At the beginning of the new millennium, the international community made a commitment to achieve universal primary education for all boys and girls. Today, 15 years later, we find huge gaps between these commitments and reality.
Across the world, 58 million children still don’t have access to schools, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Millions more fail to graduate, or fail to learn what they need to participate in society meaningfully.
Capitalising on the inability of governments to cope with rising demands on public learning, private education providers are mushrooming. I see this not as progress, but as an indictment of governments that have failed to meet their obligation to provide universal, free and high-quality education for all.
Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is the inalienable right of every child. The state must discharge its responsibility as guarantor and regulator of education as a fundamental human entitlement and as a public cause. The provision of basic education, free of cost, is not only a core obligation of states but also a moral imperative.
Privatisation cripples the notion of education as a universal human right and – by aggravating marginalisation and exclusion – runs counter to the fundamental principles of human rights law. It creates social inequity.
The admission policy in private schools is based on the ability to pay, and on the socio-economic background of parents. As a result, private schools lack the diversified system of learning and cultural plurality that is so necessary today. They promote market economy values rather than the humanist mission of education.
Disturbingly, some in the international community are pushing for greater privatisation in education. The World Bank, a longstanding supporter of the approach, has recently been joined by other international bodies. At the end of 2014, the African Development Bank, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union commission, and the UN Development Programme released a report promoting increased private sector involvement in education. The study concluded that “Africa must build a vibrant private sector that supports the development of a dynamic primary education system”. This call has been echoed by some government officials in Africa and elsewhere.
In the 1980s and 90s, when developing countries first made significant cuts to their public health and education spending under structural adjustment, international financial institutions, along with the largest donors, promoted user fees and increased private sector service delivery. The World Bank’s current policy of encouraging and supporting profit-seeking multinationals that provide education is a matter of serious concern, given the devastating impact this strategy has on the right to education.
As a recent Oxfam briefing paper has suggested, governments should not allow low-fee private schools, and should restore education as an essential public service. As private education becomes big business, learning must be protected from the forces of privatisation.
According to a study on private education by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), a potentially very large number of low-fee private schools, which target poorer families in developing countries, are unregistered. These schools save costs by hiring ill-trained teachers and running large classes in substandard school buildings. Such “edu-businesses”, as they have come to be known, are an unsatisfactory replacement for the good public education governments should be providing.
Huge commercial publicity often tempts parents to opt for private schools in the expectation that their children will receive a better education. They believe that private schools are more efficient, and that competition improves outcomes.
However, such beliefs are rarely supported by evidence. The DfID study, for instance, suggests private schools do no better than state ones.
The cost of privatising education lies not just with school fees but also with the damage done to the public good. Fees, however small, hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Sometimes, this means the oldest son receives an education while daughters stay at home. Inequalities in society grow when the poorest are excluded.
In the worst cases, corruption undermines the system. Headteachers may require special payments to accept students, and teachers may charge for private tutelage. We must constantly remind states of their obligation under human rights law to establish conditions and standards for private education providers, and of the need to maintain a transparent and effective system to monitor these standards, with sanctions for abusive practices.
Parents, community, teachers and students must be encouraged to speak out against the commercialisation of education, acting as vigilant observers and reporters of abusive practices. Governments must empower human rights institutions, watchdogs and other mechanisms to investigate alleged violations of the right to education.
I’m not saying traditional public schools are the only solution. Community schools, locally organised and run with state support, can meaningfully complement government efforts to provide education and are an alternative to privatisation.
Governments must face the education challenge head on. Investment in education must be prioritised, using at least 4% of GDP, and reform priorities should be established with assistance from civil society and international donors, development banks and the UN.
Leaving these challenges to the private sector may seem easier. But when we ask what kind of world we want, we do not say one for those who have, and another for those who don’t. Let’s not create education systems that promote inequality – there is enough of that already. The international development agenda must aim to eliminate private schools, not champion them.
Kishore Singh is the UN special rapporteur on the right to education