Are private actors the solution to achieve SDG 4?

By Dr. Maria Ron Balsera, ActionAid

SDG 4 aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’, with the leading principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’. Yet, the answer of how to get there differs widely depending on who we ask and where. Many voices are pushing for stronger partnerships with private actors. However, the negative effects on equity and other areas of the increasing privatisation of education is becoming a central concern for education, development and human rights scholars and practitioners. This is why we right to education private actorshave carried out a new study looking at its impact in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda and additional research in Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania.  Our findings conclude that, rather than privatisation, we should focus on ensuring that public education is available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable and for this, it needs to be adequately funded.

There is growing evidence on the consequences of privatisation in terms of exclusion, segmentation, segregation, inequality of opportunities, stigmatisation of public education, diversion of essential funds, lowering teaching standards, narrowing of the curriculum, and so on– something we look forward to the 2021 GEM Report on non-state actors in education exploring further.

One year ago this month, the Abidjan principles on the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education were adopted.  They provide rigorous guidelines to assess the role of private providers and consolidate international legislation into a single document, underlining governments’ responsibilities to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education. Principle 25 refers to the state’s obligation to prevent or redress direct or indirect discrimination in or through education, for example, including systemic disparities in educational opportunities or outcomes, highlighting socio-economic disadvantage. Principle 48 affirms that private actors can supplement, but not supplant or replace state provision of education, and that they cannot create any adverse systematic impact, such as creating or entrenching educational disparities.

Our study in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda and the collaborative research in Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania used these Principles to understand the impact of privatisation on the right to education. It concluded that these states are not meeting their obligations to provide free and quality education and to adequately regulate private providers of education.

This is partly because they are underfunding  the sector, and the private sector is growing as a result. This growth of the private sector is causing and entrenching social inequalities, leading to stratification and huge disparities of education opportunities. For instance, there are almost twice as many private schools as public schools in Accra (Ghana) and more than half of the primary students are enrolled in private schools in Lagos (Nigeria), which signals that rather than supplementing they are replacing state provision. Children who attend public schools can hardly compete against their counterparts in private schools for the few places available in public secondary schools and universities. Thus, existence of the private schools is gradually building and perpetrating a stratified class system limiting the chances of social mobility.

As our research shows, these seven states are failing to allocate their maximum available resources and have often taken retrogressive steps, lowering the education budget without justification (against principles 16 and 43 of the Abidjan Principles). These countries have staggering losses to tax incentives. Every year Uganda is estimated to give away around $272 million; the figure for Kenya is around $1.1 billion (Archer et al., 2016); and Ghana loses around between $1.2 billion and $2.27 billion.

The graphics below shows the amount of educational resources that 20% (the recommended benchmark from the national budget to be allocated to education) of this foregone revenue could have paid for in the three countries.

The figures were calculated by dividing 20% of the revenue lost to tax incentives in each country by the number of out-of-school children, multiplied by the expenditure per primary school child, then dividing the remaining by the average annual teacher salary; and by the average annual cost of school meals per child.

Tax incentives losses and education resources

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Source: Ron Balsera et al., 2018

Thus, our study concludes that privatisation is a symptom of the gaps in public education, not a solution. In many cases privatisation undermines progress towards inclusive, equitable and quality education. In order to achieve SDG4, countries must fulfil their obligations to provide free public education of the highest attainable quality. Increasing the size, share, sensitivity and scrutiny of the budget is necessary to give the necessary resources to public schools and to adequately regulate private providers.



  1. Thank you for this interesting blog. While there is little I would disagree with it is, i think, worthwhile noting that there is a very wide spectrum of private actors in education and some (particularly those that are not for profit and working with marginalised communities – or the “furthest behind”) play a critical role in providing access to quality education. Marginalised groups can face a multitude of barriers to education and for systematic, or other, reasons cannot access state schools. Migrants for example may be excluded due to not having the required documentation, xenophobia or because they fear deportation. Indigenous groups, minority ethnic groups, religious minorities etc may have deep distrust of public systems (generally with good reason). In other context, and in fragile or conflict affected states in particular, at best it may take another generation before the state has the resources to fulfill its obligation to provide a quality education for all its citizens (with those most disadvantaged within such countries often the last to benefit from any improved services). And thats even if they were to receive the necessary supports.

    Private actors, that are not for profit, can play a critical role here in terms of supplementing state provision of education by for example:
    a. providing access to quality education that marginalised groups would not otherwise have access to
    b. advocating and providing supports to improve state systems
    c. when appropriate (and particularly when the government are genuinely intent) acting as a bridge between the the marginalised group and the state to build trust and understanding. They may also have established models of education provision that is relevant and effective for marginalised groups (particularly relevant for minority ethnic groups for example). .

    This of course does not mean that the state is not the duty bearer. It is and need to be supported. And while the private sector is certainly not the solution to achieving SDG 4, they do I think have a critical role to play.

  2. There are few things I can tell from my experience in Nepal and South Asia in general – even developing countries in general:
    a. that private provisions evade to build pressure for the improvement of public as children and policy makers’ children are not in private schools;
    b. private schools when cartel together influence decision makers and there is no real competition – often they present negative consequence making a nearby public school unviable;
    c. Since education makes money, its the domain of teachers or educationally minded people – they start a private school even at the cost of public and soon they are driven by self-interest including unionized efforts to protect it.
    d. often put argument is that it prevents money flying abroad as private schools offers quality for elites who otherwise send their children abroad – to India in Nepal’s case, Singapore in India’s case but the undoing of faith in public schools has immeasurable cost. Depending on the context – you enter into a slippery downward spiral from where it is hard to come back!
    e. The cost is at another level when gap is widened and it leads to social strife. We all appear to be waiting for it. There was reasonable linkage with Maoist insurgency and dilapidated public education unless one has the theory of ripening a movement for change!!

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