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25 Jan 2024
Lara Patil

Education Global Governance and Technology Corporations: Inherent Conflicts and Potential Safeguards for a New Social Contract

In this blogpost, crossposted with UNESCO’s IdeasLAB blog, Lara Patil argues that inherent conflicts between the objectives of the technology industry, the effects of digitization and the foundational principles of a new social contract, must be mitigated to safeguard systems of public education against risks and vulnerabilities. See the full article, in a special issue in Prospects, based on the call from the report Reimagining Our Futures Together: A new social contract for education.  

Private sector businesses, billionaires, high-tech disrupters and social entrepreneurs are expanding the range of global education governance actors beyond the small number of large foreign aid agencies who previously dominated the landscape (Kumar, 2019). Private technology companies have become major policy actors, influencing reform agendas and realigning power dynamics in educational governance through shifts in public to private oversight and monopolies of financial flows (Patil, 2021). These actors also increasingly amass and interpret data in significant quantities across boundaries. Ultimately driven by corporate for-profit economic models, these trends place systems of public education at the mercy of technology corporations who ultimately control the knowledge, means and global networks to scale their technological solutions (Steiner-Khamsi, 2020).

How, then, should these shifts in the roles and interests of governing players be considered in the context of a new social contract for education (UNESCO, 2021b)? Through the lens of global governance and digitization, this blog briefly: (1) highlights some of the inherent conflicts between technology industry objectives and foundational principles proposed to achieve a new social contract for education, and (2) reflects upon possible safeguards to proactively counter these conflicts and mitigate the risk of technology industry engagement in global education governance.

Inherent conflicts in a new social contract

While systems of public education are often positioned to mediate and balance the competing demands of public and private benefits, the digitization of the education sector, as driven by the technology industry, generally advances an agenda that emphasizes individual benefits and promotes policies that undercut attention to the collective purposes of schooling. By shifting the balance of the ‘good’ of education to emphasize private returns (Lubienski and Hedges, 2020), technology industry actors are increasingly engaging in international education policy-making in ways that often bypass traditional structures and instead reflect their own institutional agendas and values which are rooted in wealth accumulation (Patil, 2023).

Business strategies often utilize economies of scale and standardization to maximize profits. As such, even when involved with a common good like education, their primary interests are often diametrically opposed to reflecting humanity’s diverse ways of knowing and being in various local contexts. Corporate social responsibility strategies increasingly include non-financial resources such as products, employee time and know-how that are often directly connected to core business development objectives. These corporate strategic efforts often align with technology industry priorities and preferences, and do not necessarily map onto the public priorities and needs identified under Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Patil and Brakman Reiser, 2021).

As national governments become increasingly reliant on the expertise, products and services of the private sector to implement education technology services (Steiner-Khamsi, 2020), potential risks to systems of public education include:

  • incentives to guide education technology solutions that are conceptualized through the lens of unique corporate products, services and platforms;
  • a weakening of education as a public endeavor and common good (Lubienski and Hedges, 2020);
  • and technology non-state actors can, by default, become the arbiters of education (Patil, 2021).

Potential safeguards for a new social contract

In an environment where technology corporations and other private actors openly and actively participate in the formation of public policy and governance, the development community, governments and civil society lack adequate tools to evaluate technological offerings and fully protect public goods such as education (Draxler, 2020). Possible safeguards that systems of public education can enact to counter the aforementioned conflicts fall into two main areas: (1) issues of transparency, accountability and legitimacy, and (2) issues of technology management and digital governance.

Ensuring the legitimacy of technology industry actors engaged in educational governance and digitization requires transparency and accountability – to their missions, to governments and to the wider public. Enhancing non-state actors’ transparency for their engagement in global education governance, whether directed by individuals or businesses, will increase information about funding allocation, technology use in education and effectiveness. Transparency will not only inspire debate but also enhance efforts to create complementarities, craft technological solutions, and improve training and implementation of technology solutions in the education sector (Patil and Brakman Reiser, 2021UNESCO, 2021a).

Models of educational governance need to adapt to manage digitization initiatives and ensure possible safeguards that are imperative for a new social contract for education. Three such possible safeguards include: (i) reducing reliance on technology companies and commercial actors more generally in decision-making processes, (ii) ensuring the localization of digitization in education initiatives, and (iii) employing mechanisms to safeguard data. Training decision-makers in emerging technologies, educational technology options and broader implications for public policy could also help counter current existing processes, which are typically driven heavily by the private sector. This could potentially minimize governments’ dependence on technology companies during decision-making.

Conclusion

Major investment on the part of technology corporations in the achievement of SDG 4 and engagement in education global education governance can create opportunities to unleash vast capital and in-kind resources to address some of global education’s most challenging problems. Such mobilization is multi-sided, however, as it can simultaneously push through innovative, yet untested, education agendas at incredible speed via technology platform solutions.

The inherent conflicts between the objectives of the technology industry in education, the effects of digitization and the foundational principles of a new social contract, must therefore be mitigated to safeguard systems of public education against risks and vulnerabilities.

References

Draxler, A. (2020b). Education for All open for business? Public goods vs. private profits. In A. Wuff (Ed.), Grading goal four. Brill. 

Kumar, R. (2019). The business of changing the world: How billionaires, tech disruptors, and social entrepreneurs are transforming the global aid industry. Beacon Press. 

Lubienski, C., & Hedges, S. (2020). Is schooling any “good”? Edu philanthropy, orientations and accountability. New philanthropy and the disruption of global education. NORRAG Special Issue 04, pp. 36–39. 

Patil, L., & Brakman Reiser, D. (2021). Emerging roles and risks of philanthropy and other private sector engagement in global education. Background treaties for the 2021 Global Education Monitoring Report on the Role of Non-state Actors in Development. UNESCO. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000380091

Patil, L. (2021). Disaster philanthropy: Exploring the power and influence of for-profit philanthropy in education development during pandemic times. International Journal of Educational Development, vol. 81, 102332. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2020.102332

Patil, L. (2023). The business of development: The institutional rationales of technology corporations in educational development. International Journal of Educational Development, vol. 97, 102712. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2022.102712

Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2020). Foreword. In T. D. Jules and F. Salajan (Eds.), The educational intelligent economy: Big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things in education (pp. xix–xxii). Emerald Publishers. 

UNESCO (2021a). Non-state actors in education: Who chooses? Who loses? Global Education Monitoring Report 2021/2.https://www.unesco.org/gem-report/en/non-state-actors

UNESCO (2021b). Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. Report from the International Commission on the Futures of Education. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000379707

 

 

About the Author:

Lara Patil, Advisor, NORRAG, Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Geneva

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2 Responses

  1. Steven Klees

    Technology corporations and other private actors – businesses, billionaires, social entrepreneurs, foundations – have entered into the global governance of education and other social policies with a vengeance, as Lara Patil highlights. One very important way to stop this hijacking of what should be democratically decided public policies is for the United Nations, UNESCO, and other UN agencies to reverse the course they have been following that gives these private actors major roles in public agency decision-making.

    As a particularly egregious example, the World Economic Forum has been pushing its 2010 Global Redesign Initiative which wants to turn the UN itself into a giant PPP, essentially promoting a corporate takeover of the UN — through the guise of multistakeholder governance — with quite a bit of success (Gleckman, 2023). These WEF patriarchal racial capitalist institutions, run essentially by rich white men, may not have bad intentions, but they are deluded into the self-interest of believing that all we need are win-win solutions to reform current polices, supposedly in the interests of everyone — without, of course, changing any of the structures that maintain their wealth and power (Giridharadas, 2018).

    Under patriarchal racial capitalism, especially the neoliberal version, privatization is the solution to most of our ills. But exaltation of market solutions has only exacerbated our problems, and business leaders are singularly unqualified to deal with education or other social problems that have no simple bottom line (like profits) and whose real solution may threaten their dominance and power (Klees, 2024).

    Steven Klees, University of Maryland

  2. Mike Douse

    This is an interesting, important and convincing contribution to the discussion of how to safeguard public education against the worst instincts of the technology industry. But what I look for everywhere and in vain is a creative determination to mobilise EdTech, extending to AI, in addressing and overcoming the underlying challenges to education worldwide. I believe that a potential solution is there awaiting discovery but, if all we concentrate upon are threats and safeguards, the opportunity to overcome the inefficiencies, inequalities and inequities characterising contemporary education will be overlooked. Please enjoy: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/376859006_Education_and_AI_Four_Conferences_and_Acute_Myopia

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