Even if they devote a higher proportion of state funding to education, countries with both a young population with low tax revenues have a limited capacity to finance the educational needs of their populations. The drive to improve access to education in developing countries is bearing fruit. Yet population growth, high levels of demand and overstretched national budgets put immense pressure on education systems. The development of the private sector, in all its diversity, could contribute to the collective education effort – on condition that governments fulfil their management, regulatory and monitoring roles properly.
Delivering high-quality education to a large number of young people calls for the mobilisation of considerable resources: teaching and non-teaching staff, class¬rooms, educational materials, etc. In the absence of adequate funding, states use schooling conditions as their adjustment variables – for example, increasing the number of pupils per class, limiting the equipment provided, being less vigilant of teachers’ qualifications or restricting their pay. A primary teacher in sub- Saharan Africa in 2011 was, for example, looking after 42 pupils – as compared with 14 pupils in developed countries. Further, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, in some countries trained teachers account for barely half of the total cohort at the primary level – 47% in Benin, 48% in Senegal and 52% in Mali. These adjustments to resources are inevitably reflected in educational performance. Whereas all children in the developed nations complete their primary education, only 62% do so in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa where drop-out rates are high.
To alleviate their education funding difficulties, from the 1980s onwards, governments asked families to make a financial contribution. In primary education, the involvement of parents’ associations in day-to-day school management is accompanied – more or less officially – by the payment of contributions, even to cover the costs of teaching staff where the state has not been able to recruit enough teachers. While statistics regarding household expenditure on education remain limited, the research that is available shows that families are the state’s primary partner in financing education in many countries of the global South, often contributing around 30% of expenditure across all levels of the education system.
At primary level, parental contributions are increasingly regarded as a disincentive to school attendance for children from the lowest-income families and an obstacle to achieving the goals of universal education. This is why many governments have eliminated school fees for elementary education.
Although family contributions are generally no longer recommended in elementary education, by contrast, retaining them is often recommended for secondary and higher education: at these levels the personal benefits from investing in education – in terms of the future income arising from participation – can justify users’ participation.
Development of the private education offer
Complementing the state’s education initiatives, the growth of private institutions can help ease the strain on public budgets and expand the overall education offer. In developing countries, this non-public education offer is highly diversified, presenting a picture full of contrasts – faith and secular schools, rural and urban schools, schools complementing or competing with the state schools, schools created by communities or by individuals, for- and not-for-profit, serving a middle-class urban market or specific, less prosperous client groups.
Private faith schools have a long-established presence in many countries where their long-standing networks often set a quality benchmark. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are more recent arrivals on the education scene and generally invest in the sector in response to urgent social needs – among marginalised populations or in disadvantaged locations, for example. They often introduce new teaching methods more appropriate to local contexts, and innovations that can add value to the sector as a whole. They have also pioneered the use of national languages and the creation of schools for nomadic populations.
Businesses, too, can contribute to the educational drive – compulsorily or voluntarily – particularly with respect to the provision of technical and vocational teaching at secondary and higher levels: providing work placements, making financial contributions or contributions in kind.
Finally, community schools have appeared on the scene as a collective response to educational needs that state networks have failed to cover – mainly in rural areas.
The proportion of the school population attending private schools has increased in many countries – rising from 11% to 13% at primary level in developing countries over a ten-year period. In some countries in Asia and Latin America, the private sector even accounts for the majority of education provision. Families seeking the best education for their children will opt for a private, fee-paying school when this seems to meet their needs most effectively. Families may be guided in their choice by religion – yet more often what they are looking for is better discipline and support for their children; linguistic factors sometimes come into play, too.
Regulation and public-private partnerships
The growth of private education can be seen as an indicator of the unsatisfactory conditions, as perceived by families, provided by state schools, especially in urban areas with overcrowded schools and classrooms, poor discipline and sub-standard teaching. If the urban middle classes were to abandon state schools en masse, this would risk severe structural inequalities between a network of state schools focused on rural areas and low-income families, operating with few resources, and a set of private schools targeting specific niches within the socially and economically highly segmented market of families seeking a better education for their children.
As a result, the state has a key role to play in regulating and monitoring the sector to promote the development of an egalitarian system that maintains consistent standards across the board. The monitoring of private institutions by the public authorities can involve a compulsory licensing process, verifying lesson content and the implementation of a national curriculum, and evaluating the teaching environment and teaching standards. Yet confronted with the multitude of players involved, less highly developed states may find it difficult to channel all the divergent initiatives effectively and engage in a genuine partnership with private educational institutions.
The word ‘partnership’ has taken on an additional meaning in recent decades, covering situations in which the realisation of investments or the management of teaching or teaching support services are subcontracted – wholly or in part – to the private sector. Private groups contracted to the state can sometimes take charge of functions traditionally carried out by government – school inspections, for example. These public-private partnerships can blur the traditional boundaries between the public and private sectors and can in some cases be regarded as forms of privatisation.
The risks for the states involved are a partial loss of their supervisory capacity and a technical dependence on private organisations. Moreover, subcontracting partnerships of this kind are often criticised for being unnecessarily expensive.
Private interventions encompass initiatives of highly diverse origins and modes of operation. Whatever the motivation of the private partners involved – philanthropy, social responsibility or commercial interest – it is a state’s responsibility to define the framework in which they operate. It is for the state, and the state alone, to set the rules, ensuring that all the various inputs contribute to the wider collective effort to promote education – the foundation of every society’s economic development and social cohesion.