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Re-building resilient education systems: three lessons on the privatisation of education emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic

This blog post was first published on the website of the Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report). You may see the original post here.

By members of the Privatisation in Education and Human Rights Consortium

It is well-known that the disruptions to education due to COVID-19 are enormous.

In order to understand the full effects of the pandemic, members of the Privatisation Education and Human Rights Consortium, an informal network of national, regional and global organisations and individuals who collaborate to analyse and respond to the challenges posed by the rapid growth of private actors in education from a human rights perspective and propose alternatives, have collectively monitored the news related to private education in the context of COVID-19. The following key lessons have emerged. 

1. Technological companies are not solving education inequalities, they can even perpetuate them.

Education authorities around the world have quickly tried to shift to distance learning models in the aim of ensuring continuity of “learning”, with many embracing various digital solutions.  As discussed below, there are different ways to deliver on distance learning, including “high tech” (usually through IT equipment), and low- or no-tech (such as radio programmes).

According to a UNESCO estimate, 95 governments across the globe have introduced online solutions during the pandemic, and online learning is increasingly becoming an integral part of education globally. This has led to the development of a narrative suggesting online learning and technology could play a key role in resolving education challenges. Big technological companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook have rapidly gained an increased prominence in global education, bringing out papers such as “Education Reimagined”, suggesting a paradigm shift for education, and educational companies have started to market online schooling platforms promoting these as long-term alternatives for education.

However, online solutions in education are not working well for everyone and are causing great concerns for equality and equitable education systems. Currently, at least 500 million children are not accessing distance learning alternatives and almost 47% of all primary and secondary students being targeted exclusively by national online learning platforms do not have access to the internet. Examples are widespread: in Pakistan, only 31% per cent of homes have access to the internet; in Latin America 46% of boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12 live in houses without access to the internet; and in Kenya only 22% of children have access. This is not just a problem in the Global South. In certain regions of Spain, up to 20% of students lack access to online materials; in the USA, approximately 1 in 10 children from low-income households has little to no access to the technology for learning.

Distance learning, in particular through “high-tech” solutions promoted by private companies, can thus be very problematic for the realisation of the right to education. In addition, relying on multinational corporations to deliver education solutions is contributing to the emergence of new forms of privatisation and commercialisation in education, that raise many other concerns, for instance about the democratic control of education.

As stressed by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Dr Koumbou Boly Barry, in her report on COVID-19, “the digitization of education should never replace onsite schooling with teachers, and the massive arrival of private actors through digital technology should be considered a major danger for education systems and the rights to education for all”.

2. In many cases privatisation creates non-resilient education systems and is unsustainable.

The crisis has highlighted many cases of vulnerability arising from having an education system that relies on private actors and the resulting risks for the right to education.

It has shown private schools lacking capacity to face the crisis, for various reasons that could include dependency on fees from already low-income families, pressure to maintain profit levels, poor and short-term focused management, and lack of access to credit. Peru, Pakistan, India, the UK, and Argentina face the possibility of a mass closure of private schools. In Kenya, Morocco and Senegal, governments have had to step in to save private schools, and in Nepal and Pakistan there have been pressures from private schools to governments requesting support during the crisis. We’ve seen practices such as a rule which allowed emergency coronavirus funds to be given to private schools in the USA, which was subsequently dropped after a federal judge ruled that it violated the law.

This fragility of private schools has clearly had an effect on children suddenly out of school as well as their families. Although many families have lost their source of income, a number of private schools have continued charging fees, even when they could not continue providing services. For example, in Tunisia, parents were concerned as to how they will pay tuition fees for a third term, in the Democratic Republic of Congo private schools urged parents to pay fees, and in India private schools continued to hike fees, despite the Government guidelines.

The crisis has also exposed the lack of protection of labour rights of teachers working in private schools. Examples include private school teachers in Somalia facing uncertainty as to whether they will receive their usual salary, and private schools in Pakistan, Malawi, Senegal, Morocco, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Jordan as to whether they would be in a position to pay their staff, with some in India deciding to pay teachers by the hour instead of their monthly salaries. In India it also took orders from various High Courts to ensure that if private schools continued to collect tuition they would be required to prioritise payment of teachers and other staff with money brought in. Bridge International Academies (BIA) has also come under strong criticism. In Kenya, BIA staff were sent home with only 10% pay, uncertain when this would change, and in Liberia the Ministry of Labour launched an investigation into complaints that BIA had reduced staff salaries by 80-90% despite a government directive prohibiting pay cuts beyond 50%.

In other cases, governments have stepped in to support private schools specifically with the payment of staff salaries, reflecting the central role of States to ensure the sustainability of a service like education and basic labour rights. This was the case in Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, while in Togo and Mauritius teachers at private institutions have called on the government for help.  

3. The urgent solution: invest in free public education and re-build sustainable systems.

The COVID-19 crisis and its effect on education systems has once again revealed the importance of stable, well-funded, free public and inclusive education systems that meet human rights standards – and shown that this cannot be achieved without public authorities.

If there is one lesson to draw from this crisis for education, it is that it is indispensable to build human rights-aligned, non-market, spaces, with a strong public sector, that guarantee equal services for all, even in cases of contingency. Human rights norms and standards are more relevant than ever in these times, and the recently adopted Abidjan Principles provide clear guidelines to help States build more equitable, solid and effective education systems.

Perhaps most critical is to ensure that post-COVID, free public education systems are sustainably financed through action on budget shares, progressive taxation, increased aid, moratorium of debt payments and a push back against austerity policies (as articulated in the recent Call to Action on Domestic Financing of Education). They should use this funding to focus on developing sustainable, resilient, public education systems. Where governments are financing private schools or engaging with tech companies for online learning, regulatory measures should be taken to ensure the right to education and protect the most vulnerable.

As policy-makers are considering how to rebuild their economies, governments have a unique opportunity to learn from the current crisis and build solid free public education systems that will help humanity to face the challenges that arise in the coming decades.

by:

  • Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Solidarité Laïque
  • Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education
  • Initiative for Social and Economic Rights
  • Global Campaign for Education-US
  • Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ)
  • Oxfam India
  • ActionAid
  • The East African Centre for Human Rights (EACHRights)
  • Right to Education Initiative
  • Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE)
  • The International Federation of Centers for Training in Active Education Methods (Ficeméa) 
  • Equal Education
    Members of the Privatisation in Education and Human Rights Consortium

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