Education International recently released a report “Schooling the Poor Profitably” which tells the story of the predatory practices of private for-profit international chains of education providers like Bridge International Academy (BIA). Bridge International Academies (also referred to as ‘Bridge’) aims ‘to be the global leader in providing education to families who live on USD2 a day per person or less’ (BIA, 2016a,c)—and thus, challenging the long-held belief that governments, rather than corporations, should be responsible for delivering mass education. The report, written by Curtis Riep and Mark Machacek, describes in detail the entry and expansion of operations of BIA in Uganda.
Bridge targets the world’s poor to make money for its global investors
Currently, BIA operates more than 520 for-profit schools throughout Kenya (405), Uganda (63), Liberia (50), Nigeria (4), and India (4), serving approximately 120,000 pre-primary and primary aged school children. According to its investment report, BIA plans to reach 10,000,000 children throughout Africa and Asia by 2025, and much of these plans center on “doing so profitably” [BIA, n.d.]. From the growth chart predicted in Bridge’s marketing report (pictured below), one can easily see why rapid expansion is a priority and a “multibillion dollar opportunity” for Bridge investors.
Currently, Bridge’s two largest markets are Kenya and Uganda which together enroll over 100,000 pupils in 412 schools. The first Bridge International Academy opened in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi in 2009. In just one year, 1341 pupils were enrolled, and by the end of 2015 Bridge was teaching over 100 000 pupils across the country. The history of Bridge in Uganda is also quite striking, because much of its expansion and growth falls under the radar of government oversight and regulation. The Ugandan Education Ministry approved Bridge to open one school in 2013. In less than three years, Bridge has opened and now operates 62 additional schools with more than 20,000 fee paying children, yet many of these schools have been created without approval from or even the apparent knowledge of the Ministry.
“Schools in a Box” do not provide quality education
As one of the key actors in the push for “pay-as-you-go” private education provisioning, Bridge created the “School-in-a-box model” which is based on economies of scale using standardised practices and methods that can be copied and duplicated across various contexts while at the same time shedding costs associated with mass educational provisions. This “School in a Box” approach relies on tablet-based scripted lesson plans for teachers, wherein School Managers remotely monitor the activities of teachers and the daily operations of the school through a cell phone application. Bridge central administrators provide a detailed manual which outlines how to manage the school’s finances and personnel as well as how to interact with students and parents. Additional components of the “School in a Box” include a central payroll and expense processing system and standardized assessment and evaluation tools for students, staff, and for the schools themselves.
By not hiring and paying qualified, certified local teachers and/or adequately trained staff, BIA “can reduce one of the most capital intensive aspects of school provision, i.e. the teaching staff costs, while at the same time maintaining a level of quality as a result of their digital platform", Brown-Martin observed. A Bridge “teacher” is only required to go through a five-week training program on how to read and deliver the script. According to the report, Bridge pays these instructors well below what qualified and state certified teachers earn (eg. USD39-54 a month for Bridge instructors compared to USD84 at the lowest end of the scale for certified public school teachers- EI, 2016, 19). Ironically, Bridge pays its teachers roughly USD1.80 - 2.50 per day effectively placing them with the class of poor from whom they profit.
To keep tuition costs low – about $6 a month – Bridge also depends on large class sizes. Targeted class size is about 40 pupils, but as the EI report found, the classes can rise to more than 60 students in cramped, overcrowded and under-resourced classrooms.
The findings of “Schooling the Poor Profitably” reveal that “innovations” implicated in this model involve serious deprivations for teachers and learners. These include the (1) neglect of legal and educational standards established by the government of Uganda regarding the use of certified teachers, accredited curriculum, appropriate teaching methods, adequate school facilities, and proper authorization of schools, essentially infringing upon the integrity and sovereignty of the education system in Uganda; (2) strict automation and mechanization of all curriculum and pedagogy, involving scripted instructions readout from tablet computers (teacher-computers) or by predominantly unlicensed and underpaid teachers, which obstruct the very teacher-pupil relations that are conducive to learning and child development; and (3) failure to bring affordable, quality education for all as the company claims. [EI, 2016]
Indeed, numerous Bridge reports claim that this model gives poor families an option to get “quality education for their children for a modest fee” but within this supposedly “low-fee” charged to poor families there are numerous hidden costs (like requiring students to purchase school uniforms, pay for lunch programs, buy or rent their school materials) (BIA, 2013, 2016b). This substantially costs for poor families, being often 30-40% of their annual income per child (EI, 2016, 24).
High stakes have led to hi-jinks
As Bridge comes under increasing scrutiny, its tactics have shifted from flashy websites and predatory marketing to parents, to intimidation and bullying tactics against researchers. The company claims its students have better grades, reportedly gaining an additional .34 standard deviation on core reading skills and an additional .51 standard deviation on maths compared to their peers in neighboring schools. But one of the biggest problems with much of the research that comes out of the “for profit” education industry is that it is almost exclusively internally evaluated and the positive claims of producing improved learning outcomes are carefully constructed through manicured and selected data. It is nearly impossible to find substantial, rigorous peer-reviewed research to validate claims that Bridge’s purported success is a valid and proven way to improve student learning. When companies like Bridge employ bullying tactics to intimidate and harass academic researchers who try to study and evaluate them, they should be publicly shamed and excluded by the education community.
The story of Bridge International Academies is not just a story for Uganda - it is of deep concern for other nations as well. Of primary concern is the long-term challenge for ensuring the right to quality public education when governments outsource education activities and service provisioning to profit-making corporations, given the ability of private actors to assert their influence in policy processes and steer education agendas in ways that may not be in the best interest of students, teachers and societies at large. Throughout the world we’ve seen increasing activities of private for-profit actors like Bridge enter the market, diverting resources that could have gone toward more teachers and education support personnel, facilities or programs for students in the public sector. There is growing evidence that privatization in and of education has a range of detrimental effects on the right to education, specifically on the most marginalized populations and with respect to women and girls. The state and the international community’s obligations to provide free quality public education as a fundamental human right are critical and underscore the point that the negative consequences that are borne when education is privatized cannot be adequately addressed by regulation of private actors. Mobilizing against private interests and corporate raiders is imperative and essential!
Bridge International Academies. (n.d.). Marketing Prospectus. Retrieved from https://medium.com/friction-burns/power-corruption-and-lies-53b2fd2ed558#.v3rwussm9
----- (2013). Presskit. Web. Retrieved from http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/presskit2013/Bridge_International_Academies-Presskit-2013.pdf.
----- (2016a). About. Retrieved from http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/company/about/.
----- (2016b). Investors. Retrieved from http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/company/investors/.
----- (2016c). Mission. Retrieved from http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/company/mission/.
EI (Education International) (2016). Uganda: School Closures a Major Blow to For-Profit Chain. 29 July 2016. Retrieved from https://ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/4055.