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Issue #1580      February 6, 2013

Education and “philanthropy”

The haggling over education funding between the federal and state governments is about to get boisterous as the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting looms in April. The tussle takes place in the shadow of the release last year of the Gonski report. That document highlighted a decline in student performance over the last decade and recommended a $6.5 billion boost to disadvantaged schools. Supporters of public education assume that its application would provide a life line for their funds-starved schools. A less well-reported aspect of the Gonski prescription for closing the outcomes gap is an increased role for philanthropy from the private, including the corporate, sector. It is a measure of the desperation in the community over schools funding that there is little debate over the nature of this “philanthropy”.

A piece in The Australian Financial Review last week by Annemarie Rolls lifted the lid part way. The author is chief executive of Schools Connect Australia (formerly known as Business Working with Education Foundation). According to its website, Schools Connect Australia’s objectives are to:

  • broker and facilitate new partnerships
  • advise on investment strategies in education
  • manage corporate engagement in education
  • evaluate partnerships that will see successful outcomes for all parties.

“We create sustainable partnerships to enrich student opportunities, outcomes and school capacity. We ensure these partnerships meet the needs of all partners, inspire innovation and involve rigorous evaluation to allow partners to test whether their goals are being achieved.”

According to Schools Connect Australia, a major hurdle to forming such partnerships, mentoring and other schemes between business and public schools are the bureaucratic requirements, including complex tax arrangements. But what are the supposed benefits of this involvement? “Such partnerships bring cultural capital – the sort of opportunities and aspirational beliefs – children in disadvantaged homes often miss. By injecting extra expertise into schools to help teachers, partnerships can make school a more meaningful and exciting place, not only for students disengaged from learning but for all students.”

The line between philanthropy and middle class prejudice is fine in the material posted to the Schools Connect website. A strong assumption in it is that corporations are uniquely placed to make school curricula more relevant and interesting. This capacity for fun might come as a surprise to workers employed by those same corporations to do tedious, repetitive work!

An example of the corporate sector’s contribution to schools is the Inspired by Industry pilot program launched last June The program matches up IBM Australia Ltd
, HJ Heinz Company Australia Ltd
, Energy Australia Pty Ltd
, Bionics Institute
 and Monash University (Operations Research industry projects) with Gleneagles Secondary College, Alkira Secondary College and Keysborough Secondary College in Victoria. The Baillieu government is very strong on promoting the school/big business nexus.

In the program “ ... teachers and their partners work together to co-design more engaging and relevant curriculum units for students.

 By integrating industry-based experiences into the teaching of science and maths, this project aims to strengthen the real world relevance of the science and maths curriculum in schools.

”

So what’s in it for the growing list of companies expected to become philanthropic sponsors of Australian schools? Nothing but a warm inner glow and the feeling that they have contributed somehow to the future health of the country’s manufacturing, research, agricultural and other sectors. That’s if the companies and their promoters are to be believed.

In Adelaide, US arms manufacturer Raytheon sponsors a local public school at Aberfoyle Park by, among other gestures, supplying laptop computers to senior students. Other military industry partnerships are being rolled out. The companies are being helped by a special curriculum to teach the sorts of skills these transnationals may need in the workplace but they deny any “hearts and minds” motivation. Few are inclined to believe them.

The question of the intentions of philanthropy is not new. “Like the system of patronage that served the arts and charity from the Renaissance through the 18th century, private foundations have the rarest privilege of all: they do not have to explain themselves. They do not have to justify the origins of their wealth, or how they use that wealth, or what the real benefit of their largesse is,” as US commentator Curtis White wrote in Jacobin magazine lately. And how do beneficiaries keep benefactors happy to ensure a continued income stream from that source?

Philanthropy and other efforts to join schools and corporations at the hip are far from new, either. Big business and its requirements have long been considered the “real world” to which all other institutions must be bent in capitalist societies. The DINTA program in pre-Nazi Germany became the model for the whole society under Hitler. Western Electric and the Goodyear Tyre Company in the US promoted similar programs. The “Hawthorn Experiments” carried out by Western Electric also pioneered the idea of melding education and the changing requirements of industry.

The British Institute of Industrial Psychology produced a report called The Problem of Incentives in Industry in the 1930s, which furnished a list of exploitable non-commercial incentives for workers. They included: “Interest and Pride in the Work, the Incentive of Appreciation, the Incentive of Knowledge, the Incentive of Loyalty, the Incentive of Welfare Schemes, Interest in the Firm, Encouragement of Suggestions, Cooperation in Time Study and the Incentive of Efficiency”. This spirit permeated the expanding industry/schools relationship of the time and since despite the increased sophistication of the language used to describe it.

Non-commercial incentives are obviously counterposed to wage increases and other real benefits. The focus on the interests and leadership of the company is done deliberately in order to squeeze out any role for workers organising to advance their own interests in unions or other organisations of the working class. This is most likely the real benefit for all those modern day philanthropists of education in Australia and elsewhere. These are the sorts of “opportunities and aspirational beliefs” and “cultural capital” they aim to deliver.  

Next article – Apprentices deserve a living wage

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