Worlds of Education

Safeguarding Education against its Commercialisation

published 13 July 2016 updated 13 July 2016

by Kishore Singh, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education

Education is a fundamental human right for every child and its provision is a core public function of the State. However, education as a public function of the State is being eroded by market-driven approaches and the rapid growth of private providers, with scant control by public authorities. It is being increasingly opened up to profit making and trade, and to agendas set by private commercial interests in many developing countries.

Privatisation breeds exclusion and marginalisation, with crippling effects on the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity in education - a principle established in all international human rights treaties. Privatisation also entails disinvestment in public education.

Funded and managed by individual proprietors and local or global corporate backed ‘edu-businesses’, privatisation in education is fuelled by slick marketing and propaganda. As a result, education is being commercialised and for-profit education is flourishing. Low-fee private schools in several developing countries in Africa and in Asia are a glaring example of the commercialisation of education. Driven by for-profit interest, privatisation by definition is detrimental to education as a public good and sacrifices social interest in education for the sake of private profit.

Every individual is entitled to basic education of good quality, free of costs. However, access to private schools based upon the capacity to pay defies prohibited grounds of discrimination based notably on ‘social origin’, ‘economic condition’, ‘birth’, or ‘property’ in international human rights conventions. Education provided by private proprietors or ‘edu-businesses’ is neither free nor equitable. This is in gross contradiction with the Education Goal in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda set by the international community: to ensure, by 2030, inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all and that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

The 2030 Education Agenda is also embraced in the Incheon Declaration adopted at the World Education Forum (May 2015), which recognises education as a public good. Education benefits both the individual and society and must be preserved as a public good; social interest in education must always be protected. The commercialisation of education should have no place in a country’s education system.

Fundamental principles of social justice and equity are invaluable in guiding our action.

We must always remember that States’ obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to education under international human rights conventions remain even when education is privatised. The provision of basic education free of cost is not only a core obligation of the State, it is also a moral imperative. Education is an inalienable right of every person; it is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do. The State must discharge its responsibility as the guarantor and regulator of education.

As such, no unrecognised private school should be allowed to operate. Its operations should be subject to prior recognition and registration with designated public authorities. A sound regulatory framework is imperative to establish conditions to which all providers in education should be required to conform and be accountable for. It should be legally obligatory for ‘edu-businesses’ to meet essential requirements such as employing qualified teachers, adhering to the national curriculum and normative standards, and respecting nondiscrimination and equity in education. No private schools should be allowed to employ under-qualified teachers and to de-professionalise the teaching profession, with no career development for teachers. Valorizing the teaching profession is of key importance today. Teachers are the custodians of quality education.

Compliance with the conditions established in a regulatory framework must be imperative and no corporate sector entity providing education should be allowed to transgress. All private providers of education should be subject to reporting obligations on their operations. Nationally designated authorities should scrutinise all practices, fully investigate fraudulent and abusive practices, and impose sanctions in cases of violation of the right to education and non-compliance with the conditions laid down by public authorities.

Education must foster human values and the humanistic mission of education for common wellbeing. It is a public good, benefitting both the individual and society. It is a vital foundation of human development. Fundamental principles of social justice and equity, which are the key pillars of the United Nations system, are invaluable in guiding our action.

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