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 have 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
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.