From education to employment

Daniel Wallis and the Privatisation That Dare Not Speak It’s Name?

Everyone stop talking about privatization, writes Daniel Wallis for FE News.

Why? Because the more people talk about it as something real and definite, the more likely it will happen in FE. Better to not dignify it with conscious thought, or to put up some kind of passive mental resistance and refuse to even consider it. Try thinking about it as some dust-covered obsolete event that happened long ago, like prohibition or rationing; imagine bread queues in dreary post-war streets and tommy-gunned gangsters bootlegging whisky at the dead of night. Just don”t allow it to take seed in your head.

Let’s Reflect

Recent calls for the private sector to set up business (literally) on the shores of FE should shock even the hardiest of educators. For those seriously considering it: name one sector in Britain that has actually improved since being privatized. Think water companies making record profits at the same time as record leaks during a drought, no less. Think energy companies outpricing their customers by up to 40% in recent years, leaving so many pensioners freezing last winter. Think peak demand pricing, that is, how to exploit your customers when they need you the most. Think private banking that offers you poisonous loan after loan, and then charges you £60 for being 80p overdrawn. The advertising tells you that they”re all here to help, but with friends like these”¦

Still not convinced? Try the trump card: privatized transport. Rail prices gleefully fly far ahead of inflation like the bullet from a gun, with travel costs increasing so fast the ticket machine looks like a fruit machine. Companies that exploit the fact that most people have to get to work for nine by raising their tickets to inexplicably high prices; calling it “peak time” is not a justification, just a simple description of the average number of people traveling at that particular time. Paying double prices does not make people disappear, or become smaller, or make trains run faster””the process has no justification whatsoever except as a means of gouging more money from customers who, bound by the need to actually get to work, have little or no choice but to pay up. That isn”t a service, that’s extortion, only for some reason it is bad to say that aloud.

The reason it appears bad is that there is a grudging acceptance of the service provided at the back of our minds, a grandmotherly voice reminding you that they don”t have to take you to work each day, or give you energy or water. While that is true, gratitude can only extend so far: there is no need for gratitude when you are paying eleven pounds fifty for a fifteen minute train ride to the capital. They should be thanking you, and adding an apology or two while they”re at it.

Behind the Mask

It is also easy to dismiss the abuses of privatization as a kind of harmless habit of an otherwise good person, like a doctor who also happens to be a kleptomaniac. This is not wholly accurate; imagine instead, a crazed kleptomaniac who knocked out the real doctor and stole his clothes, and is now clumsily examining you with a stethoscope whilst trying to determine the best way of grabbing your wallet. This is closer to the real privatization. Education should be seen not as some hopeful privilege, but as the basic right of everyone in this country. While the money-god must be appeased, education authorities do at least try to look at students” concerns first.

However, under the private mantle, that changes, indeed it must change for that company to function as a business. No profit-based company can even claim to put its services and its “customers” ahead of its own profits, as profit is the actual basis for the company’s existence; it is not a choice that the company makes but its primary purpose and reason for living, and we should not expect otherwise. The legs of a chair are designed to hold the seat up and nothing else, so don”t be mad that they don”t clean the carpet or receive fm radio. Once a student becomes a customer, the very mantra of education, that it should be equally available to all, disappears, indeed it has to if the company is to be any good at what it is designed to do; weedkiller is designed to kill plants, so there should be no surprise when it chokes your prize orchids as well.

In the same way that a bank tends not to deal amicably with anyone without a lot of money, a privatized education system will refuse to acknowledge those that will not provide a good “return”; no spite involved, that is what it has to do by way of design. Ever walked into the bank to make only a small withdrawal/deposit? The cashier looks at you as if you are wasting their time. “Here!” they say gruffly, shoving the receipt through the grate as if trying to get rid of you quickly and get onto some real, important people with real, important money. Now imagine that same attitude in education, only in subtler forms and addressed in the ambiguous form of official letters with photocopied signatures at the bottom. Imagine your tutor refusing you extra tuition because you”re falling behind in the same way a bank manager refuses you an overdraft because you aren”t rich.

Making People Jump

And what if that notoriously jumpy bunch, the investors, lose their faith for some reason, maybe due to a news report they saw on salmonella in schools or internet plagiarism? Down goes the investment, down goes the company, down goes the student. The sea of education is stormy enough without being additionally rocked by the winds of business. Events a thousand miles away should not affect education here, but under a privatized business they may do, if investor confidence falls (Boo! Made you jump!) or if bigger, badder companies enter the scene; if a company should fall prey to an unfriendly merger to a company with no great regard for education, what then?

The belief that privatization would only cover small areas of education is also laughably naïve, like the belief that cane toads in Australia would just stay put and not multiply; again, it is the very nature of private companies to expand, like ink in water, in order to keep up the profit increase. Unlike public sector organizations, which just need to maintain their existence, the private sector needs to make a return. Not only must there be a profit, but it must be an increasing one, greater than last year’s, and the year before’s and so on; the fact that this trend cannot mathematically continue forever is irrelevant, any company that does not deliver the goods is a poor company.

Education will therefore never be a good enough business unless, like rail trains and winter heating, it relies on the time-tested capitalist method of exploiting those in the most need in order to suit itself; look out for peak-demand classes. Look out for “overdraft” charges for institutions falling below company-set grade levels. Look out for students with barcodes only taking courses that interest the company or that have the most attendance, the “chart hits top 10” approach to education courses. Or just don”t dignify it with a response. Did you say something? Privatisation? What’s that? Now, moving swiftly along”¦

Daniel Wallis

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