All over the world, there is a rise in the privatization of education, generally in competition with and to the detriment of public education. The SDG devoted to education is particularly ambitious: “Ensure access to quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. Relying on the privatization of education will not allow this political commitment to be respected.
“Develop private provision”: The panacea?
Since 2000, access to primary education has become widespread and 35 million children have been enrolled in school all over the world. But there are increasing inequalities: the poorest children are 4 times less likely to go to school and complete a basic cycle than the more privileged children. Investment in “basic” education, including secondary education, is neglected to the benefit of higher education. According to UNESCO, in 2012, low-income countries spent 11 times more for a student in higher education than for a student in primary education. This trend further deteriorates physical conditions, the difficult teaching conditions, and the motivations of families to send their children to a public school.
It is due to this shortcoming in public investment in basic education that private provision is developing. This provision may sometimes compensate for the existing situation (lack of facilities, remote rural areas, overcrowding, problem of “retention” in school…), or sometimes compete with a deficient public system. It consequently imbalances a situation which is already unequal.
A number of international donors (World Bank, DFID, Regional Development Banks…) and countries (Liberia, Ghana, Kenya…) present privatization as a solution to the education crisis. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda even calls on the private sector to “engage as partners in the development process” in Southern countries!
Consequently, the privatization of education is increasing everywhere to varying degrees. Its development is particularly visible in higher education all over the world: 1 student in 3 studies in the private sector. The private sector is also gaining importance in “basic education”, despite the recent pledge of 12 years of good quality and free primary and secondary education (SDG 4: Education 2030). On average, in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, over half of preschool students and over a fifth of those at primary and secondary level are enrolled in private schools.
Community-based and religious-based private education often appeared before public education and have played an important role for most countries. A number of these private institutions are under contract with the State and cannot be qualified in the same way as free and clandestine schools. But today, there is a real risk of a commercialization of education and of it becoming extremely diversified depending on the social levels of students. Alongside high-performance schools for the richest, low-cost schools are being opened with a poor quality of instruction for the others.
A survey was conducted at the Francophone Trade Union Committee for Education and Training (CSFEF) for the day of 15 March 2016 “for a call from French-speaking civil society against the commercialization of education”. According to this survey, a number of African trade unions report “expensive schools for the rich, less expensive schools for the poor” and especially “no-go areas for staff”, where an arbitrary system prevails. Anyone who decides to protest risks dismissal.
“Following the earthquake which destroyed half of the country’s schools, there was a marked increase in the number of private schools, which account for 90% of the education stock in Haiti. Here, you can open a school like you open a shop (they are indeed taxed like a business). We call these private schools “Bòlèt schools”: like the “lottery”, the national sport! In these schools, there is no uniform curriculum and some teachers do not have a contract. The State does not have the means to regulate this phenomenon”, Mona Bernardel, Secretary of the Haitian Teachers’ Union, UNNOH.
Towards the commercialization of education
There is much to tempt Master Fox: it is estimated that the market share for private education stands at EUR 4 trillion and is increasing! This market could reach EUR 7.3 trillion by 2017 according to the International Finance Corporation.
The “commercial chains” of “low-cost” private schools (most originating from Anglo-Saxon multinational companies) are a recent phenomenon and the speed of its proliferation gives cause for concern. For example, the American chain, Bridge International Academies, set up its first school in Kenya in 2009 and now has 400 schools in the country, 80 in Uganda, several others in Nigeria, and in June 2016 is planning to open about a hundred in India. The objective for this chain – and there are others – is to reach 10 million students by 2025.
These low-cost schools benefit from a great deal of tolerance from States (Ghana, Kenya…) allowing them to deliver standardized, poor quality content (teachers receive little training or have a low level of qualification, teachers receive the same “spoon-fed” lesson to give on a tablet) for children targeted as being disadvantaged. Behind a marketing message – make education accessible to all – there are companies which exploit the concern of families to provide their children with a good education in order to sell services which are not that affordable (USD 5 a month on average), and sometimes do not comply with the State’s curricula and safety and supervision rules. It is indeed an education that has become a market commodity generating profits for these education companies!
Graphic by Solidarité Laïque
Impacts of States giving up their responsibilities
Privatization segments the education sector (depending on the religion, families’ incomes…) and generates disparities between learners at local and regional level, to the extent that it creates strong social and ethnic inequalities in a country. This sometimes conflicts with legislation on human rights, particularly the principle of non-discrimination.
The development of private provision also adds to the most privileged categories and even the middle classes abandoning the public system. This strengthens the often negative representations of public provision, which is said to be not of a sufficiently high quality, and also leads to an increase in the tuition fees of private schools. In Morocco, public schools are threatened with closure, whereas the share of students in private primary schools rose from 4% in 1999 to 15% in 2015. In 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights took the State to task over this growth of the private sector, which is a “source of segregation” for the country! It transforms the vision of the right to education, a public good for all, into a service that certain families “consume” at varying levels, depending on their incomes and on criteria.
Another crucial consequence is the deterioration in teaching quality: these low-cost schools operate like franchises, leading to a “standardization” of content, which undermines cultural and linguistic diversity, and even the very values of education: development of critical thinking, empowerment…
“The commercialization of education has consequences on the supervision of curricula: we no longer know what type of teacher is employed in these schools or what type of person is trained in them. Are we achieving an education of citizens or another type of education which leads to disorder in society?”, Samuel Dembele, President of the Africa Network Campaign for Education for All (ANCEFA).
To achieve the Education SDG
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education has reiterated that Public-Private Partnerships have negative consequences on education and generally boil down to transferring resources from the public to private sector (in publications, training, evaluation…). This reminder comes in addition to over 60 recommendations already made on this subject by the UN Human Rights Committee since 2000!
When will both Northern and Southern countries assume their responsibilities?
- Firstly, the responsibility of meeting their financial commitments and their duty to finance good quality education with public funds in order to promote an equal and inclusive society, which acts as a vehicle for social progress. In practical terms, States must earmark 20% of their expenditure for education or at least 6% of their GDP. International solidarity via ODA must also be mobilized: 10% must be dedicated to basic education;
- There is also a pressing need to fight against the commercialization of education and prevent profits being made from education: Why not vote a national law?
In the short term, it is necessary to stop the development of profitmaking and clandestine institutions by forcing them to respect the national norms and standards in force. This requires a serious supervision and implementation. In the long term, it is necessary to guarantee access for all to free and good quality education, without discrimination.
- It is also necessary to develop independent research on the impact that private sector development has on the public system and on access for all to good quality education and ensure that the actions of private actors do not run against international standards in terms of rights or create other inequalities.
Equity, quality, every word matters. It is necessary to mobilize all education stakeholders (States, international institutions, civil societies, educational communities) in order to support a vision of education as a common good which aims to serve the general interest.
Are France and Francophone States ready to support this vision? By accepting the development of private provision, do we really “relieve” public budgets, or do we encourage the disengagement of the State, for which the prejudice to society will be even more costly in the long term…?
 Reference to the fable “The Crow and the Fox” by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695).
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.