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Against Commercialism in Education


Nov. 5th sees the world’s first attempted co-ordinated action against commercialisation in education (including against fees for education). So far, activists in 22 countries have signed up to have mass co-ordinated events. This essay seeks to look at some of the issues involved in commercialism in education.

Since we have not reached the level of commercialism in our schools that pervade an education system such as the American one, perhaps now is the time to begin the fight against the commercialism that is present, before it becomes too much to be countered.

 

During the last academic year, I responded to Tesco’s "Computers for Schools" voucher scheme in a letter that was printed in many local newspapers, saying "the recently lauched Tesco "Computers for Schools" Scheme claims to provide schools with free IT equipment. This is a fallacy"   Responding to this letter, some of my students had the following to say: "To be honest, I never really thought about this voucher scheme, but from reading this, I now believe it to be an outrage [...] The Tesco company should be ashamed of themselves [...] We are being fooled by money-making enterprises [...] I don’t think that these voucher schemes are such a good idea [...] They are practically using us for advertising, even though the image is that they are helping us."

A principal wrote to Campaign for Commercial-Free Education recently, saying: "The next big hurdle was the Supervalu Sport for All Scheme. [...] When I refused to sign up we received some phone calls from Supervalu head office that were less than pleasant, essentially asking us to explain why we were not participating [...] However, I stuck to my guns. I had an article from The Sunday Times about the campaign which I photocopied and put on all noticeboards for parents, who were very pleased with the stand taken ." (emphasis added)

Taking the above into consideration, we can see that neither students, parents, teachers, or school management want voucher-style promotions in schools. The question that must be answered, so, is: who does? And of course the answer is that it is only the big companies that stand to make such vast amounts of money from these marketing endeavours that seek to impose them on an unwilling education system.

But how vast is the profit to be made? If we take Tesco’s profit margin as being about four and half percent (a figure I have heard mentioned by a Tesco executive in a radio interview, but which is actually less than what Tesco’s internal reports say (see www.tescoplc.com)) then for each computer given to a school for "free" Tesco can claim a profit of about €14,780. To explain:

34,400 vouchers @ €10 equals

344,000

Amount Spent
 

x 0.045

Profit Margin
 

15,480

Gross Profit per Computer
 

- 700

Retail Cost of Computer
 

14,780
=====

Net Profit per Computer

Readers can work out the other profit margins themselves quite simply using the formula above.

The desire for companies to seek an entrance into the school market is an understandable one; students are a captive audience – they are legally mandated to be in school (risking being reported if they miss more than 20 days); there has been a drop in government funding in education in Ireland (per capita) over the past twenty years, so schools are more desperate for vital resources – filling the void in resources is a perfect niche market for the multi-nationals to exploit (and I use that term in its worst possible sense). Of course, it is not just voucher schemes that are being used by private enterprise to get a foothold into the school system, for example, The Irish Times sponsor a school magazine of the year competition, Hewlett-Packard sponsor a Transition Year newsletter of the year competition and a photo competition, Denny sponsor a debating competition, AIB come to talk in schools and help students setup bank accounts (and the list goes on and on and on). These efforts at generosity fall into the category of what Paulo Freire, in his illuminating work Pedagogy of the Oppressed , calls "false generosity", since they don’t challenge any of the underlying conditions that lead to their gestation and acceptance in mainstream education (in the case of this essay an education system that is under-funded in the areas of IT and Sports (amongst others)). For Freire, "true generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity."

Here is the challenge: those of us campaigning against commercialism in education are teachers/educators/individuals who specialise in English (in my case), Science, French, etc. Studying and reading up on commercialism in education has to be done in our spare time. Against us are careers marketers, whose job (full-time) is to undermine our efforts, whose resources dwarf ours (which are non-existant), and whose glossy sheen seems well positioned to deflect criticism, learn from it, and, so, adapt their products to look more education-friendly – but the underlying principle never changes: "we are here to make a profit".

So what is the hope for the future? I think the first glimmer of hope comes from, thankfully, our student population. When we engage with them about issues such as commercialism in schools, they agree that they are being used (and don’t want to be). Our students are also much more media/business savvy than the media/business interests might hope. But, we also need to organise to fight the forces that offer only "false generosity" and no real solution to the underlying problems that our education system faces, by writing to businesses, chatting with our children/students/colleagues, joining groups such as Campaign for Commercial-Free Education, developing anti-commercialism policies in our schools – any small act is important. As the radical historian Howard Zinn says: ""Everything we do in the direction of a different world is important, even though at the moment they seem futile, because that’s how change comes about. Change comes about when millions of people do little things, which at certain points in history come together, and then something good and something important happens".

Mark C is a secondary school teacher of English. He is a member of the ASTI – Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland and a member of CCFE – Campaign for Commercial-Free Education. He runs the free teaching resources website educate4free.com.

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