Pearson: the socially responsible edu-business?

Pearson PLC, the world’s largest edu-business, has declared: “education will be the biggest growth industry of the 21st century”. With its 4.4 billion pounds in sales last year, it is clear that education is proving quite profitable for Pearson and its shareholders.
In general, edu-businesses – from multinational corporations, to smaller national providers and even individual entrepreneurs – now offer education ‘solutions’ to national governments, school systems, and civil society through an extensive range of increasingly sophisticated products and services. The extent of their activities is such that edu-businesses now appear to be powerful entities that influence our public education systems with little concern for the rationalities that might stand in their way. Yet, in the wake of neo-liberal globalisation, financial crises and much talk of growing inequality[1], it is now difficult for private corporations to avoid the ‘goldfish bowl’ of public scrutiny.

Pearson, in particular, has been the focus of much critique about the increasing privatisation of education. In response to this context, the giant edu-business has been implementing a new strategic focus on corporate social responsibility over recent years. According to Pearson, accountability for its products and services can be achieved through demonstrating efficacy. Pearson aims for all of its products and services to have a proven measurable impact on learning outcomes. In fact, Pearson intends to report on efficacy alongside its financial accounts by 2018. As the company explains, this will enable ‘us to put our social impact at the very heart of our business’.

Efficacy for Pearson isn’t just about making a sale; it is a matter of being accountable for the outcomes of its products and services it promises to deliver. Much like the rationale of the pharmaceutical industry, Pearson’s new focus on efficacy is an attempt to build trust with its customers through recourse to an ‘evidence base’ that legitimises its activities. If Pearson wants to position itself as contributing to the public good, it is necessary to be seen as transparent and accountable.

To this end, Pearson has embraced accountability as a way to conjure a moral dimension to its ‘mission’, presenting itself as a corporation focused on a double bottom line of profitability and responsibility. Yet, given Pearson has no democratic constituency (and is only responsible to its shareholders for profit making), can it be truly accountable to the public interest in education?

Our answer is no. The accountability mechanisms made available here assume ‘efficacy’ as a driving purpose, thus working to exclude debate about the broader purposes of schooling held by teachers, parents, students and other publics. By claiming that Pearson products will guarantee learning outcomes, the complexity of teaching and learning is effectively bowdlerised. Indeed, there is a huge professional deficit in these developments and teachers are constructed as simply the implementers of Pearson products with no legitimate policy development interests.

In some ways, Pearson seeks to openly embrace its responsibility for contributing to learning opportunities and outcomes that would previously have been considered the responsibility of governments, seeking to position the company as a publicly accountable policy actor and its products and services as legitimate alternatives to the public provision of education. Such a strategy is indicative of Pearson’s new edu-business work in developing nations, particularly with support for low-fee private schools in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia through the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund project. The outcome of this investment by Pearson challenges the ideal of a free, high-quality public education for all that is central to democracy and a socially just society.

Pearson does not have it all its own ways in these developments. There is opposition[2] within nations: for example, the American Federation of Teachers’ opposition to the undemocratic, dubious and illegitimate aspects of Pearson’s work in the USA. Education International, the International Federation of teacher unions, representing more than 30 million teachers globally, has also been strategising effectively around these issues and recognises the need for a global response.

Any global strategy of resistance to the concerning aspects of these developments must understand Pearson’s integrated global business strategy and recognise that Pearson is only the largest player among many in this new phase of global education policy.


[1] See for example : Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

[2] Find out more about the #TellPearson campaign targeting the Pearson annual general meeting on April 29 in London.

This post is part of a series focusing on the commercialization and privatization of education, on the occasion of the publication of the World Yearbook of Education 2016, dedicated to the Global Education Industry.


Anna Hogan

Anna Hogan is a senior lecturer in education at The University of Queensland, where her research focuses on education privatisation and commercialisation. She is an editor of the journal Critical Studies in Education, and has a forthcoming edited collection, Privatisation and Commercialisation in Public Education: How the Nature of Public Schooling is Changing

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