whole episode and this behaviour totally unacceptable, and unworthy of an organisation which claims to have the interest of young people at heart.” Van Leeuwen has demanded Bridge to apologise to Riep in addition to compensating his legal expenses.

Education International, the largest professional organisation in the world and the voice of 32 million teachers in 171 countries, is leading a campaign against the privatisation and commercialisation of public education.

Despite Bridge’s struggles in Uganda, the company has set its sights on the impoverished country of Liberia. Following years of civil war and the devastating Ebola outbreak, the Liberian government is outsourcing its primary public schools to Bridge.