Worlds of Education

Educational privatisation: A latent phenomenon in Uruguay 

published 24 October 2017 updated 24 October 2017

By Eloísa Bordoli*, Pablo Martinis*, Mauro Moschetti**, Stefanía Conde* y Marcelo Alfonzo* 

*Universidad de la República (UdelaR)**Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB)

Over the last few decades, pro-privatisation policies have taken a central place in many processes of educational reform on a global scale. In Latin America, these policies have assumed a key role in educational reform processes, especially since the 1990s.

The most evident – although not exclusive – consequence of these processes has been the increasing participation of private actors in educational provision under different institutional arrangements.

In this context, and unlike most Latin American countries, Uruguay stands out for having remained relatively out of the privatisation agenda widely spread in the region. Although during the 1990s Uruguay was not exempt from experiencing a progressive decline in the role of the State in education on a discursive-ideological level, in comparison to the other countries in the region, the State has preserved a central role in educational provision and private participation has remained relatively limited.

However, recently research has begun to notice a significant change in the discursive order that has contributed to the set up of a new privatisation-friendly climate. This change of speech is evidenced in a renewed impetus in the undervaluing of the public services that contrasts with a growing association of private provision with higher levels of efficiency and quality. 

In a recent study commissioned by Education International, we have attempted to map out the different manifestations of educational privatisation in Uruguay, to describe the normative frameworks that enable –and condition– the participation of private actors, and to identify the actors, discourses and positions that support this incipient but renewed thrust that have promoted privatisation policy concepts in education.

Briefly, these are some of the study's most significant findings:

  • General trends: Although the participation of the private sector in formal education in Uruguay has remained relatively stable over the period 1990-2015, general trends of private enrollment contrast and differ from supply-side data. It is noted that the number of private educational establishments has grown substantially more than public establishments in relative terms throughout the period, especially outside the Montevideo and metropolitan area. The expansion of private provision, however, has not yet impacted significantly in enrollment.
  • Regulatory framework: The Uruguayan regulatory framework is not particularly restrictive about participation of private agents in education, but it does not encourage it directly, especially in comparison with other cases in the region like Colombia, Chile or Argentina.The study shows that, in addition to a historical regime of tax exemptions benefiting the entire private education sector, new regulations promoted by progressive governments after the crisis of the early 2000s have given new opportunities for the private sector.These new regulations include an infrastructure public-private partnership framework and the redefinition of tax exemptions on special donations for private educational institutions as a source of indirect state funding.
  • New modalities of public-private provision: Among the manifestations of the educational privatisation in Uruguay, an incipient modality constituted by a limited number of privately managed secondary schools indirectly funded by the State by means of tax exemptions on special donations stands out.These institutions are aimed at socio-economically disadvantaged populations, but at the same time they develop subtle criteria for the selection of students based on skills and parental engagement among others. This modality entails two aspects of interest: (a) a discursive overlapping and identification between private provision and supposedly innovative forms of pedagogical work, and (b) the presentation of this modality as an exemplar successful scheme by various political and social actors.
  • Building the debate: The study evidences a growing dispute involving a variety of actors, civil society organisations and the private sector over the diagnosis and prescription of educational policy solutions to deal with the ‘educational crisis’.Although these have managed to permeate in the public debate, the proposals stemming from these actors are at the moment a work in process that combine roughly defined efficiency-seeking initiatives with others closer to promoting an increase in private sector participation in education.The lack of definition of these proposals could be linked to the heterogeneity of positions within these organisations, or to the fact that some of these proposals do not transcend certain political opportunism.On the other hand, the organisations that constitute the private educational providers present somewhat atypical characteristics in Uruguay as they have not been able to become key players in terms of lobby and advocacy, as is the case  in other countries of the region.This lack of real impact on the process of policy formulation seems to be related to their desire not to be exposed to reforms that, although potentially beneficial financially, would bring accountability mechanisms that are interpreted as threats to the freedom of education and management autonomy they currently enjoy.
  • Content of the debate: Overall, policy prescriptions driven by different actors in the private sector and civil society are based on policy paradigms that respond to global norms but are also coupled with local elements such as the criticism of the ‘bureaucratisation’ of state educational authorities and the ‘disincentives for innovation’ attributed to the trade unions.This is the case in particular of the discourses that advance forms of greater school autonomy with accountability (SAWA), which are widely extended and considered ‘intrinsically positive’ by different actors across most of the political spectrum, even in the absence of conclusive empirical evidence on the effects of such policies. This point highlights the impact of globalisation processes on policy formulation at the local level.

As we can see, the study shows the incipient or latent nature of educational privatisation in Uruguay. This is evident in the historical presence of limited forms of private participation, the most recent emergence of public-private partnerships within the framework of new institutional and regulatory arrangements, and the promotion of a new discourse driven by different actors that advance various forms of exogenous and endogenous privatisation.

In this sense, the moments of variation or change in the field of educational policies offer privileged analysis scenarios to understand how new policy paradigms are built and influence policymakers’ actions and decisions. Understanding the nature of these processes is a necessary condition for articulating responses with which to strengthen public education.

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