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Profiteers not invited: creating the conditions for quality education

published 4 February 2016 updated 4 February 2016

By Antonia Wulff

Education International

In September 2015, the governments of the world adopted the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. Hailed as a recipe for transforming the world, the 17 sustainable development goals promise quality education and health, gender equality and decent work for all, while protecting forests and oceans, and combating climate change. Quite simply: make the world a better and happier place.

Ministers of Education from around the world reaffirmed the promise of free quality primary and secondary education for all when adopting the Education 2030 Framework for Action in November 2015 in Paris. It is a great victory and one that that we have fought hard for. The problem is that any promise to expand access to education risks opening the door to dodgy providers, increased tuition fees and education of lower quality, unless accompanied by public financing as well as legislation and regulation.

This is particularly important given that ever-increasing austerity is coinciding with the bright future of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections for 2016 reveal that severe cuts in public spending are expected in two-thirds of the world’s countries, affecting about 80 percent of the world population within the next few years. In 130 countries the foreseen measures include cuts to recurrent expenditures like salaries, while 55 governments are considering privatising public assets and services. A majority of these countries are so-called developing countries.

It goes without saying that teachers and education workers are among those whose salaries risk being frozen or cut, and that education is one of the public services that runs the risk of being privatised, which, in turn, threatens the quality, equity and equality of education systems – all at the core of the Education 2030 commitments.

There is a broad consensus that the lack of finances is the single largest reason for failing to reach the Education for All goals by their deadline of 2015. Yet, financing commitments are nowhere to be found in the new agenda; in fact, it is merely an invitation to business and the private sector to consider integrating some sustainable development into their core activities.

The mantra of the negotiations on the new development agenda was that sustainable development can’t be ensured without business being on board. However, the opposite is also true: there is no way we can achieve sustainable development with the current carte blanche for business.

A new publication on business and the United Nations working together towards the SDGs is almost apologetic in its approach to business and quotes the alignment of SDGs to specific company core competencies and interests as one of the barriers highlighted by companies – as if the SDGs were a menu where business can choose where to contribute and of what to make profit. Not a word is said about public goods, regulation, or compliance with social and environmental standards.

The new global agenda represents an achievement only if governments are willing to ensure that all private funding is aligned with the SDGs and human rights obligations. In the case of education, quality and equity are at the core of the new agenda – and of the right to education – but quality and equity are not automatic features of school; they are the consequences of political determination, policy priorities and targeted financing. The long-term goal of equitable quality education depends on a legislative framework that ensures equity and quality across the system. This includes legislating against profit-making in education and ensuring that non-state actors comply with national standards for quality.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.