For-profit schools are cashing in on UN goals

published 25 August 2017 updated 1 September 2017

For-profit education, rather than free widespread access to quality public education, has so far been the beneficiary of Sustainable Development Goal 4 as countries work to fulfil its requirements.

This goes against the spirit of the goal - more education of a better quality for all – and the global education federation insists that quality and equity must be at the centre of the 2030 Agenda.

This significant reminder comes from Education International (EI)’s Antonia Wulff in an article, “Cashing in on sustainable development goal (SDG) 4”, published in the civil society report “Spotlight on Sustainable Development 2017.” Wulff highlights the fact that, indirectly, the 2030 Agenda encourages private sector participation in education. This is because the SDGs in general, and particularly in terms of means of implementation, represent a shift in the approach to financing - in sorting out their own financing, countries are expected to open the door to new forms of private-sector engagement.

Privatisation and commercialisation

She explains that the mushrooming of for-profit education has been spearheaded by the emergence of so-called ’low-fee’ private schools – or, as they should be categorised, fee-charging, profit-making schools. A striking example of this trend is Bridge International Academies (BIA), which operates over 500 nursery and primary schools with over 100,000 students in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and India. Their business model is based on the use of unqualified teachers who rigidly following scripted and standardised, tablet-based lesson plans, leaving no room for the pedagogical processes that characterise a quality education.

On one side of this coin, says Wulff, are governments that are keen to cut costs. This is evident globally in measures such as the freezing of public sector salaries, the closure of public schools, the introduction of education voucher schemes, or the privatisation of schools as well as education support services.

On the other side of the coin, she identifies an evolving global education market, currently valued at US$4.3 trillion and expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This is partially driven by venture capital and private investment firms, some of whom invest in companies such as BIA. But some local actors have spotted a potentially lucrative domestic market: for instance, the Omega schools in Ghana charge approximately US$0.65 a day in tuition, which amounts to 41 percent of the national minimum wage.

Reading and writing deficit

Meanwhile, UNESCO reports that 250 million children can neither read nor write after four years of schooling, a key statistic in shaping the formulation of SDG 4, says Wulff. The subsequent push for ‘learning’ was not in fact constituency based or grassroots-driven, but a direct consequence of private sector funding available to those advocating for a ‘learning goal’.

“Learning outcomes are not synonymous with quality education, nor is measurement in itself a solution to a lack of learning,” she says. “On the contrary, a narrow focus on outcomes in literacy and numeracy has been proven to reduce the scope and depth of education provided, which threatens the very purpose of education”. She argues that “there is a difference between learning and education; while the former is an integral part of the latter, it is the latter that implies a system and a society.”

Lack of accountability

Acknowledging that, in relation to the implementation and monitoring of the 2030 Agenda, both standardisation and accountability can be tools for ensuring equity and quality across systems, she highlights that “the tools that are now being introduced are not designed to help hold governments to account for their investment or lack thereof in equitable, quality education systems”.

On the contrary, Wulff notes that these tools tend to be based on large-scale, standardised assessments, often designed and administered by edu-businesses. For instance, Pearson, the largest education company and book publisher in the world, is developing the frameworks for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which means that they are working out how literacy, maths, science and ‘global competences’ are to be tested.

Deficiency of current measures

She also highlights that these trends are reinforced by the global indicator framework for the SDGs. Member States explicitly favour outcome indicators – which, incidentally, favour rich countries as they have had a head start – and for the education goal, this of course translates into learning outcomes, she says.

“The irony is that measuring proficiency at the global level makes little sense; a global metric cannot take contextual factors into account, making it difficult to interpret the results,” Wulff insists. “Not being aligned to national policy and curricula, the metric cannot be used to evaluate or inform policy development, or support classroom interventions. What it is likely to do is pit countries and systems against each other, and push systems in a direction that may be far from a country’s particular needs and priorities.”

Need for rights-based monitoring

Underlining that SDG 4 was celebrated in the education community for adhering to the progressive realisation of free education beyond primary level, as laid out within the right to education, she points out that “this historic commitment to free education at the intergovernmental level has, thus far, only been matched by an increase in privately provided, fee-charging education, particularly targeting those who are least able to pay”.

According to her, what should be monitored under the 2030 Agenda is the enjoyment of the right by rights-holders as well as the degree of compliance with human rights obligations of States.

At the same time, she adds, the mobilisation against the mushrooming of private schools has to be accompanied by efforts to interrogate the social and economic structures and forces that have made these developments possible. “There is no question that sustained fiscal austerity has an impact on the quality of public services, but we have also to recognise that there is a growing demand for private alternatives, characterised by a consumerist attitude to education. To many, progress equals the ability to choose – or, in the case of education, the ability to put your children in private school.”

She stresses that the example of BIA clearly shows that ‘choice’ is not equal but is, by default, reproducing the very patterns of inequality that it claims to defeat. “When States abdicate their duty to ensure quality education for all,” she concludes, “the de facto choice offered to different segments of society is an education where the quality tends to match social and economic status, effectively further cementing and reproducing inequality.”

To read the full article by EI’s Antonia Wulff, please click here