Myth 3: The private sector is to blame for privatization in education

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 covers 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.

Opponents of non-state education provision often blame providers for private school growth. This is plausible as it is easy to imagine that the private sector would have something to gain from privatization, and that when education is privatized, it is driven by the private sector. However, this is not true. It is another myth that we are aiming to dispel in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors and in this series of blogs.

While historically, education has been considered a public good, used by governments in nation-building and as a way of providing benefits to societies and economies, education is also considered a private good. Education is a costly enterprise, and governments have differed in the extent to which they provide sufficient financing. Some have been forced or even actively chosen to downsize public education systems, shifting the burden to households. This is where privatization comes in. If there is demand for education, and the government cannot supply it, private providers will enter the market that has been created and supply education goods and services.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) defines a private institution as an ‘Institution that is controlled and managed by a non-governmental organization (e.g. a church, a trade union or a business enterprise, foreign or international agency).’ According to this definition, the share of private institutions worldwide increased by 7 percentage points in about 10 years, from 10% in 2002 to 17% in 2013 in primary education and from 19% in 2004 to 26% in 2014 in secondary education, but has since remained almost constant. Private education can be way of fulfilling a need for education, as well as offering choices to parents.

The reasons for establishing non-state schools are diverse. Many schooling systems have their roots in religious or community education objectives. Faith-based and community or non-governmental organization schools are typically motivated by values and charitable objectives. In these cases, private education is a response to needs identified by parents and communities, not the private sector.

There have been genuine parental concerns about quality of public schools, seen as lowered by neglect. This has led to the emergence of private schools, the vast majority of which are single proprietor schools. When the decline in quality became clear, households which are rich and, to a lesser extent, poorer but with high aspirations left the public system, which undermined its support and exposed it to the risk of being underfunded. Elitism among political leaders increased their tolerance for inequality and reduced their commitment to protect public education and the disadvantaged populations that benefited from it.

The Education 2030 Framework for Action called on countries to spend at least 4% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 15% of total public spending on education. While countries are meeting the first benchmark globally – public education expenditure stands at 4.4% of GDP – they are not meeting the second. Education’s share of total public spending has remained stagnant over the past 20 years. It grew from 13.8% in 2000 to 14.1% in 2019. If countries are not spending enough on education systems, one of the solutions will be education provided by non-state actors.

The cartoon at the top of this blog is a depiction of this situation as it often plays out in poorer countries. There, private schools for low-income households grew out of lack of access to public schools, often in slums. A review of nine low- and middle-income countries for the 2021/2 report, for instance, found that the probability of attending private preschool was significantly higher for urban than for rural children in five countries (Ecuador, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda). Yet, within urban areas, households may have access only to private arrangements. For instance, the gross enrolment ratio in private kindergartens was well above the national average (10%) in the three urban regions of Ethiopia in 2019/20: Addis Ababa (104%), Dire Dawa (31%) and Harar (45%). Poorer households living in informal settlements usually have no access to public childcare at all. For instance, 94% of providers in Mukuru, a large slum in Nairobi, Kenya, were private; households had access to five private facilities within walking distance, on average.

Many people argue strongly against non-state provision of education. But for such a debate it is important to understand the different reasons why non-state involvement is growing in some countries. Blaming the private sector obscures the fact that its growth is sometimes a symptom of other weaknesses in the public education system.

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


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