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Education: The Great Equalizer & the inequalities of privatisation

published 30 November 2015 updated 30 November 2015
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After the Second World War, when most countries ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, momentum for universal literacy and public education was high. People saw education as the great equalizer, a way to level the playing field and get out of poverty.

Public education flourished and middle classes thrived. However, the tide turned in the Eighties, when the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” policies institutionalized market fundamentalism, leading to aggressive capitalism and dwindling investment in important public services like education.

It is no coincidence then that inequality has been on the rise ever since, reaching a peak now when wealth and power are concentrated within the hands of only a few. They in turn are exerting maximum efforts to continue with this skewed system that benefits them far more than it benefits those who need it most. One of the key ways of doing that is to ensure that it becomes increasingly more difficult to have good quality education without paying for it, thus it the prerogative of the rich while the poor are permanently relegated to roles befitting an unskilled or semi-skilled labour force.

With the recent, global rise of school privatization programs, making the case for the generally agreed notion that education is a public good has been met with increasing resistance. The economic crisis has forced many countries to make significant cuts to essential services including education, allowing private providers to step in. Education has become big business, with the top 20 education multinationals worth a combined $36 billion.

The largest of these, Pearson, made a whopping $7 billion in 2011. Like other companies, Pearson has expanded beyond its original focus - standardised academic tests in its case - to now controlling chains of schools in Ghana and Kenya and setting curriculum for primary and secondary education in Brazil. Not only will these schools charge fees and make profit from poor parents, they also intend to get subsidies from the state, thus charging twice for the same services. International financial institutions have also been actively promoting this through prescribing and applauding low cost private schools; Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank President, went on the record about how parents paying $6 a month for education is a good practice.

The current trends in privatisation and their impact on the right to education have been documented, providing clear warning that privatisation is supplanting public education instead of supplementing it.

There is ample evidence and analysis of how the basic principles of human rights are violated through privatization. For example, the principle of non-discrimination (privatization discriminates against girls as parents tend to send boys over girls to private school); the principle of equality of opportunity in education (at least in basic primary education there should be no direct fees). The principle of social justice and equity is also violated, as privatization promotes structural exclusion of groups unable to afford fees, entrenching a neoliberal vision of society, and can push parents to send their children to sectarian schools, potentially leading to an increasingly fractured society.

Though regulating private providers is a state responsibility, it is not always taken on fully. Without regulation, public private partnerships are often a stepping stone toward full privatisation. For example, with limited government capacity and a lack of availability of public school facilities, 92% of education in Haiti had been taken over by the private sector. However, there are good examples of strong State legislation. The constitution of Ecuador underscores that education shall respond to the public interest and shall not serve individual or corporate interests (article 28). The Education Law (1995) of China states that “Educational activities must conform with the public interest of the state and society” and that “No organization or individual may operate a school or any other type of educational institution for profit”. Courts in the United States have declared that public money should only be used for public schools, rather than being used to pay private school tuition.

The delegation by states of their obligation to provide education to for-profit providers may also be contrary to their international obligations:

  • Nationally-designated authorities should undertake a full-scale investigation of fraudulent practices, including tax evasion by private education providers.
  • Multinationals are urged to take on social responsibility and governments need to find innovative mechanisms for financing (such as Brazil channeling their oil royalties into education).

National civil society organisations in Uganda and Ghana, with contributions from the Right to Education project hosted by ActionAid, have published reports ahead of the regular period reports due to the UN. The submission of the Ghana civil society report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child encouraged the committee to formally request the Ghanaian government to explain and account for the growing privatisation in education in the country, and the effect this has had on the realisation of the right to education for all.Movements to resist unfettered privatization are coalescing around the world. Rather than being convinced that private education is the way to go (without any conclusive proof of its much vaunted efficiency and quality), people are demanding alternative sources of financing for better public education (which includes progressive taxation).

The aggressive expansion of privatisation of basic education will not go unchallenged.

Editor's note: This blog entry was first published on ActionAid's website. The author can be reached at muntasim.tanvir@actionaid.org

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.