A growing consensus on banning profit-making and commercial practices in education

By Sandra Fredman, Professor of Law, Oxford University; Director, Oxford Human Rights Hub

With the growth of private involvement in education, often spurred on by international funding organizations, there has been an urgent need for a clear and authoritative guide to States’ international human rights law responsibilities to provide public education and to regulate private providers. It is in response to this need that the Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education were compiled.

Drafted by an expert drafting committee and adopted by 57 global education and human rights experts after a three-year period of consultation, the Abidjan Principles distil existing international norms in relation to the right to education and apply them in the context of commercialization in education. In particular, they highlight States’ obligations in international law to regulate commercial actors in education. In the three years since their adoption, the Abidjan Principles have been recognized by the major UN and regional human rights bodies and have become a major reference point for States as to how to comply with their international human rights obligations to provide free, quality education for all.

As the world continues to grapple with the severe impact of the COVID pandemic on the right to education, it has become even more painfully apparent that market solutions to educational provision cannot be relied on. This is clearly demonstrated by the important GEM Report Non-state actors in education: Who chooses? Who loses?, published in December, which thoroughly analyses non-state actors’ involvement in education. One of its key conclusions is that “profit-making is inconsistent with the commitment to guarantee free pre-primary, primary and secondary education” and that it should be regulated or banned.

This recommendation resonates with the requirements in international human rights law, as reflected in the Abidjan Principles. The Principles recall for instance that States must avoid commercialisation of education (Guiding Principle 48) and “must not fund or support private schools that are commercial and excessively pursue their own self-interest” (Guiding Principle 73).

It further strengthens the position taken by UNESCO in its report Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education. Published in November, the report emphasizes that “[g]overnments increasingly need to focus on regulation and protecting education from commercialization. Markets should not be permitted to further impede the achievement of education as a human right. Rather, education must serve the public interests of all.”

These conclusions confirm similar positions taken by a number of international institutions, pointing towards a growing consensus that profit and commercial practices should be removed from education. The European Parliament passed a resolution in 2018 that EU funding should not be provided to for-profit education actors.  This was followed in 2019 by the Global Partnership for Education’s private sector strategy, which included a clause prohibiting the use of its funds to support for-profit provision of core education services. Most importantly, in the same year, the International Finance Corporation announced a freeze on investment in private, fee-charging pre-primary, primary and secondary schools. This is particularly significant in that the World Bank, the largest external funder of education in poor countries, has had a policy of actively advising countries to expand private education provision through public private partnerships (PPP) and for-profit schools, including making loans and other funding conditional on expanding funding for PPP.

As we mark the third anniversary of the Abidjan Principles, it is more critical than ever to address the role and limitations of commercial for-profit actors in education. This is particularly true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced a reconsideration of how education systems are organized, the interests at stake, and who has control over education content and processes. In making these decisions, States should seek the guidance of the Abidjan Principles so that they can be sure to comply with their international obligations to provide public education and regulate private providers.

The above issues will be debated in an online discussion on 14 February 2022, at 2 pm GMT. Please register here.


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