Africa’s poorest schools are a gold mine for the corporate education industry. The Global South is awash in corporate school programs marketed as private alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar schools. But in early November, Ugandan officials suspended the operations of Bridge International Academies upon realizing the education franchise’s “academy in a box” model was coming apart at the seams.

A Ugandan court has upheld government plans to shutter 63 schools run by multinational Bridge International, but has allowed the facilities to remain open through the end of the school term on December 8. Education authorities cite repeated failures to comply with national education standards, leaving 12,000 students stranded. The order affirmed the education authorities’ decision in July to close the schools for flunking the licensing process and flouting standards for “certified teachers, accredited curriculum, appropriate teaching methods, adequate school facilities.” (The schools remain open for now but their futures are uncertain pending further legal proceedings.) 

The crackdown was spurred in part by a months-long investigation by Education International (EI), a global teachers-union federation, which illustrated how the fee-charging schools relied on “teacher computers,” in ramshackle facilities.

Bridge International, which runs about 400 nurseries and schools across Africa, launched its first school in a Nairobi slum. It has since expanded through massive global marketing to investors, blending humanitarianism with techno-evangelism. But despite its Silicon Valley branding, EI argues, Bridge International illustrates the dangers of privatization in Global South education systems through corporate partnerships promising innovation and “social enterprise.”

Bridge International’s Uganda schools, according to EI, revealed what critics see as a “profit-driven, cost-cutting, standardized and internet-based approach to education delivery.”

Following the crackdown on the schools, EI Project Director Angelo Gavrielatos tells The Nation that the Ugandan school system should enact comprehensive reforms to ensure all multinational school enterprises are licensed and comply with basic standards, including “the employment of qualified teachers, the provision of a curriculum consistent with national requirements,” and providing “facilities that are fit for purpose.” For the school system as a whole, EI called on Uganda “to ensure that they properly and adequately fund free quality public education for every child.”

Following the court ruling, Bridge International issued a statement of opposition, contending that the move “threatens to undo the critical work Bridge has done to broaden education opportunities that provide many thousands of Ugandan children with the best chance they have to escape generational poverty and achieve success.” Currently Bridge International plans to continue working on licensing schools and meeting regulatory requirements.

With roughly 120,000 students in about 520 schools, mostly in Kenya, along with 117 in Uganda and Liberia and, and four in India, Bridge is a heavy hitter in the global ed-tech industry, projecting to grow its enrollment to 10 million by 2025.

Bridge International’s brand is backed by tech heavy-hitters as well as the UK’s aid authority. Its founder, Jay Kimmelman, also founded the massive educational-software company Edusoft, and the company has been supported by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as well as mega philanthro-capitalists including the Clinton Global Initiative and the Gates Foundation.

The venture has also received funding from the United Kingdom’s international development authority and World Bank, branding itself as a soft-power mechanism to promote Western digital “innovation” to poorer regions through the “revitalization and re-imagination of our education system for the 21st century.”

According to EI’s campaign, a collaboration with local trade unions, the digital school model runs on a concept known as “Academy-in-a-Box,” which “involves a ‘vertically-integrated system’ in which the entire supply-chain is controlled and streamlined by Bridge—from academy construction to content development to teacher training.”

Likening the model to the “lean production” framework driving global mass manufacturing, EI argues, encourages deskilling of pedagogy. According to one teacher interviewed, the system requires minimum qualifications: “Teachers at Bridge are facilitators because the content is prepared and they are just there to read it to the pupils, following the script 100 percent.”

Another teacher complained about degraded labor conditions: “We don’t have job security. They can even terminate you over a simple matter.… For Bridge, they say ‘better we lose a teacher, than lose a pupil.’”

Students, after all, are consumers; interchangeable “facilitators” can be easily replaced.

Despite promises of technological modernization, regulators found that the reliance on the digital framework left schools vulnerable to mismanagement. One education official interviewed stated:

The curriculum they are using has never been approved by the National Curriculum Development Centre.… They should come and discuss with the Ministry accordingly and not just implement what they think without us knowing.

The tensions between multinational investments and state authorities tie into the complex history of education, national sovereignty, and postcolonial politics in Uganda. Historically, schooling has been divided between state-led institutions and private missionary academies. But the market liberalization onslaught of the 1980s and 1990s led to the rapid privatization of public services and disinvestment in public education, according to EI. Now schools have again become neoliberal battlegrounds for “social control and private gain,” and positioned private education providers as a neocolonial missionary, delivering programmed tablets in lieu of qualified educators.

The point is not that Ugandan schools weren’t, like many in the Global South, severely under-resourced before the government embraced edu-tech investors. But the decision to shutter the schools reflects frustration with corporate impunity. The education ministry even noted that, in addition to the licensing issues, “the health and safety of the learners were put at risk as evidenced by the overflowing pit latrines.” For such facilities, EI reports, families pay up to $150 per year, or about a quarter of a typical family income. And multinational managers reportedly use their mobile networks to “instantly track students who have not yet paid school fees” and demand payment.

The deterioration of Bridge’s Ugandan unregulated classrooms, Gavrielatos says, represents “a global phenomenon…driven by incredible corporate greed aimed at exploiting the aspirations of parents but more disturbingly so, the rights of children.” As a union representing educators worldwide, he adds, EI campaigns globally against the corporate schooling phenomenon, denouncing its underlying privatization agenda as “the greatest threat to the achievement of quality, inclusive, free education for all.”

Although Bridge International represents a corporate/industrial education model made for mass distribution through neoliberal capital flows, education unions see little room in the academy in a box for the teacher-student interactions and public social mission that should guide a public education system. Filling the educational deficits of the Global South may be more a product of social solidarity than cloud networking.