Contrary to repeated multilateral and national commitments to provide education for all, and despite terming education a basic human right, widespread illiteracy still remains a daunting challenge, especially across the developing world. The increasing reliance on the private sector in providing education is considered to be one major hurdle preventing this desired goal of universal education.
Despite years of campaigning by educationists to abolish school fees, the practice and acceptance of charging fees for primary school has crept back into the public education sector, prompted in part by the insistence of international development agencies like the World Bank to cut government spending and instead rely on market mechanisms, even for the provision of basic social services. Moreover, the growing reliance on the private sector has also led governments to begin diverting scarce public funds towards funding fee-charging private schools rather than using these resources to improve the provision of free public education.
The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) arranged a recent moot bringing together education advocates from over 90 countries. The GCE called upon governments around the world to fulfil their responsibility as being the primary education providers for their citizenry. Interestingly, the GCE also passed a motion demanding governments to protect education from for-profit private companies, cease the channelling of public funds to private entities, and regulate private sector involvement in education.
There is growing evidence that private schools, including those categorised as low-cost private schools aiming to provide quality education to poorer households, are not really able to cater to children from low-income families, they cannot ensure enrollment of out-of-school children, and often are not even providing quality education.
Yet, governments in many developing countries, including our own, have seen a mushrooming of low-income private schools across their urban and rural landscapes. It would be wise of governments not to rely on private providers to fulfill the education obligations of the state. In particular, states should not use government funds to subsidise for profit education, whether through grants, vouchers or other means. Yet, this is happening across several countries, including our own, where entities like the Punjab and Sindh Education Foundations, for example, have been set up, which use scarce public funds to support low-income private schools.
The GCE has put forth a more ambitious set of demands by calling upon governments to also ensure that private schools are held more accountable, by ensuring that these schools adhere to minimum standards for school infrastructure, teacher qualifications, curriculum and availability of teaching and learning materials needed to ensure quality education. Given that the public education sector in most developing countries is itself struggling with these issues, thinking that public sector education officials can also regulate the private education sector seems little more than wishful thinking. The public education sector across the developing world needs to go a long way before it can be tasked with regulating private sector schools. Besides being able to effectively regulate low-income private sector schools, such regulation attempts would cause unnecessary cumbrances for private schools that charge high prices to deliver quality education.
However, the GCE’s demand for public sector funds not being diverted towards the private sector, including schools which claim to target low-income households, is fair. Entities like the GCE should, however, not only call upon governments to ensure the provision of basic education to all citizens, but also apply pressure on international agencies like the World Bank to stop aggressively encouraging the use of profit-driven schools to secure the right to education, especially by diverting money from the public education sector and funnelling it towards the private sector.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2015.