The commercialisation of education – the ethical and reputational risks

  • Education institutions are coming under extreme financial pressure
  • As they grapple with rising costs and shrinking budgets, many now find themselves along the path towards commercialisation
  • Tilden Watson, Head of Education, Zurich Municipal, considers the ethical and reputational risks involved

For anyone working in or around education, it will not come as a surprise when I say that, for better or worse, creeping commercialisation is transforming the sector.

Whatever your personal views, most of us can agree that continued commercialisation is inevitable and necessary. Across the spectrum, institutions are coming under extreme pressure, facing a combination of increased student numbers, rising costs, and in many cases, significant budget cuts. All have to make a choice: slice budgets or become more entrepreneurial.

Our new commercialisation whitepaper reveals how organisations across the public and voluntary sectors are facing similar challenges.

How are organisations responding?

While the direction of travel is the same, most institutions are at very different stages of their commercialisation journey. For academies, what we are seeing is creeping fees around the margins, with parents being asked to pay contributions for everything from school trips, to breakfast clubs, and all manner of other things.

Colleges are typically further down the road, with many now courting international students, or even considering overseas campuses. Universities, however, are typically the most advanced. From renting out halls over the summer (The University of Edinburgh is taken over by Festival Fringe revellers every year) to competing for the most lucrative research grants, most universities rely on commercial activity for large chunks of their budget.

The reputational and ethical considerations

While the methods of commercialisation may vary wildly, all institutions need to think long-term and consider the answer to one simple question: where could things go wrong? The danger is that in having to find new revenue streams, organisations forget that education is for all – particularly at the school level.

Education institutions of all shapes and sizes are striking deals with private organisations. Ultimately, these companies are giving money in the expectation of something in return. Are you sure what you’re signing up to? Are you sure how it’s going to affect your brand as an educational organisation?

For example, vending machines may seem like a fairly benign example of commercialisation in schools, but how does it look when private companies are making money selling chocolate to kids during an obesity crisis? Even renting out university halls over the summer is not without its risk. It’s one thing renting to a group of risk managers from local authorities, another renting to an arms company convention.

Put in stark terms, commercialisation can contribute just a fraction of your budget, but if misjudged, can taint your entire organisation.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Considered commercialisation, undertaken with long-term strategic thinking, can bring great benefits to institutions, pupils and parents.

How can Zurich help?

Commercialisation and the provision of public services are now inextricably linked. Within the current financial framework, the drive towards being more commercial brings challenges for public service leaders. What do our decision makers understand commercialism to mean? And what examples are there of innovation as well as risks around a commercial approach? This conference will examine the relationship and attempt to understand both the benefits and the risks of a commercial approach to delivering public services in the 21st century.

Join Zurich Municipal at CIPFA’s Commercialism Conference on 11th June in Westminster. Book here

Zurich has years of experience supporting public sector organisations in their commercial ventures. You can find a wealth of information about commercialisation in our new whitepaper – What are we here for? How commercialisation is reshaping the public and voluntary sectors