Always (l)earning: concerns and contradictions in pearson’s global business strategy

written by: Anna Hogan published 5 April 2016 updated 5 April 2016

The rapid growth of the global education industry is set against shifting governance structures where national governments now look to the private sector for ‘solutions’ to their various education ‘problems’. In the Global North this relationship is formed on the basis of testing and accountability infrastructures, data management and online learning needs. In the Global South, the focus has been on the rapid expansion of ‘low-fee’, private schools in the absence of quality public schooling.

By capitalising on these global needs, Pearson generated $5 billion in sales and had an adjusted operating profit of $1 billion last year. Pearson CEO, John Fallon claims that Pearson is helping to improve student learning outcomes and increase access to quality education by being a “profitable and cash generative company”. But the obvious concern for many of us committed to democratic public schooling is: -How Pearson can best support the public interest, when profit making is its bottom line?

According to Pearson, it is possible to be simultaneously accountable to its shareholders and the public by being a socially responsible business. In the past, corporate social responsibility has been considered a matter of philanthropy, whereby corporations invest some of their profits back into the community to make a positive contribution to society.

This approach to corporate social responsibility was evident in Pearson’s business model until late 2014, when it announced an end to the work of the Pearson Foundation. As explained by the Pearson Foundation (2014), ‘this [followed] a decision by Pearson plc to integrate all of its corporate social responsibilities and functions into its business as a way to maximise social impact and to no longer fund the Foundation as the primary vehicle for its philanthropic and community activities’.

This effectively ‘mainstreamed’ corporate social responsibility for Pearson, integrating its philanthropic functions into its everyday business activities. This supports the notion of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, in which corporate social responsibility is driven by the idea that ‘doing good’ can be profitable.

Pearson’s double agenda

A very tangible aspect of Pearson’s corporate social responsibility agenda is its Efficacy Framework. The Efficacy Framework is part of Pearson’s commitment to ensure that its educational products and services have a measureable impact on learner outcomes. Pearson’s Efficacy Framework is a standardised review process, including a review tool in rubric format, which is used by the company to evaluate how well its products and services achieve desired outcomes.

The Framework enables the rating of a product, program or service against criteria in the following four areas: outcomes; evidence; plans; and capacity. By giving each criterion a rating on a four-point colour scale, from green to red, the Framework can be used to assess how well a product is achieving its objectives and how it might be improved.

It is clear that Pearson’s Efficacy Framework is about accountability. By ensuring its products and services are efficacious, Pearson has responded in a way that moralises its activities, presenting a corporation focused on a double bottom line of profitability and social responsibility, and thus, offers the public sector a means to trust their use of Pearson products and services.

However, while Pearson may be working to present itself as a socially responsible edu-business, certain elements of its business strategy sit in stark contradiction to these claims.

For example, Pearson invests in low-fee private school chains in countries of Africa, India and Asia. Pearson’s rationale for investing in low-fee private schools is based on the charitable notion that it is delivering an education with potentially better outcomes to students in countries where access to public education is limited or nonexistent.

Yet, while such schools might be low fee, they constitute a high percentage of the disposable income of poor families, often resulting in gender discrimination where boys’ education is given priority over girls’ education in the same family. Moreover, low-fee private schools that will generate profit is economically dependent upon the employment of un- and under-qualified and very lowly paid, non-union organised teachers often using scripted pedagogies.

There is also little evidence to support the effectiveness of low-fee private schools. These schools are challenging the aspiration that a free, high-quality public education for all is central to democracy and a socially just society.

So while Pearson positions itself in a certain light, its activities – and low-fee private schools are only one example – imply it lacks the moral conviction to place social good above profit making. This contradiction is a concern to the public, and given it is near impossible for corporations to escape the ‘fishbowl’ of public scrutiny, it should also be a concern to Pearson.

In fact, if you consider that Pearson suffered a 40% stock decline in 2015, lost multimillion dollar assessment contracts in the likes of New York and Texas, and was the focus of numerous media articles like Fortune’s ‘Everybody hates Pearson’, we could imagine that Pearson might be suffering a crisis of image. Let’s hope Pearson responds in a way that puts its mission into practice, and truly places the interests of learners at the heart of everything it does.

Anna Hogan’s full paper linked to this blog entry is available here: ‘Always L’earning’: Concerns and contradictions in Pearson’s global business strategy

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.