Pearson GERM in the Philippines Is a Scare Story for the Rest of the World

11/22/2015 10:01 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2016

Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and researcher and a visiting professor at the Harvard University School of Education, calls the Global Educational Reform Movement by its initials, GERM. It is a great acronym for a global plague and I guess that makes Pearson Education its principle carrier.

It looks like the GERM plague has hit education in the Philippines thanks to Pearson. Curtis Riep, a doctoral student at University of Alberta in Canada, just released a study on corporatized education deform in the Philippines featuring Pearson and local affiliates and partners. He focused on APEC, a for-profit chain of low-fee private schools established through a joint venture between Pearson and the Philippine-based Ayala Group.

According to Riep, "Government failure to provide quality education for all Filipino youth has resulted in commercial opportunities for private corporations to participate and help fill the 'governance gap' through market-based service delivery." Riep charges "APEC, and its shareholders, plan to capitalize on this situation through its corporately owned and managed chain of for-profit high schools that aim to serve 'economically disadvantaged' Filipino youth who are charged nominally 'low-fees.'" But the "edu-business model implemented by APEC" will have "undesirable effects on teaching and learning."

Pearson, Ayala, and APEC are pushing what they call a "reverse-engineering" curriculum. Instead of educating high school students, they will be narrowly trained to fill niches that the corporate partners perceive exist in the global labor market such as English language call centers. Of course when labor demand shifts to cheaper markets or technology changes it is the students who lose jobs. Pearson, Ayala, and APEC offer no money-back guarantee.

Riep documents a looming educational crisis in the Philippines and highlights a government that ignores its responsibilities. Currently, hundreds of thousands of Filipino youth remain out of secondary school. APEC claims it will provide a low cost solution and make money at the same time by using cost-cutting measures such as placing classrooms in office buildings instead of schools and hiring an under-qualified non-accredited low-paid teaching staff. Pearson and Ayala will invest about $8.5 million between 2013 and 2018 to set up 50 low-cost private high schools.

But Riep explains that even the $500 a year per student tuition is far more than most economically disadvantaged Filipino families can afford. The lowest-income families in the Philippines would have to expend 40% of their annual household income to send one child to an APEC school. Meanwhile the average number of children per household in the Philippines is more than three. But in Pearson world people do not have to eat.

An APEC school manager concedes that in the business of low-cost private schooling "sometimes quality is compromised because of the companies' concern for making a profit." But according to Riep, APEC is still advertised as "world class private education from Ayala and Pearson."

Pearson is at the center of the GERM plague. It sees the global failure to provide affordable quality basic education for marginalized children and youth as a marketable opportunity for profit. In 2012 it established a capital investment fund known as the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (or PALF). Pearson used PALF to create APEC and the fund currently operates in India, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. Pearson claims that by 2020 PALF will provide "millions of the poorest children in the world with a quality education, in a cost effective, profitable and scalable manner."

In the business of low-cost private schooling "sometimes quality is compromised because of the companies' concern for making a profit" remarked one APEC school manager. Yet, APEC is still advertised as "world class private education from Ayala and Pearson."

Riep concludes with a quote from Philippine Congressman Antonio Tinio. "Will this lead to genuine development for the majority of Filipinos? We think not. Filipinos will not lift themselves out of poverty by exporting our labor or educating our students so they can become low-paid, low-skilled workers for foreign companies."

Tinio's views are shared on a global scale by the Global Response Project of Education International (EI). EI is especially concerned that "privatisation and commercialization" of education threatens public control and offers a pretense of affordability. Sending just one child to schools like Pearson's Omega Schools in Ghana or Pearson's Bridge International Academies in Kenya can cost between twenty-five and fifty percent of a family's income.

Curtis Riep has done a similar study on Pearson's impact on education in Ghana.

The world desperately needs an antidote to the Pearson GERM plague.