This blog was written by Francine Menashy, University of Massachusetts Boston. It was originally published on the Global Education Monitoring Report World Education Blog on 8 April 2020.

The forthcoming 2021 Global Education Monitoring Report will focus on the vital role of the non-state sector. Businesses and business leaders represent one group of non-state actors with increasing prominence in global education. As I write from my home in the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, it is unfortunately timely to relate this blog—which focuses on business engagement in education—to emergency contexts, including that which we are all collectively experiencing. This blog discusses the extent to which profit has driven business interests in education in contexts of crisis, the ways in which business actors have been welcomed as global education policy experts, and how companies might best contribute to education during today’s emergency.

According to UNESCO, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the shut-down of schools in 188 countries, impacting over 90% of all learners worldwide. Some are exceptionally fortunate, with reliable internet access and devices that enable online learning. Those without such privileges—including disadvantaged communities in both the Global North and the Global South—might face months without any access to education.

Because of COVID-19, the world now moreover confronts unfathomable economic repercussions. We can safely predict that in the coming months and possibly years, the financing of public services will likely suffer, including education. How can educational communities address these extraordinary circumstances?

Many policy-makers and educators have already turned to the private sector. In particular, I refer to companies which develop educational innovations that might fill an enormous gap. Virtual educational tools and forums—Zoom, Google Classroom, and others—present some of the very few ways students can currently learn a formal curriculum and maintain their studies while in isolation at home. And so those companies which produce such educational technologies may be perceived as indispensable. However, based on my past research, business practices in times of crisis elicit some significant critiques.

Image: Nenad Stojkovic

Business engagement in times of crises: learning from other contexts

Although never in the context of a pandemic, my research has examined the participation of businesses and their initiatives to support students in times of humanitarian crisis, as well as the roles of corporate actors as educational innovators and policy-makers on education in emergencies. I wish to share some lessons learned from this research that might apply to the COVID-19 response and the untold impact on education systems and students, everywhere.

Profiting from Crisis

In our research on business engagement in Syrian refugee education, for instance, Dr. Zeena Zakharia and I found that several actors sought to “invest in the crisis” and reap financial gain through engaging with refugees. These benefits included creating new markets and expanding market hold, solidifying brand loyalty with young people, and improving brand image. Some company representatives saw participation in refugee education as a means to test new innovations prior to market release.

In particular, educational technologies were designed and distributed to refugee students in an effort to enable virtual and mobile learning. However, many of these technologies were developed without consultation with local communities or educators, leading to decontextualized and inappropriate interventions. Moreover, reliance on technology reinforced inequities in terms of access to devices, electricity, and internet. Similarly, in terms of the COVID-19 response, scholars have already voiced concerns that digital learning will compound inequities.

Our research on Syrian refugees showed a surge in business representatives approaching education administrators, local NGOs, and Ministries of Education in host countries. Many business actors portrayed their participation as a “win-win,” through which helping refugees can simultaneously improve their bottom line. Yet a counter-argument might claim that profiting from any crisis – be it a natural disaster, armed conflict, or a global pandemic – echoes exploitation.

The need for education technology has clearly taken on a new level of urgency in light of COVID-19. Yet, as with the Syria crisis, some companies have already also seen it as a window of opportunity. For instance, in his recent blog for Forbes, “No, COVID-19 Is Not a Swell Chance to Market your Ed-Tech ‘Solution’,” Frederick Hess responds to the many pitches made by businesses to educators, promoting the adoption of new educational innovations in response to COVID-19’s impact on schooling.

Corporate Actors as Public Policy “Experts”

Business leaders have increasingly taken on roles as global education policy experts and have been embraced within policy-making spaces on education in emergencies. Driven by a discourse that portrays these actors as embodying creativity, efficiency, innovation, and limitless finances, business leaders now occupy seats at prominent policy tables, including the Global Partnership for Education and the Education Cannot Wait Fund. My research shows, however, that business participation in global policy circles has not led to any fundamental increase in funding for education in emergencies and that business actors often contribute in a minimal way. Yet they have been afforded what has been termed “private authority” and the legitimacy to participate in major decision-making on global education policy.

In terms of COVID-19, the Global Education Coalition has brought together a wide range of organizations to build a vital collective response, including prominent businesses such as Microsoft and Google. Nonstate actor involvement in this coalition is indeed crucial. But, as so aptly put by Rob Reich and Mohit Mookim in a recent WIRED op-ed in reference to the COVID-19 public health response: “We should never be dependent on the whims of wealthy donors… Rather than democratic processes determining our collective needs and how to address them, the wealthy would decide for us.” I argue the same applies to public education policy. Even as COVID-19 closes schools as public spaces, education remains a public responsibility.

Right now, the education community ought to listen to experts on both public health and public education. Those experts who work directly in the education in emergencies sector have long studied and developed guidance on schooling and learning in contexts of crisis. Governments and educators ought to draw from this wealth of knowledge, such as the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, which has been sharing key resources on COVID-19 and education, including alternative means of learning and teaching, and also vital psychosocial support.

How Businesses Can Respond

Companies indeed hold much-needed resources that can support education in emergency contexts. The business sector response should focus their efforts on what is necessary in this time of crisis. Business actors should offer contextualized help, and listen to school leaders, teachers, parents and students to understand what they truly need. All while remaining mindful of the ethical implications of capitalizing on a crisis. For instance, the INEE Minimum Standards offers guidance on engagement in emergencies in order to ensure educational rights.

For the educational community, partnerships with nonstate actors can help schools and governments face this crisis through collective responses. But above all else, as Prachi Srivastava argues, this emergency requires strengthened government action, including more system-wide and cross-sectoral thinking. Despite urgent calls for virtual learning and other educational technologies, any appeals for businesses to help address the COVID-19 crisis in education must simultaneously prioritize the role of governments as the principle duty-bearers of education. This crisis offers yet another new perspective for researchers to consider as they develop the 2021 GEM Report on non-state actors in education.