Pearson Inc., Rutgers and the fight for Quality Education

Pearson, Inc., which dominates the world of education testing and technology, was recently in the news because of illegal practices carried out by its charitable wing. Charitable foundations are not supposed to be in the business of making money, hence the word “charity.” But in a move that would have made Scrooge proud (both Ebenezer and the duck), the Pearson Foundation was involved in wooing clients for the parent company and developing profitable products. This should hardly come as a surprise given the rapacious, profit-hungry corporation that Pearson is. In 2012, the company raked in $1.4 billion in profits.

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It was therefore disturbing for us to hear that the administration at Rutgers had signed a contract with Pearson, Inc. that will fork over even more money to this corporation. In a lucrative contract set to expire in 2020, Rutgers would hand over 50% of initial tuition dollars to Pearson, Inc. At a time when student debt has reached record proportions crossing 1 trillion dollars, it is simply wrong to take money from our young to pad the coffers of a for-profit corporation.

In addition to stealing from our young, the Pearson contract offers few protections for faculty. Top of the list is the question of intellectual property. When intellectual property is not protected, it opens the door for the outsourcing of a course without the consent of the faculty member who created it.

This creates two sets of problems. First, courses can be outsourced to low paid part time faculty who are the new underclass of the education system. Not only are adjunct and other contingent faculty exploited financially, but they typically do not have access to healthcare, unemployment insurance, pension benefits and all the things that people need to live. Out of 1.5 million university faculty in the US, 1 million are contingent faculty. The Pearson-Rutgers agreement only encourages this trend because agreements with corporations are ultimately about making profits; this trend is visible in other sectors of the economy as well since neoliberalism has  created a permanent army of contingent workers from whom super profits can be extracted.

The second problem with this is the quality of online education. When a senior professor offers a course to let’s say 300 students online, s/he has about a dozen teaching assistants who play the role of facilitating discussions in smaller groups, something that is vital to promote learning. When this course, developed by the tenured faculty member, is outsourced to a part-time lecturer who is not given the same kind of teaching assistance and support, the end result is a course that has been compromised in terms of the quality of education in order to enrich for-profit corporations.

A recent University of Pennsylvania study found that only 4% of students enrolled in the giant MOOC’s courses (Massive Open Online Courses) actually finish a class. Even smaller online classes can fail miserably. The much touted 100 person online courses at San Jose State offered in partnership with the Udacity company, were a flop.

In other words, there is much thinking to do before rushing headlong to adopt online education. And the people who should be involved in doing this thinking are faculty, i.e. those who actually teach courses and may know a thing or two about learning practices. Yet, Rutgers administration signed this contract without faculty involvement. A committee made up of 15 administrators and 2 faculty members, all of whom were sworn to secrecy, made a decision that impacts all faculty.

Additionally, the Pearson contract encroaches upon academic freedom. A bureaucrat at Pearson can censor material s/he considers to be “obscene, threatening, indecent, libelous, slanderous, [or] defamatory.” This is not just an attack on academic freedom, but upon free speech, and upon the diversity of instruction offered to adults.

But this story is not just about doom and gloom, it is about the power we have to fight back. When the faculty was made aware of the Pearson contract they rose to challenge, passing a strongly worded resolution against Pearson. The first victory was won by the Graduate faculty in New Brunswick, who effectively suspended future graduate courses being offered through Pearson. This was followed by a similar vote by the Faculty Council, New Brunswick. Then an overwhelming majority of faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) not only voted in favor of the Pearson resolution, but also went a step further passing two other resolutions. One requires that courses be labeled to indicate whether they are online, hybrid, or in class. The other states that online courses must carry the same expectations and requirements for student/instructor interaction as exist for classroom and hybrid courses.

During this holiday break, those of us who were involved in this struggle, have much to celebrate. When we organize, as we did through our union Rutgers AAUP-AFT, we can win. These victories though are just the first steps towards asserting faculty governance and taking power back from Pearson, Inc. It is a small step in a larger struggle against the corporatization of education in the neoliberal era. It is about reclaiming the university as an institution dedicated to training the next generation of citizens who can participate meaningfully in a democracy without being straddled by debt. It is about putting students and faculty first, and removing the profit motive from education. This is a long struggle, and we have a ways to go.

Yet, as I sit back with my cup of egg nog this holiday season, I cannot help but smile at the thought that we made Pearson Scrooge spit out a “bah, humbug.”