Emma Rowe

Who stands to benefit? We all need to know

Some of the richest and most powerful individuals and corporations in Australia are involved in educational philanthropy – giving money to public schools via foundations. Education philanthropy represents a powerful network from diverse sectors including political, business, corporations and media. 

This is framed to the public as charitable acts, and wanting to ‘give back’. But we need to ask questions: who stands to benefit? Who has the power to direct large-scale policy? What are the implications for democracy, social justice and equity? 

Philanthropy in education presents clear ramifications for transparent democracy and government, in addition to the funding of public schools, and the commercialisation of schools. As a public, do we welcome corporate funders in our public school sector, and what are the wider implications of this? 

This is venture philanthropy, wanting something in return. It is strategic and organised; partnering rather than giving. 

“Corporate welfare” designed by Rowe and Holme.

This could be policy influence, tax minimisation or the generation of profit for your business. This is what Bill Gates described as ‘creative capitalism’—a third-way approach ‘where governments, businesses and non-profits work together’. Venture philanthropy is investing, not simply granting. It aims to be entrepreneurial, high-impact and high-engagement.

Venture philanthropists aim for two primary strategies: first, to act as a type of ‘boundary spanner’, linking together a range of actors from NGOs, governments, corporations, intergovernmental agencies and business. Second, establish ‘knowledge brokers’ or ‘evidence brokers’ to leverage authority with the public and achieve large-scale reform.

How is this happening in education? Venture philanthropy is wide-spread in the US and the UK.  It rests on claims of altruism, whilst simultaneously generating profits and significant influence in education reform (surveys with educators show that the majority believe, for example, that the Gates Foundation is more powerful than the US government when it comes to education reform, and in their successful backing of numerous policy agendas, such as charter schools or the Common Core Initiative- they would be right).

We have to ask ourselves—is corporate-backed education reform a good thing? Do we want corporations to be more transparent in how they are driving large-scale policy and directing education reform? These large-scale reforms, as enabled by ‘big money’, are often enacted through ‘foundations’ which claim they are motivated by improving equity in education. In other words, the influence and the money trail is often not very easy to trace as they hide under subsidiaries or ultimate holding companies.

This is a short post which will only provide a brief introduction (the fuller length version is published in a peer-reviewed journal). Let’s consider just one example: the emergence of Australian Schools Plus, the first nation-wide charity with Deductible Gift Recipient Status, that enables corporations, businesses and high-net wealth individuals to give to public schools and receive a tax-deduction.

 Venture philanthropy

 Philanthropy in disadvantaged public schools was first recommended (in a significant way) in the Federal Review of Funding for Schooling (recommendation 41). The Gonski Review called for reform that would emulate models from the UK and the US, where academy schools and charter schools partner with philanthropists to lead ‘systemic improvements’. This recommendation was driven by venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia and supported by others (e.g. The Ian Potter Foundation, Origin Foundation – Origin Energy). 

The Report colloquially became known as the Gonski Review, in light of the chairman of the report – the ‘most well-networked business man in Australia’, corporate consultant David Gonski. Gonski is a well-known and long-term political advocate of corporate philanthropy, having sat on senior advisory boards for the Howard Government in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gonski was highly influential in ushering in high-level reform in this area. He is also the co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services ((according to current ASIC records, APS is a subsidiary of venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia– a central lobbyist for education reform. Please note that SVA stipulate that this relationship ended in 2017).

In the review’s advocacy for increased funding for disadvantaged students, the policy document became well-known and the broader public came to associate Gonski with educational equity (e.g. #igiveagonski). 

But one of the most enduring policies Gonski 1.0 has implemented is the introduction of corporate-backed funding of public schools, unclear money trails and questionable policy influence by ‘big money’. The following is a timeline which shows the key stages:

 Table 1. A timeline of key events.

2010Gonski is invited to Chair the Federal Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling – via a personal call on his mobile from Julia Gillard, then federal minister for Education (Gonski was on holidays at the time with his family). He was ‘taken aback’ by the invitation, considering his prior lack of experience in this sector. Gillard is a well-known advocate of philanthropy in education, as styled on the US-system. 
2011The Gonski Review is released. A major recommendation of the report is to create a fund to promote philanthropy in disadvantaged schools.
2012Eight leading not-for-profit organisations meet to discuss the foundation of a national charity to promote structured philanthropy in education.
2012The Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC) Act 2012 passed by the Australian Government in order to reduce ‘red tape’ for charities.
2013The Australian Government provides $5 million seed funding (of public money) for the establishment of Australian Schools Plus Ltd.
July 2013Australian Schools Plus Ltd registered as a charity via Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
2014/2015Federal Parliament passes legislation granting Australian Schools Plus Ltd Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR1) status (Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 5) Bill 2014). Corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals are encouraged to give money to public schools in order to receive a tax-deduction.
2016Schools Plus launch online crowdfunding platform for public schools, called ‘Fundraise Yourself’.
2016‘Pioneers in Philanthropy’ is launched (hereby referred to as PIP). PIP is not a registered charity. PIP partners with banks and large media groups (e.g. Fairfax Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Bank).
2016Schools Plus includes board members from News Corp Australia, Foxtel, ABN AMRO Bank, and AFL Football. Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Toyota, Google, Origin Foundation, Harvey Norman and many more.
2018UNSW Gonski Institute of Education is launched, funded by philanthropy including donations from David Gonski. The sources of the donations are not publicly available. UNSW stands for University of New South Wales. The Chair of the Advisory Board is an extension of Gonski’s network and the Schools Plus network: the chairman is the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank; committee members include the Chief Executive of the State Library of NSW (Gonski was the former board director); the general manager of the Paul Ramsay Foundation (donor to Schools Plus and the largest donor for Teach for Australia); and the CEO of the Centre for Social Impact (financially established by Gonski and three of his colleagues).

The federal legislation- which set an historical precedent – received very little media coverage, and none that was critical, questioning or investigating. It is overwhelmingly regarded positively that corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals can give to public schools. Arguably, giving to public schools is positive–but what is the price? It is important to note formidable influences in modern education policy in Australia.

Big money, big influence? 

Philanthropic organisations such as Schools Plus host a wide range of hybrid market-state actors across corporate and not-for-profit organisations, including board members from News Corp Australia and Foxtel (as part of the Murdoch empire), a former CEO from Deloitte and elite sporting groups (an AFL Football Club). Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Google, Toyota, Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Origin Foundation (from Origin Energy), retail giants (Harvey Norman) and many more (note, this lists 2020 funders).

The following visual endeavours to illustrate just some of the donors:

A picture of Schools Plus and a snapshot of their high-profile donors, representing the wealthiest in Australian society.  

Effectively, each node represents a high-level of power from corporate, philanthropy or the government sector. The networks are characterised via reproductive values; and relational patterns and replications are evident across the network. Gonski’s professional and personal network is reproduced throughout the Schools Plus network; this includes banking giants, media oligarchs, and the wealthiest identities. For example, Gonski’s mentee Catherine Brenner, the former Chair of the AMP Bank, occupies a board role for Schools Plus. Major power-brokers are represented in the network: Roger Massy-Greene, ex-Bank of America and Rio Tinto CEO, political party donor, married to Belinda Hutchinson (co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services and long-term funder of Social Ventures Australia), is part of the Pioneers in Philanthropy (and a newly formed member of the ‘expert board’, and Director of AERO). Kim Williams is a former executive from Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel and News Corp. The CEO of Schools Plus is a former corporate consultant from Deloitte (one of the big four).

The majority of board members represent financier or consultancy networks, rather than any experience or knowledge within the classroom, as teachers, school leaders or principals.

Schools Plus is closely aligned with Social Ventures Australia (a venture philanthropic organisation). Their first CEO was Michael Traill, the CEO from SVA. Their prior registered address was SVA’s address. SVA were described as the ‘driving force’ behind setting up Schools Plus. There are similar people who hold roles. For instance, former board member of Schools Plus (Lisa Paul AO) is also the former director from SVA (this is common, including the newly formed AERO– many of the directors are former/current SVA directors). The face of these organisations tends to be far different to the engine (money) that is driving it. The big-name donors are also common throughout this network. This includes Google, Origin, or Commonwealth Bank (all donors to Schools Plus and SVA).

As an organisation, SVA have pushed forward major education reform, including Schools Plus, Bright Spots Schools Connection, the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), and Evidence for Learning (a subsidiary of SVA). There is a capacity to influence high-level reform, including federal legislation. But, this is coupled with a lack of formal responsibilities or bureaucratic transparencies. It is undemocratic. There is a concentration of power within particular institutional affiliations.

It is important to note that the median tax that corporations pay in Australia is 1.64% (when analysing data from 2014 to 2019). This is because corporations offset their taxable income by giving to a range of foundations such as this– rather than paying tax to the government (which would then be distributed to public services). It is a win-win for corporations – they get to choose where their funds go – get ‘free’ company branding – win contracts from the government – get their product into schools and classrooms – and can claim corporate social responsibility as well!

Final note

This post is a preliminary and does not pretend to answer all the questions. I would encourage more scrutiny of organisations and foundations that influence public schools and public schooling policy. They will influence how public schools are funded, what kinds of products will be included in the public school classroom, and are influencing policy in schools, at state and federal level.

Emma Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Deakin University and 2020 Fulbright Scholar. Emma is a recipient of the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Grant (DECRA) 2021-2024. Emma’s work examines educational reform and education policy, with an interest in  school choice, privatization and marketisation. Emma’s work has held a long-term interest in the reform of public schooling across OECD countries. 

This was written with the support of an ARC DECRA

Labor proposes a new $280m Evidence Institute for Schools, but where is the evidence we need it?

The Australian Labor Party recently announced it would invest $280 million to fund a new educational research institute if it wins the next federal election. The Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek said Labor’s proposed Evidence Institute for Schools would “take politics out of the classroom” and be “independent of government”. She also said the new institute would “put an end to decades of ideological battles about school education”.

According to mainstream media the idea was warmly welcomed by several education stakeholders, including by the President of Australian Primary Principals Association who said there is currently “no one place” he could go to for “valuable independent, peer-reviewed research” in Australia, and the director of the Grattan Institute, Peter Goss, who was reported in The Australian as saying that there is “not enough education research in Australia” and “an independent body is the way to go”.

You would be forgiven for believing that Australia is lacking high-quality independent research in education. But the evidence says quite the opposite.

In the current policy environment, which claims to be ‘data-driven’ and evidenced based, Labor’s proposal for a new ‘independent’ educational research institute seems lacking in credibility.

Evidence that we are already producing world-class independent educational research

World Rankings

The evidence is Australia produces some of the best education research in the world. Work by education researchers in Australia impacts education practice both here and internationally. According to world rankings such as the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings we have five universities in the top 30 ranking universities in the world for education research and eight in the top fifty. Compare that with the United Kingdom for example. The UK has more than twice the number of university departments of education, but with four in the top 30 and seven in the top fifty. On the world stage, Australia punches above its weight in terms of quality education research.

These rankings are based on quality independent peer-reviewed research produced by university education departments, as judged by world-leading scholars.

Above average in educational research

An article published in Higher Education Research and Development Journal, found that “most Australian universities are performing above the world average in educational research. Australian universities perform especially well on citation indicators, with more than 75% of universities performing above the world average.”

Our education research is highly regarded around the world. Take for example research by Australians Lingard and colleagues on a ‘rich tasks’ approach to assessment, which has informed curriculum development in Singapore and also in Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”. Or Gale and Parker’s research on university student transition in Australia ,which has been used by the University of Edinburgh to develop an Academic Transitions Toolkit for use by lecturers and also by Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland to develop a Student Transitions Map. And there are lots more examples like these. So, to say that Australian education research is non-existent, not well regarded internationally or not transferrable into policy and practice is purely ideological. It is not based on the evidence.

The threat of political interference in the proposed research institute    

But what happens if we ignore the evidence and establish a not-so Evidence-Based Institute anyway? So-called independent research bodies have been established in other countries, such as in the United Kingdom and in the United States (e.g. The Institute of Education Sciences).

One potential threat of these ‘independent’ research bodies is that a political party can essentially ‘purchase’ research to support their desired political agenda. Education policies may be established with very little reference to research that exists outside of the Institute. They can also impose one particular way of doing research as the ‘gold standard’. That is what’s happening in the UK with the government-sponsored Education Endowment Fund, with its exclusive bent for random control trials, despite these being discredited in the social world of education.

The effects of this political interference in education research is concerning for the future of education in countries like Australia. For example, independent research has shown that current reforms into the initial teacher education sector in Australia is based on highly questionable data and tends to be dominated by cherry-picking of out-dated reports. The prevailing logic of teacher education policy is now very clearly ideological rather than based on the research evidence.

The money could be better spent

We also need to consider the ramifications for education and schools. The expenditure of $280 million towards an evidence institute for schools—when we already have some of the best research in the world—will divert much needed funds away from schools.

In an environment that is consistently calling for increased funding for under-resourced schools, it is questionable whether this large sum of money is being more attentive to political agendas, than paying attention to more pressing concerns for parents and students—over-subscribed schools and under-resourced schools. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that there has been “a record number of demountable classrooms pop up around public schools, with more on the way”.

It is difficult to support this amount of funding being diverted into external institutes, given the pressing need for greater resourcing in our neediest schools and especially when we already have the infrastructure to produce quality research.

It is true that increased funding for schools will not guarantee improved performance. But research has consistently demonstrated the relationship between ‘resource rich’ environments and school performance. Education researcher Jeanne M Powers found that school performance is positively correlated with the level of resources within a school, including ‘qualified teachers, sufficient and up-to-date textbooks, and adequate, safe facilities’. Further research in this area refers to ‘resource-rich and ‘resource-poor’ schools, stating that ‘resources and school performance are positively correlated’ .

It is essential that funding is driven into the classroom, rather than away or outside of the classroom, as much as possible. When it is driven away from the classroom, this becomes a larger problem around effective distribution.

The United States of America is an excellent example of demonstrating this distributional problem. The US maintains high expenditure, but low results on standardized tests. It spends more per student than most countries in the OECD:

For example, Estonia and Poland, which spend around US$40,000 per student, perform at the same level as Norway, Switzerland and the United States, which spend over US$100,000 per student. Similarly, New Zealand, one of the highest performing countries in reading, spends well below the average per student.

In spite of their high expenditure, the United States continually falls behind in literacy, mathematics and science test results (according to PISA), whereas our lesser spending Kiwi neighbour consistently achieves higher outcomes. It is not the expenditure that is the problem for the United States, but more so how the expenditure is distributed. According to some commentators:

America tends to tie up more of the resources in administration. There are more layers of administration and therefore less money getting into the classrooms in schools in many system… The place you really want to spend the money is as close to the classroom as possible.

The ALP’s pledge to fund an ‘Evidence Institute for Schools’ lacks attention to what is needed most—funding for schools and classrooms. Further, the effectiveness of this large sum of funding spent on an institute is premised on the notion that it will produce significantly more effective research than is already available.

Here’s what could be done

We believe providing funds for educational research is, indeed, invaluable and important. Many educational researchers in Australia would support a pledge for increased investment. However as we see it the current systems are not broken. There is already so much existing and emerging world class, independent educational research in Australia. The problem is, it is not being widely distributed or acted upon.

If Labor wants to do something about educational research, we would recommend investigating more efficient ways to encourage the uptake of educational research in our schools and universities. Schools and teachers reportedly find it difficult to access peer-reviewed journal articles, due to the cost of peer-reviewed journal articles. They can also be difficult to locate and employ quite dense language. It is important to ensure that existing research is readily translatable to classroom practise for time-poor teachers.

As we see it, Australia needs to improve overall accessibility of education research to the public. This could be achieved by researchers discussing their research or disseminating their research more broadly via public platforms. As academics such as Megan Boler reminds us, it is important for researchers to engage with the media and the public, in order to speak back to challenges towards democratic institutions such as education.

Education policy has a tendency be influenced more by populist politics, than by research, as James Lloyd and others have pointed out, but nevertheless there are specific steps that researchers can take. For example,

researchers have a responsibility to ensure non-technical summaries of their research are available, their publications are properly logged in searchable depositories, and to engage with relevant opportunities, such as calls for evidence from Parliamentary Select Committees.

If the Labor Party or the Australian Government are seriously looking for ways to move closer towards research-informed teaching and schools, they should start by promoting and distributing the world class educational research that Australian educational researchers are already producing.


Emma Rowe
is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. Emma’s research engages with matters around school choice and privatization, global reform and critical policy studies. Her book, published by Routledge (2017) is entitled ‘Middle-class school choice in urban space: the economics of public schooling and globalized education reform’. Emma is interested in the role of public schooling within the market economy and how the consumer engages with public schooling in the market economy. Her research draws upon visual ethnographies to ensure that data is grounded in space. Emma publishes widely in peer-reviewed journals, and is currently serving as a Special Issue Editor for Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. She has recently joined the editorial team for peer-reviewed journal Critical Studies in Education. Emma is on Twitter at @emmaelitarowe 


 Trevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice, and Head of the School of Education at The University of Glasgow. His research focuses on inequalities generated by and within education systems, drawing on a predominantly sociological imagination. His books include: Just Schooling, Engaging Teachers, Rough Justice, Educational Research by Association, Schooling in Disadvantaged Communities, Policy and Inequality in Education and Practice Theory in Education. With Russell Cross and Carmen Mills, he is currently contracted by Routledge to write ‘Social Justice Dispositions in Education’, drawing on their recent similarly named ARC project. He is co-CI on a current ARC project Vocational institutions, undergraduate degrees: distinction or inequality. He is editor of the journal Critical Studies in Education and of the book series Education Policy and Social Inequality. He is a past president of AARE and founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, when it was located in Adelaide. He is a member of the Wales Education Commission. Trevor is on Twitter at @trevagale