Corporatized education and State sovereignty

Department of Education

It should strike most as a worrying trend that many portions of developed economies are increasingly becoming cannibalized by the technology sector; in particular, the concern may be that as many technology firms further pursue aggressive capitalization into new areas of economic potential unlocked by ongoing advancements in the technological base underlying the global economy (e.g., with ever-increasing capacities in data storage, computing, and connectivity), there emerges a corresponding economic imperative to absorb talented individuals into the firm itself and train them with the technical tools the firm believes are necessary for individuals to succeed at the firm and thus society—and necessary for the firm itself to compete in free market circumstances.

At issue here is the tension that the corporatization of education, particularly in the digital sector, entails that the burden of responsibility for preparing talent for the technical challenges of work appears to be fundamentally shifting. It is not necessarily enough to achieve high academic performance at university and apply that academic success to secure a coveted position in the technology industry. Instead, it is most critical to know the needs of the firm in question, attempt to telegraph the nature of assessments to affirm good performance therein, and expect to learn the bulk of what is needed to succeed on the job.  Even where research and training are ‘outsourced’ to the university sector, metrics of quality are increasingly judged by graduate employment in high status firms, so that once again, the lines between the corporate research lab and the academic freedom of the civic university begin to blur.

Industries possess, of course, an inherent profit motive. The question is whether and how its path to achieving said profits interfaces with public interests. The industry segment comprised of large internet platform companies generates profit through a business model through which it first gathers as much personal data on individuals in the consumer market in question to the end of behaviorally profiling them; develops and employs sophisticated but opaque machine learning algorithms that serve to target ads, curates content and profile data subjects; and pursues aggressive platform growth, often through economically exploitative means so as to keep users engaged to their platforms and no others.

These practices have been strongly linked in recent times to the range of negative externalities facilitated by the firms in question: election interference and the disinformation problem, the spread of misinformation and hateful conduct online, the onset of algorithmic bias, systemic incitement to violence. These have all been linked to the digital corporate’s invasion of consumer privacy, non-transparent use of personal data, and breach of market competition standards. At least in this explicit sense then, corporate interests and public—and democratic—interests do not perfectly align. The question that then arises is, whether the corporate sector’s absorption of education functions is fundamentally good or not. Furthermore, what impact does this misalignment have on the regional and international efforts of standardization of education policies?

Education, Technology and State Sovereignty

When leaders of state and technology met to discuss the future of education in the world economic Forum in Davos, in January 2020, they agreed that the education sector is ripe for an overhaul. The schools of the future would require new models of education fit for the 4th Industrial Revolution. This model would have to rely on the important position of companies in the digital innovation space to fill a gap left behind by public schools and universities.

Since its inception in the industrial and democratic revolutions of the 19th century, education has always been one of the foremost prerogatives of state sovereignty. Education determines the interpretation of history, the position of elites, and the intellectual prowess of a state. The only limit to the sovereignty of the state in the field of education is the principle of academic freedom composed of the freedom of inquiry and the freedom to teach or communicate ideas and facts. However, when political ideology aligns with the ideas of academia, they can mutually reinforce each other. At no other time has this been more tangible than during the Soviet-U.S. space race to the moon.

In this sense, Big Tech’s increasing involvement in the educational sector can be interpreted as an incursion into the innermost sanctum of a state’s sovereignty and the infusion of private sector values into the public space. This is particularly true in education in the field of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) where technology companies represent the cutting edge and arguably know better what skills and expertise might be necessary and useful for their future employees. The differences between universities and the research labs of the private sector begin to blur, with new research ideas that inform the Tech industry coming equally from publicly funded grants to university research labs and the private labs of industry.

Shifting education from state to private companies potentially shifts a key area of sovereign autonomy away from states. Education, however, is more than professional training—following democratic reforms in the UK in 1867, the Liberal politician Robert Lowe famously remarked that “we must educate our masters,” and social efficiency was the first goal John Dewey identified in his profoundly influential Democracy and Education in 1916. As such, the educational autonomy of the state corresponds in many ways to Thomas Hobbes’ concept of what constitutes the sovereign, namely the embodiment of the collective interest of stakeholders. Increasingly, however, this is true also for private companies. While the state is representing its citizen and holds its foremost duties to its citizen, a company represents the interests of its shareholders and is primarily responsible towards them. What happens then, if private companies take on governance functions in the education sector formerly held to be the sovereign prerogative of the state?

International, Regional, and National Standardization Efforts

To marshal these competing State and industry imperatives, international organizations increasingly play a role in reifying and standardizing education policies across the world. It is the incursion of technological algorithms, themselves the proprietary secrets of private providers, which represents an oft-neglected corporate intrusion into States’ sovereignty over education. From international rankings such as PISA, to large educational conglomerates such as Pearson Educational, which operates qualification systems across nations, including Edexcel in the UK, the English Language Arts testing system in the USA, and Realidades in the Spanish-speaking world, to name a few, such institutions play important gate-keeping roles in selecting which students can go to university and access high status professions.

Ostensibly, the recognition by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development of a growing need for ‘global competencies’ in education recognizes the challenges to civic education posed by these changes. The competency-based approach focuses on knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes including intercultural interactions and sustainable development. The influence of behavioral psychology on this competence approach, however, limits opportunities for divergent thinking. In this way, the new measure is in keeping with the workforce-preparation focus of the existing OECD PISA ranking measures for literacy and numeracy.

These trends did not begin with the coronavirus pandemic, but the pandemic certainly has accelerated the influence of corporate actors in the education space further down the curriculum. Different approaches to the sourcing of digital learning platforms for schools across the jurisdictions of the UK are illustrative. While the Scottish government has taken a centralized approach to educational planning for some years, education in England follows a more neoliberal model, with quasi-markets of multi-academy trusts increasingly competing to recruit schools and students. When schools shifted suddenly to online learning during the COVID 19 pandemic in March 2020, schools in Scotland made use of a national learning platform, GLOW, which lent a common character to the new, ostensibly temporary third space, one which was mediated by digital technologies, but in ways consonant with the management of schooling in more normal times. England’s response, in contrast, was to task one of the existing multi-academy trusts with the creation of a new digital platform, Oak National Academy, creating a new entity with its own values in design, which further complicated the relationship between schools and their students during the digital learning period. Shortcomings in education are increasingly interpreted as shortcomings in access to technology.

Toward a More Constructive Realignment of Public and Corporate Values

Attention needs to be paid to these misalignments of purpose, which should not become a power struggle between state and corporate interests over the control of educational institutions. In addition to selecting and nurturing talent for their own workforce, the technology sector is interested in the capitalization of new fields of civic life, and the harvesting and influencing of data on patterns of behavior. Additionally, there is a perception management function to technology corporations sponsoring educational initiatives through philanthropy and partnerships. In each of these four areas, there may be a need for attentiveness and democratic oversight.

In setting out the reasons for State involvement in public education, however, similar imperatives can be identified, suggesting there may be space for collaborative alignment. While corporations are concerned with workforce training, States also have an interest in attracting corporate investment based on an educated population. The capitalization of education by the technology sector has parallels to the capitalization of public schooling in providing a taxpaying and compliant citizenry in the 19th century—a half century before Lowe’s concern with educating new democratic masters, the British had sponsored the schooling of an administrative class of colonial subjects through the East India Company’s General Committee on Public Instruction (see David Lundie’s forthcoming book, School Leadership: Between Community and the State, London: Palgrave Macmillan).

In exercising democratic oversight over education in an age of technological datafication of the human learning process, the educational philosopher Gert Biesta provides a vocabulary of three purposes of education: qualification, socialization, and subjectification. On qualification, States may wish to give particular attention to whether the skillsets demanded by technology employers generate significant externalities for the civic sector, either by undermining or manipulating consumer and electoral autonomy, or by threatening the availability of meaningful employment for its citizens. In this regard, States may not be charging the technology sector enough for the public educational goods they are appropriating, or the externalities they impose on the public good. Both the State and the technological sectors also need to attend to the kind of society they are preparing young people for; this cannot merely be a concern with a narrow and prescriptive vision, but a preparation for becoming an autonomous subject, capable of exercising a right to an open future. Subjectification requires a new attentiveness to the meanings of civic identity, digital identity, and learner identity.