Written by Samara Hand.

The cost of financing universal primary and secondary education has proved to be a challenge for many states. Multilateral development organisations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have played and will continue to play an important role in supporting state efforts. For example, last year the ADB spent $1.96 billion on education operations in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the strong push towards privatisation of education and the promotion of Public-Private Partnerships is concerning.

…fees of any amount only serve to perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities, making education even more unaffordable … Costs also have an adverse impact on gender equality in access to education; when families cannot afford to send all their children to school, they generally prioritise sending boys due to a gendered cost-benefit analysis.

Access to free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education is a key target of the sustainable development agenda. In addition, the right to education as provided in the International Covenant and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) includes the right to free and compulsory primary education for all. Further, states are under an obligation to take appropriate steps towards achieving free secondary education. Yet private enterprises are not in the business of providing services for free, so how does the privatisation of education support the realisation of free quality education?

Privatisation of education is the process whereby the ownership and operation of education systems are transferred from the state to private actors. There are different extents and types of privatisation, with low-fee private schools and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) becoming increasingly common. The rationale behind the privatisation of education is that there are large gaps in education financing that states cannot meet, and state monopolisation of education reduces efficiency. Opening the doors to private actors provides a means to fill in the gaps, and embraces a free-market approach, whereby private providers compete to provide the best quality education at a low price thereby improving cost efficiency.

However, fees of any amount only serve to perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities, making education even more unaffordable for families living in poverty. Costs also have an adverse impact on gender equality in access to education; when families cannot afford to send all their children to school, they generally prioritise sending boys due to a gendered cost-benefit analysis. In addition, providing education at a low cost often means compromising on quality; teachers do not receive adequate training and are paid below the minimum wage, and the curriculum is standardised rather than tailored to respond to students’ diverse learning needs.

The reason for this is simple. Behind the privatisation of education is the unstoppable force of globalisation, where neoliberal ideologies dominate public policy and development. The commodification of public services, such as education, seems to be an increasingly common effect of this process. But the commodification of education radically transforms its modus operandi from one of quality and equal access to one of profit. Education becomes a consumer product and parents and students are the consumers. Access becomes determined by purchasing power rather than being provided free for all. This perpetuates socio-economic marginalisation and is incompatible with the conception of education as a fundamental human right and a public good.

Certainly, the political commitment made by states to provide free primary education for all requires significant financing. This is a particularly challenging task for developing states and to some extent explains the attraction of exploring alternative funding options. The ADB has openly promoted PPPs to find more innovative ways of financing education in Asia, particularly in developing member states. In its current Education Sector Operations Plan, the ADB states that it will “help ministries of Education formulate policies that encourage consideration of a broad range of alternative or non-traditional strategies for education service delivery”.

However, as a human right, providing (and financing) education is primarily a state responsibility. Admittedly, international human rights law also provides that the state should not interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct private educational institutions, provided they meet the minimum standards laid down by the state. Nonetheless, states should ensure “private providers only supplement public education, the provision of which is the Government’s responsibility, rather than supplant it” as noted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.

This means that states must take all appropriate means to provide free and compulsory primary education. In terms of financing this, international benchmarks provide that states should spend at least 6 percent of their GDP and/or at least 20 percent of their national budget on education. In South and Southeast Asia (the sub-regions receiving most of ADB’s education-related support) data shows that most countries fail to meet either of these benchmarks  (see statistics here) suggesting that there is inadequate state funding for education to begin with.

Undoubtedly, it is inevitable that private actors will play some role in the provision of education, however, states should be supported to meet their minimum obligations before turning to alternative approaches such as privatisation, otherwise, they run the risk of becoming reliant on it and “supplanting” public education. Adequate financial regulation is also required where education is commodified, to protect it from the volatility of global markets. This requires reconciling states’ human rights obligations which call for regulation of private actors with neoliberal economic policies.

Samara Hand is a Roberta Sykes and Chevening Scholar studying Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. You can follow her on Twitter @SamuraiSam24. Photo Credit CC by Education in Asia/Flickr.

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