Opinion: Watch out – there’s a Big Blue coming our way

Opinion: Watch out – there’s a Big Blue coming our way

In the wake of the debate about the recently released NAPLAN results, yet again we’re seeing Australian school children as pawns of multinational corporations.

So, those pesky latest NAPLAN results are out. Opinion is divided about what they actually tell us about how young Australians are faring academically. But one thing is clear cut – NAPLAN, with British-based multinational Pearson behind it, represents yet another example of the corporatisation of education in Australia.

This issue really rankles with me. There’s another behemoth seeking to march into Australian high school classrooms, and they have the potential to dictate what students learn. The multinational has already convinced two state governments to give them the go-ahead to run a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) program in select high schools. Their global CEO, Ginny Rometty, is scheduled to touch down in Australia in the coming months to officially ‘launch’ the IBM program.

This big business is the sixth largest tech company in the world with a market value of $125B and assets of $131B, according to Forbes. Here’s what it’s been doing overseas: It’s been the lead technology partner in the Pathway in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) program, which sprung up in New York in 2011. Along with New York City’s Department of Education and the City of New York University, they set up an actual new school that spans six years and sees students experiencing disadvantage develop and refine future-workforce skills in STEM careers. They’ve repeated that model creating dozens more such schools in the US. 

Some critics consider P-TECH a “research project for gleaning best practices that can be codified into software or peddled by IBM’s consultants to clients – in this case, schools” . 

The problem is that a Federal Government endorsed official P-TECH program has been operating in Australia for more than three years already. And the organisation administering this program – a not-for-profit - registered all the intellectual property and business name six years ago to run a P-TECH program in Australia. It’s still valid. Getting confused? 

The CEO of the Skilling Australia Foundation (SAF), Nicholas Wyman, developed and introduced the program to Australia whilst on a fellowship. SAF secured the ‘P-TECH’ trademark so that they could set up a version of P-TECH substantially tailored to the Australian educational environment. Nicholas had drawn on exemplary ideas he’d seen in programs not just in the US, but in Germany and the UK. I’m chair of SAF, by the way. 

SAF went about setting up the official P-TECH program the right way and received $5.1M from the Australian Federal Government to administer and roll out the program in what’s now 13 pilot schools across Australia. The program operates seamlessly in existing schools and has more than 3,000 10 students involved.

It’s an innovative model of education-industry collaboration handing students an industry supported pathway to a STEM related qualification. But it’s not just about STEM. P-TECH spans 14 industries from advanced manufacturing, aeroskills and agriculture to business and food science and technology. It’s about collaboration, innovation, applied experiences, industry involvement and helping disadvantaged students to successfully transition out of high school. IBM is on board as one of 80 employers. 

P-TECH works because SAF takes care of governance, which means those industry partners aren’t muscling into school staff rooms to influence curriculum or pedagogy. 

I’m horrified at the prospect of IBM running its own program in Australian government high schools with no independent oversight, and the prospect that it may “self-evaluate” its own program. 

None of this bodes well in the right fight to stop the corporatisation of education in Australia.

Watch out – there’s a Big Blue coming our way.

Fred Maddern OBE is the chairperson of the Skilling Australia Foundation. This article and all statements made within are an expression of the author’s personal views and opinions.