Rethinking non-state engagement in education

prachiBy Dr. Prachi Srivastava, Associate Professor, University of Western Ontario, author of the Think Piece prepared for the 2021 GEM Report on non-state actors in education.

As previous recent blogs on this site have illustrated, non-state actors have long operated in education. They have gained attention with intensity in global and domestic policy circles and with researchers, civil society, and individual citizens implicated in local education systems. The increasing prominence of related issues is also visible in the GEM Report series and its predecessor, the Education For All Global Monitoring Report. The 2009 Global Monitoring Report was the first in the series to include explicit analysis of non-state engagement with a dedicated section on low-fee private schooling. Various issues relating to non-state actors and non-state engagement have since been addressed in subsequent reports. That the theme of the 2021 GEM Report is on Non-state Actors in Education, further attests to the relevance of these actors in education globally, and of associated issues. This blog post summarizes key points of a conceptual framework I developed in a Think Piece to feed into the GEM Report team’s research as they work on the 2021 Report.

Why the fuss?

Despite growing interest in the field, conceptual framing on how to think about non-state engagement in education is nascent. The range of non-state engagement is broad, and the actors, diverse. Typological issues have not been resolved. Earlier research is mainly descriptive and exploratory. To a fair extent it still is, given the uneven geographic and sectoral concentrations of the body of evidence. A number of existing questions have thin evidence bases, leaving us with a range of unanswered questions.

Questions are heightened in the following circumstances. Firstly, there are concerns regarding non-state engagement at compulsory or basic levels of education, primarily because there are recognized international and domestic obligations on the State in view of education as a human right. Secondly, most existing research shows there are equity implications for persistently marginalized groups, most often girls and women and economically disadvantaged groups, regarding sustained access and learning outcomes in privatized contexts. Finally, there are concerns regarding the engagement of non-state actors with commercial or profit-oriented statuses or motives.

Image: Hugo Infante

Four general features of non-state engagement

Non-state engagement in education has typically been thought of in terms of the provision or delivery of education or education services. However, it is much broader than this. The framework in the Think Piece is built on the following general features:

  1. Non-state engagement is identified with reference to four domains of operation: provision, financing, regulation, and management. These domains highlight the different roles that state and non-state actors may have in education, i.e. as providers, financers, regulators, or managers, and their interactions. Actors may simultaneously engage within and across multiple domains of operation. While more typical analysis is on formal education, it can be extended to non-formal education.
  2. Non-state actors may engage in core education and/or ancillary education services relatively independently or in various formal or informal arrangements with state/public, other non-state, and international actors within and across these domains. These arrangements and their enforcement mechanisms structure the relationships of non-state actors with other actors.
  3. Arrangements can span from loose interactions to formalized agreements. The conceptualization considers three kinds of arrangements: contracting, partnerships, and networks. These arrangements are not mutually exclusive. While contracting and partnerships have been more typically discussed in the literature on formal governance mechanisms and structures in education, the role of informal and formal networks may help to uncover relationships between actors and their influence in education governance.
  4. Non-state engagement within and across the domains is likely structured by and may occur simultaneously across different levels of governance, that is, globally, regionally, domestically, locally, and in micro-education ecosystems. Formal education systems are also internally structured according to different, usually interconnected, levels or education sub-sectors. These different levels of governance and education sub-sectors will have different implications for non-state engagement.

Existing and emerging questions for analysis

There is, now, a more developed evidence base on non-state engagement. However, research is limited even on topics or geographies that may seem to be addressed by a comparably larger body of work. There are also a number of emerging questions across the four domains of operation which may provide new points of entry to extend analysis. A more expanded range of existing and emerging questions is presented in the Think Piece (Section 3). I summarize some key points here.

The majority of existing research is on the provision of formal (basic) elementary and secondary education. This may be due to the focus on alleviating gaps in compulsory education globally. Private schooling, in its various forms, has claimed much of the attention with a conglomeration of work on independent non-state provision. There is a smaller literature on the diversification ancillary services. Questions on equity and inclusion, experiential factors, sustained access, and differential learning outcomes; systems-level effects (e.g. competition); trade-offs in expanding non-state provision; and the motivations and influence of non-state actors, including those with commercial motives, and their relationships with state actors, are emerging.

Education finance is attracting more attention in view of domestic and global resource gaps, and due to interest in ‘innovative financing’. Focus on the full range of non-state actors investing in education and their investment strategies is emerging. A range of questions such as: Are non-state actors contributing supplementary financial resources to education, how much, how, where, and what for? What does innovative financing really mean, and what place do non-state actors have in the new global architecture for global education finance? There is also a need to investigate what other mechanisms can implicate non-state actors in domestic contexts to increase revenues for education, and how their funds can be used more effectively. Greater clarity on the role of private remittances is also required.

The existing focus on regulation has largely been on how states regulate non-state providers. Questions on the way non-state actors and engagement are framed in global frameworks and the 2030 SDG Agenda; donor and domestic government policies on engaging with non-state actors; and legal frameworks and other accountability mechanisms; and the formal and informal processes and arrangements all need greater clarity.

Finally, there are multiple questions in the domain of management. Some recent initiatives of contracted out public school to non-state operators are prompting questions on relative effectiveness, trade-offs, and processes. There are a host of other questions regarding the private schooling, such as: What is the role of private school coalitions and networks on organizing the work of private schools, and on the management and governance of private schools? What is the effect independent management on organizing teacher work? How does that affect teachers’ experiences of work? Is there a difference in effectiveness between government schools where administrators and teachers are mandated with government responsibilities outside of education and independent providers, and where they are not? How would they fare if such constraints were removed?

Concluding remarks

Distinctions between the domains of operation, types of actors, and multiple levels may be blurred, and systems are increasingly hybridized. The specifics of the nature of non-state engagement, its extent, the actors involved, and governance processes and structures, will depend on the broader context of the education system. There may be tensions in the compulsions of various structures, frameworks, and processes which can raise questions, for example, on how or whether particular non-state actors should engage and how the State should provide oversight, or when it should intervene. I hope the Think Piece and the range of questions I identify will help to generate more comprehensive analyses of non-state engagement in education across a range of contexts. I look forward to seeing what the 2021 GEM Report uncovers as it takes on the task.


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