Bridge International Academies: What’s all the fuss about?

 

Bridge International Academies (BIA), created in 2008, have undoubtedly made a huge wave in the education sector of developing nations. The consensus however, on the positive or negative impact of this wave, has been hotly contested ever since. In criticism of BIA, the East African Centre for Human Rights (EACHR), alongside eight kenyan citizens, recently released a statement of protest. Directed at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), they argue investment in BIA breachers  the IFC’s performance standards 1, 2, and 4, concerning labour conditions, community health and safety, and environmental and social impact management[1].

Where education across Africa has continued to fail to meet both national and international standards and expectations, BIA promises to plug the gap between the lack of publicly provided education and higher cost options of private schooling. Funded by huge investment names, such as the Zuckerburgs, Bill Gates and the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID), BIA has, worryingly for some, been called “too big to fail”[2]. They claim to offer affordable education, where fees average $7 per month[3], by using technology and mass-scale economics to drastically reduce normal costs associated with education. Their model though, has been highly criticised by many international organisations, who claim it undermines quality and equality in education. They argue, total fees to attend BIA are too high for many poor families, creating unequal opportunities and further financial struggle. Furthermore they question the academic results and teaching methods in Bridge schools, along with Bridge’s breaches of multiple national laws. Thus, since BIA’s creation, three open letters, signed by multiple organisations, have been sent to investors of BIA, urging them to cease support of the company. The latest statement of protest, as mentioned above, was released on the 16th of April 2018, and directed at the IFC. With sub-standard education levels across Africa, being failed by regular attempts at improvement, the contemporary twist brought by BIA to this problem, seems a foolproof way to provide the basic right of education to many children who have been failed. Can education of the poor however, really be sustainable as a private, profit-making scheme?

Bridge International Academies website claims they use taylored “lessons and leverage cutting-edge innovation and technology” to provide their “pupils with a life-changing education”[4]. Indeed, its business model keeps its costs down by using technology to replace the need to provide high levels of costly training to teaches, and subsequently to pay them normal wages. Their ability to use economies of scale to minimize costs associated with establishing infrastructure, further reduces costs, enabling them to provide “affordable” education. Within the classrooms, teachers are given fully scripted lessons, through tablet devices controlled by BIA employees back in the United States. Collecting data from test results and classroom activities, BIA claim to create a teaching style that is perfected by technology and the input of “master teachers”[5]. To demonstrate the capabilities of their organisation, the BIA cite figures that suggest their education model has been superior to that of normal state education, in all the countries it works in[6] . From browsing the BIA website then, one could easily be persuaded that the answer to the education vaccum in Africa has been solved. So what’s the big fuss about?

Since 2015, three open letters, signed by multiple civil society organisations, have urged BIA supporters to cease investment. Reports, such as ‘Bridge vs. Reality’ corroborate the stance that BIA is failing to deliver what they have promised. It argues that although BIA claims to provide high quality education for those living on $2 dollars a day, and help children realize their right to education, independent studies of the model in practice rebut all these assertions.  Shedding doubt on the claim to high quality education are Education International (EI) and Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) who report that 71.5% of teachers are unqualified and working up to 66 hours per week at wages below national minimums[7]. ‘Bridge Vs. Reality’ also asserts, using independently collected evidence that the BIA schools are “unaffordable for 50 per cent of” Kenya’s population, when the instability of minimalistic level of wages in Kenya are realistically considered. Furthermore, the rigidity of the fee payment program has led to expulsions of students half way through terms, and discrimination against those from poorer areas. Other concerns voiced by an international community of Non Profit Organisations, Unions and journalists alike, are the lack of transparency of BIA operations, and their misleading market strategies[8]. Whilst Bridge claims their pupils in their Kenyan schools exceed their peers by 10% in academic results, the fact that many of Bridge’s pupils who are falling behind are encouraged to repeat a year, sheds much doubt on the true value of this statistic. It does however, reveal aggressive marketing strategy by BIA, which was exhibited by multiple attempts to silence critics. One key concern, highlighted by multiple reports on, and critical statements of, BIA, is their seeming disrespect for national laws. Labour laws, curriculum standards, and health and safety regulations, have reportedly been ignored by Bridge[9]. This has led courts to order sanctions against Bridge in Uganda and Kenya, where schools have been shut down. Furthermore, the effectiveness of script-reading teachers, who many argue are not able to properly interact with their students, or, as some reports have found, answer their questions, again sheds doubt on the quality of education claim by Bridge.  With all this in mind, what may first appear to one as nit-picking by the international community in their concerns over BIA, on greater reflection, seems to be well founded concern at a profit-making organisation that has promised the world, but delivered only an atlas. While concepts within BIA’s model, such as the use of technology to make education more affordable, provide a genuine potential solution to the education issue, the context, that is a profit-seeking organisation, is already proving problematic.

Although Bridge, in retaliative statements to their critics, have rebutted many statistical claims, and continued to argue the power of Bridge to educate effectively, their business model, that seeks to profit from the poor, is still a worrying one. Even forgetting their questionable marketing tactics and education results, the production of education as a capital good, instead of a basic right, risks forging a dangerous path for the marginalised poor in societies. The growth of private, profit-making schooling, removes the impetus and responsibility from the feet of governments, who should be, as many constitutions promise, providing schooling to every young person, regardless of their parents economic situation. Thus, the statement released in April this year, using investor standards to encourage corporate reflection on this project, provides necessary scrutiny, to an alarming trend.

 

By Josephine Jackson

(edited by Samantha Brener)

 

[1] http://eachrights.or.ke/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/CAO-Complaint-EACHRights-16-April-18-Public.pdf

[2] “Bridge International Academies gets high marks for ambition but its business model is still unproven”, The Economist, https://www.economist.com/business/2017/01/28/bridge-international-academies-gets-high-marks-for-ambition-but-its-business-model-is-still-unproven

[3] Bridge International Academies Website, FAQs, http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/about/faq/

[4] ‘Mission”, Bridge International Academies website, http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/about/mission/

[5] “Model”, Bridge International Academies website, http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/approach/model/

[6] http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/academics/the-bridge-effect/

[7] “Bridge Vs. Reality”, p. 53 http://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Bridge%20vs%20Reality_GR%20Report.pdf

[8] http://globalinitiative-escr.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/July-2017-10-lessons-learned-from-two-recent-media-articles-on-Bridge-International-Academies.pdf

[9] http://globalinitiative-escr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Public-Open-Letter-to-Investors-in-BIA-01.03.2018.pdf

 

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