Professional Voice 14.3.5

The Australian Education Research Organisation and corporate philanthropy

Emma Rowe and Sarah Langman

Introduction

This article is about the Australian Education Research Organisation (otherwise known as AERO). We point to why AERO is concerning for educational research, namely due to their links with corporate philanthropy. We explain why their advocacy and promotion for particular types of research may serve as ‘product-promotion’, that is common in similar types of educational research organisations from the United Kingdom. It should be noted that this article is based on a three-year research project, titled venture philanthropy in public education, which is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Philanthropy as a euphemism for business and corporate interests

AERO is fundamentally linked with philanthropy, which is sometimes explained as ‘venture philanthropy’—this is ‘doing good’ whilst making money or generating profit. In the context of this article (education reform), philanthropy is a euphemism for business and corporate interests. Of course, this is not always the case—charitable work and charity is welcome—but in many examples across contemporary education reform, as we’ll explain further, ‘philanthropy’ functions as coded language for business or corporate interests, in order to generate profit and products into public schools.

Whilst AERO is a ‘government organisation’, this belies the reality of how they are fundamentally linked, driven and undergirded by venture philanthropy (there are other examples of this, such as Teach For Australia, which was registered by Boston Consulting Group staff and later sought legitimacy via government funding and policy). 

AERO potentially obfuscates the motivation for particular research initiatives, reform agendas or educational practices to be introduced into public schools. Philanthropists are not only driven by altruistic motives, that is, to improve the learning experience for students or teachers, but they are also driven by profit-making motives. It is opening up public schools to the interests of the business and corporate sector, and it is not an answer to the long-term, systemic and ongoing underfunding of public schools.

On their website, AERO maintains three objectives according to its strategic plan: first, AERO exists to generate ‘high-quality’ evidence; second, distribute ‘high-quality’ evidence that is relevant and accessible; and third, accelerate the use of evidence in the classroom, practice and policy (AERO, 2021d; Donovan, 2021). AERO consistently markets itself as unequivocally bipartisan, an independent ‘evidence broker’ (AERO, 2021b, 2021c, 2021d), assembling a range of instruments to construct its impartiality, such as randomized controlled trials (RCTs), or ‘evidence rubrics’. Their ‘expert board’ allegedly determines high-quality educational research, although at time of writing the majority of their expert board do not hold any formal qualifications or background in educational research (AERO, 2021a).

AERO’s purported remit was to remove ideology and factionalism, taking ‘politics out of the classroom’ (Karp, 2018), saving schools time and money by promoting the products and methods that enhance educational outcomes.

How did AERO come about?

AERO endeavours to legitimise itself via recommendation number 23 in the ‘Gonski 2.0’ Report (Through Growth to Achievement: Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools) (Australian Government, 2018). This recommends the establishment of an independent national institution tasked with gathering, producing and disseminating ‘evidence-based’ educational research. Pairing itself with this recommendation is clever, considering that ‘Gonski’ carries considerable weight as an advocate for public schooling (even though the ‘Gonski’ recommendations have mostly led to corporate-backed reforms in public education).

Many people are unaware that David Gonski is also a director of Australian Philanthropic Services (APS), which is the ultimate holding company of venture philanthropic organisation: Social Ventures Australia (SVA). He is a long term advocate for corporate philanthropy, being an architect of these reforms in the early 2000s under the John Howard Government, when they introduced a suite of reforms aimed at bolstering ‘corporate philanthropy’ (PM Transcripts, 2001, 2002). Gonski would later become instrumental in introducing philanthropic reforms to public education.

Indeed, Gonski’s recommendation became a critical lever to impel AERO forward, however this is the ‘public’ leverage. Behind the scenes, there was long-term lobbying for AERO by Social Ventures Australia. We’ll get to this in a moment. In 2020, the Federal Government agreed to provide $25 million of funding and the states and territories would contribute $25 million (Australian Government, 2020a). The so-called ‘independent’ government report (Gonski 2.0), authored by a corporate lawyer/consultant, long-time political lobbyist of strategic philanthropy (Gonski, 2013) and a director of Australian Philanthropic Services (ASIC, 2021b), provided the leverage required to gain public support and approval. ‘Gonski 2.0’ was represented to the public as an independent report, whilst obfuscating private agendas.

In actuality, AERO was the outcome of long-term lobbying by powerful corporate-backed organisations. This is openly known and expressed during interviews with some of the most powerful ‘philanthrocapitalists’ in Australia, with the majority coming from financial sectors such as banks and multinational consultancies, now turning their attention to reforming public education (e.g. McKinsey and Company, Boston Consulting Group, Macquarie Bank etc). It was recommended that AERO be modelled on the UK Education Endowment Foundation, or EEF for short (Australian Government Productivity Commission, 2016a, 2016b). Their ties with EEF are evident in that the founder CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation now sits on the board of AERO.

In order to understand how AERO came about, there are a few organisations that you need to be aware of: first, Social Ventures Australia (SVA for short), and its associated venture ‘Evidence for Learning’ (E4L); and the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). SVA is the brainchild of a former McKinsey and Company Director, launching in 2002. The Education Endowment Foundation launched in 2011 by Michael Gove, with funding from the government, in addition to funding from The Sutton Trust and Impetus. EEF developed the ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkits’, which are fairly well-known to teachers. In order to roll out an Australian version of the EEF’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkits’, SVA set up Evidence for Learning.

Evidence for Learning had a few goals; first, work with school systems in Australia to roll out EEF’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ (EEF, 2021). Second, it was set up to address ‘shortcomings’ in education research (SVA, 2016a); and third, to lobby for a national independent ‘evidence broker’ in education. E4L was to serve as the pilot model for AERO (Deeble et al., 2018; SVA, 2018b). Evidence for Learning adopted the same paradigms as EEF.

Following the establishment of Evidence for Learning in 2014, the Australian federal government (via Treasurer Hon. Scott Morrison MP) commissioned a formal inquiry into the ‘National Education Evidence Base’ via the Productivity Commission (Morrison, 2016). SVA submitted a 50-page recommendation to the Productivity Commission advocating for the institute, using the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation as a model example (SVA, 2016a). The final Productivity Commission recommendation is remarkably similar to SVA’s—it recommends an Australian evidence institute as modelled on the UK Education Endowment Foundation (Australian Government Productivity Commission, 2016a, 2016b). (It should also be noted that a former Director of SVA was appointed to the Productivity Commission at the same time, in the position of Commissioner of Social Policy) (ASIC, 2021c; Australian Government, 2016; SVA, 2016b).

It was approximately one year after this final PC report that the Gonski 2.0 Report was initiated in July 2017. The final report released in 2018 makes a major recommendation for the education evidence institute (Recommendation 23, Australian Government, 2018). The ‘Gonski 2.0’ report was a more outward public leverage that followed significant lobbying (SVA, 2018a, 2018b).

Federal legislation changed: embedding philanthropy in educational research

What is notable about AERO is that national government legislation authorises AERO to collaborate with ‘philanthropic organisations’ in the interests of educational research (Australian Government, 2020b). AERO exists:

To strengthen the national education evidence base for schools … through: (a) collaborating with … philanthropic organisations; b) developing and implementing a national agenda for research… (Australian Government, 2020b, pp. item 8, section 5, authors emphasis)

This objective is reiterated on two separate occasions in AERO’s Company Constitution, purchased from a corporate watchdog (ASIC, 2021a, pp. 6, 8): Directors should be appointed on the basis they have appropriate skill and experience in ‘engagement with the philanthropic community’ (ASIC 2021b, pp. 8). However, their stated purpose of engaging with philanthropy in order to ‘strengthen the national education evidence base’ is not disclosed or reiterated on any public platforms, including their website or associated reports or publications that can be downloaded from their website. If you search for it on their website or in their reports, you simply will not find this disclosure.

It is clearly not a disclosure that AERO wish to make to the public, possibly for the questions it would raise. It is also notable that this national legislative change was not reported in the mainstream media, even though it is significant for how it embeds philanthropic involvement into the national fabric of educational research. This is a significant change, in that we are embedding business interests into educational research, and public schools.

Let’s not be naïve: many corporations regard public education as ‘big business’ or a ‘cash cow’ (McKinsey & Co, 2016). But often reforms, policies or agendas in public education require the support of educational research. If philanthropy can essentially ‘buy’ research to drive their reforms, this will clearly obscure the motivation for particular products or agendas in public schools. It might be recommendations (or mandates) to purchase lesson plans from specific sources or products (e.g. Grattan reports that explicitly promote UK-based Ark lesson plans), and despite an organisation promoted as ‘not-for-profit’, this tends to be misleading (in the same way that elite private schools are ‘not-for-profit’).

An example of this is the corporate-backed and funded Teach For Australia and its consistent push for the relatively costly product ‘Maths Pathway’, to be implemented in their partner schools (‘Maths Pathway’ was developed by TFA Alumni) (Teach For Australia, 2016). TFA Partner schools are encouraged to use the product within their classroom, and the product is promoted through the wider ‘Teach For’ network (Teach For All, 2022; Teach for Australia, 2022). One of the highest philanthropic funders of Teach for Australia is the alternate Director of ‘Maths Pathway’, which may indicate the catch-22: philanthropists are invested in products they are promoting in public schools.

Finally, it is important to understand that AERO is strongly tied and linked to venture philanthropic organisations. AERO has been set up in ‘such a way to attract philanthropic funding’. This is specified by the CEO Jenny Donovan when talking to Greg Ashman on his podcast:

We’re being setup in such a way that we can attract philanthropic funding potentially in the fullness of time. (Donovan speaking to Ashman, 2021)

Whilst it endeavours to position itself as government-owned and bipartisan institution, taking ‘the politics out of the classroom’, it encapsulates politics at its heart. Until AERO appoint a Director ofPhilanthropy, it seems that the Head of Research has been working in this role pro tem. The ‘expert board’ and directors of AERO includes a former SVA director and SVA donors (AERO, 2021a). Sir Kevan Collins from the Education Endowment Foundation sits on the expert board of AERO. One of their ‘expert board’ members is a wealthy businessman whose previous company focused on ‘financing and development in the minerals and energy sectors’ (Nicholls, 2012) (and, who is also a long-term SVA donor and his wife sits on the board of Australian Philanthropic Services).

It begs the question—how can research be bipartisan or ‘evidence-based’ when it is responding to business or corporate interests, that are dually driven by profit-based motives?

Conclusion: Public education is not the place for profit-making

Educational research is ideally bipartisan, in that it is not linked to profit-making ventures or product-placement. As a researcher, and as a core part of our researcher integrity, we understand that we must always declare and disclose all of our affiliations (AERO has a history of not declaring their affiliations when publishing on public platforms, e.g. The Conversation). So too, we argue that AERO do not openly disclose their philanthropic or business relationships that drive their agenda.

 There are numerous issues at stake here, including quality and integrity of educational research; and profit-generating motives in public schools. As we see overseas, these organisations are essentially ‘purchasing’ research to push for a particular product. Their agenda is to support philanthropic-backed ventures in public schools, in order to ‘try out’ or ‘experiment’ with a product or small venture. It is far from bipartisan, as they like to present to the public. It is for these reasons they often obfuscate their corporate-backers or corporate-donors. Why, for example, would an education research centre appoint a former giant of an Electricity Company to their ‘expert board’, with no history or experience in educational research?

Education is increasingly positioned as a consumer good, compared with purchases such as cars, even though education has a strong, consistent relationship with social mobility and life opportunities (unlike a purchase of a car, thanks Milton Friedman). As education is likened to a consumer good and positioned within the market, there are greater emphases on profit-seeking ventures looking to generate profit fromand within public schools—whether this be from lesson plans, standardized testing, measuring teachers and of course, technology and related products in the classroom. There is an ever-increasing need to push for disclosure on funders, and sources of funding; advocate for a national conversation about venture philanthropy in public education; and push back against profit-making initiatives in public education, to advocate for public education as a social, civic good.

Acknowledgements

Emma Rowe receives funding from the Australian Research Council in relation to a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DE210100513). The project is titled ‘Venture Philanthropy in Public Education’. We are grateful to all of the participants for their generosity in granting interviews, and the anonymous scholars who have shared their own insights and expertise, in relation to this study. We are grateful to Professor Bob Lingard for his advice. Furthermore, many roles that we have written about in this article change rapidly (such as members of a board), and this article was correct at time of writing. The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) is incorporated and registered as a company limited by guarantee under the Corporations Act 2001. Note that AERO is registered as Australian Education Research Organisation Limited (see ASIC records, 2021a, b, c, d).

References

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Dr Emma Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Deakin University and a Fulbright Scholar whose work has examined educational reform and educational policy.

Sarah Langman is a PhD candidate at the Australian Catholic University researching the impact of digital technology on school leaders.