Worlds of Education

The globalisation of education privatisation: International trends, multiple paths

published 25 April 2016 updated 25 April 2016

by Antoni Verger, Clara Fontdevila and Adrián Zancajo, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Education privatisation has become an important topic in the global education agenda, and generates contentious debates between a broad range of education stakeholders. In the last decades, pro-privatisation reforms are advancing all over the world in countries both in the northern and southern hemispheres. In parallel, enrolment in private education institutions has experienced a significant and constant growth in the last years, particularly in low and middle-income countries (see figure below). Among the most emblematic policies promoting the involvement of the private sector are charter schools, voucher schemes, or the contracting out of private schools.

Although there is a common trend towards more private participation in education worldwide, education privatisation is not a monolithic process. National and sub-national governments are engaging with privatisation policies for very different political, economic and/or social reasons, and in very different circumstances. Specifically, following a systematic literature review on the political economy of education privatisation, our research has identified six different paths toward education privatisation, which clearly reflect such diversity:


Paradigmatic cases


1. Reshaping the role of the state in education

Chile, United Kingdom, New  Zealand

Drastic advancement as part of a structural state reform adopted by neoliberal-oriented governments and consolidated by succeeding center-left administrations – resulting in a quasi-market system where the role of the state focuses on the regulation and distribution of incentives.

2. Education privatization in social-democratic welfare states

Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland

Introduction of market reforms, framed as part of a necessary modernization of the welfare state in a globalized context, and with the proactive collaboration of social-democratic parties – usually less inclined to promote competition as an end in itself but willing to respond to middle-class demand for diversification.

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3. Scaling-up privatization

United States of America, Canada, Colombia

Uneven but progressive alteration of the system through the authorisation and encouragement of new forms of provision and management, under the principle of school choice and with loose advocacy coalitions (integrated by think tanks, philanthropies, policy entrepreneurs) behind.

4. De facto privatization in low-income countries

Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru

Expansion of a low-fee private school sector, originally set by local edupreneurs responding to a growing education demand (unsatisfied by a weak public sector) – but increasingly promoted by the international development community and supported by national governments as part of public-private partnership (PPP) schemes.

5. Historical PPPs

The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Argentina

Historical presence of a high proportion of private, faith-based schools, incorporated in the state network during the expansion of the education system in the 20th century –as a means to achieve a state-church compromise rather than on ideological grounds.

6. Privatization by way of catastrophes

New Orleans, El Salvador, Haiti, Iraq Rapid advancement catalysed by natural disasters or violent conflicts, skillfully instrumentalised by privatization advocates as an opportunity to advance their agendas, and in a context where the sense of urgency justifies the temporary suspension of the democratic deliberative process and a reduction of veto opportunities.

Our recent publication: The Privatisation of Education: A Political Economy of Global Education Reform, which has been sponsored by Education International, develops the main characteristics of each of these paths.

Privatisation solutions are strongly advocated by influential international and national actors under the argument that these solutions contribute to expand access, quality and efficiency in education systems. However, critiques to privatisation, which are increasingly supported by evidence, show that education privatisation – especially when it is associated to market and competition dynamics – generates further school inequalities, segregation and discrimination in education. Education privatisation and marketisation contribute also to the individual goals of education overshadowing the social and collective goals (such as the acquisition of a common culture and the promotion of social cohesion). Understanding how and why education privatisation happens is a first and necessary step to organise contextualised and meaningful responses to this global trend.

Order “The Privatisation of Education: A Political Economy of Global Education Reform” here 

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