Myth 1: It is time to break the myth that state and non-state actors can be clearly distinguished.

The debate about the role that non-state actors should take in education is divisive. Discussion is made all the more difficult because of the prevalence of myths circulating on the theme. A series of blogs on this site will cover the 10 myths listed in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors, aiming to spark discussion. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

Discussion of non-state actors in education typically involves a binary classification: public and private schools. But in practice, the landscape is more complex and distinctions are far less clear cut.

Non-state providers are a very diverse group. Non-state actors are highly heterogeneous. They have diverse views on their role in education. They enter the education sector for diverse reasons related to ideas, values, beliefs and interests. Many enter into formal or informal organizational arrangements with government, including contracting and public–private partnerships, which blur distinguishing lines.

While actors usually have a defined purpose (e.g. provision, finance, regulation, management), with agreed terms of reference (e.g. objectives, time period, resource-sharing), the processes governing them are not neat, orderly, linear, rational or collaborative. Power between and among state and non-state actors is not equally shared or balanced.

Standard data collection does not reflect the many different links between state and non-state actors in education. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is the main source of data on enrolment in public and private institutions. It defines private education institutions as those that are ‘not operated by a public authority but controlled and managed, whether for profit or not, by a private body (e.g. non-governmental organization, religious body, special interest group, foundation or business enterprise)’. One dimension of non-state provision usually not captured in the data relates to non-state actors operating schools that are owned by the state. Analysis for this report of 211 country profiles on our PEER website found that this was the case for private actors in 29 out of 96 countries, for faith-based actors in 17 out of 83 countries and for other non-state actors in 19 out of 81 countries.

The UIS definition of private schools also does not capture the distinction between private schools that receive public funding and those that do not. Analysis for the 2021/2 GEM Report showed how intertwined state and non-state education is: there are government-aided non-state schools in 160 out of 181 countries: These include private schools in 115 countries, faith-based schools in 120 countries, and non-governmental organization (NGO) and community schools in 81 countries.

The line between state and non-state tertiary education is particularly blurry. Non-state actors are involved not only in service provision at the tertiary level but also in financing and influencing public institutions and the sector as a whole.  A well-known example is the United Kingdom, where most universities are regarded as public and receive significant government funding but are controlled by non-state actors and therefore considered private in international statistics. The rise in cross-border provision of tertiary education further complicates the lines of ownership and regulation. Branch campuses of public tertiary education institutions in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are deemed private institutions in Malaysia. In Viet Nam, RMIT University and British University Vietnam, operated by public institutions, are considered private universities, while the Vietnamese-German University and the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi, also known as the Vietnam-France University, are listed as public.

The University of Nairobi, the oldest and biggest public university in Kenya, receives the majority of its funds from private sources and applies a business approach to governance, focused on income generation and increasing the institution’s entrepreneurial practices. The International Islamic University Malaysia is consider a public institution by law but governed by the Companies Act, with a board of governors that includes five members from Muslim countries and a representative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In Viet Nam, a university was founded as a training centre for a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise. The subsidiary was later privatized, but the university still claims affiliation with the parent state-owned enterprise.

Blurred distinctions can threaten the transparency behind policy-making decisions. Blurred distinctions between state and non-state actors stretch as far as individuals changing hats, switching from representing state organizations to non-state ones; non-state actors who are dedicated to supporting state education; and organizations who are entrusted with protecting and promoting public education but may undermine it with their actions.

Blurred distinctions make designing effective governance arrangements complex. In Western Cape, South Africa, for instance, when the responsibility for turning public schools around was handed over by the state to private actors, the state kept the regulatory responsibility to manage the contract, but the nature of accountability for public service delivery was changed.

Definitions will influence perceptions about the role of non-state actors. The myth that state and non-state actors can be clearly distinguished interferes with understanding how individual actors work and if there is support for their actions.  For instance, NGOs vary in the extent of their support to non-state, and in particular, private providers of education. A survey for the GEM Report of Global Campaign for Education members demonstrates a relatively diverse range of positions. Among 49 respondents, 43% expressed a negative view of for-profit provision but 12% were supportive; likewise, 41% expressed a negative view of public–private partnerships, while 20% were supportive. About one third of respondents in both cases expressed a mixed view. By contrast, two thirds of respondents were supportive of non-profit actors, such as community and NGO schools, appreciating their contribution to supporting children in hard-to-reach areas.

Dispelling the myth that state and non-state actors can be easily distinguished is important before beginning to tackle other questions related to non-state actors, which is why it features first in our report. It helps us move beyond using two broad categories (i.e. private or public) that are not always precise, and instead to ask the more significant questions about how to ensure quality, equity and inclusion in education when non-state actors are involved.

Read the 2021/2 GEM Report to find out more.


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