Privatisation has been a focus of education research for many years, particularly in western liberal democracies. However, the phenomenon is relatively under-researched within the Caribbean region. This matters.
Increasing privatisation in places like Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, Honduras and India, reveal that this incomplete mapping of the Global South is often interplayed with other structural and/or historical features, such as colonialism and poverty. This is in addition to more widely experienced societal harms caused by privatisation in education as was the case with “leaseback” agreements or public-private partnerships (PPP) in Canada, Belgium and with the voucher system in Chile.
Thus, the need to explore privatisation in the Caribbean is pressing.
In our research, we targeted ten Caribbean nations to investigate the extent, intensity and impact of privatisation practices across the region through mapping trends, key actors and institutional influences. The nations targeted were: Antigua and Barbuda; Barbados; Belize; Grenada; Guyana; Jamaica; St Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; and Trinidad and Tobago. We also sought to understand the role of public policy in relation to privatisation trends and that of supra-national organisations, such as CARICOM and the IMF. We focused on three types of education privatisation: (1) exogenous privatisation, or direct private-sector involvement in the provision of educational products and services; (2) endogenous privatisation, where the methods, goals, language, and dispositions of the private sector become adopted by public-sector actors and (3) the privatisation of the state itself and its policymaking functions and apparatus. Our multiple-methods case study consisted of three strands: documentary analysis, interviews and questionnaires. Participants included teachers, school leaders, parents, teacher union representatives and representatives of supra-national organisations. The results of this research can be summarised into five key findings:
1) A residual commitment to public education
Evidence from many sources positions education as a public good that the state ought to provide. These sources include national education acts, such as Antigua and Barbuda’s of 2008; interview accounts from teacher union representatives; and, indirectly, from questionnaire data. For instance, when parents stated that a lack of teacher qualifications or subject expertise is affecting their child’s education, they are contributing to a case for public education. When teachers raised the issue of the ‘continued stratification of students’, they are doing the same. However, this residual attitude is insufficient to halt the spread or intensification of privatisation trends.
2) Privatisation is the ‘default’ route to improvement
We found extensive evidence of privatisation in education in our study, demonstrably overcoming any legacy commitment to public education. For instance, the inadequate public funding of education and a desire for the improvement (framed as ‘modernisation’) of public education encouraged many participants to value privatisation. This belief is reinforced through policies across the region: discursively available options for system-wide improvements in the Caribbean, as internationally, draw largely on a privatisation template. This ‘default’ suite of strategies is often embraced by participants in educational as well as regional leadership roles. As such, modernisation has become collocated through discourse with privatisation. This is not surprising: the same phenomenon has occurred in other countries. The financial incentives that private-sector entities, especially supra-national organisations, can bring to public education is alluring as are the business-like methods of endogenous privatisation, which are promoted as integral and unproblematic features of a “modernised” education.
Sometimes, the ‘problem’ with education was even framed as privatisation not being ‘done properly’. The answer for these respondents, is more, or more effectively realised privatisation. For example, one teacher in Barbados complained in the questionnaire that performance management is only done every three years and called for a system of bonuses to incentivise performance.
3) Major corporate actors not evident
We asked all our participants to identify the key actors in privatisation; no major corporation or international actor was ever mentioned. Therefore, our research did not uncover the wide-spread predatory practices by large, private-sector actors and organisations which have been reported elsewhere in the world. It seems that in the Caribbean, at least for now, the private-sector provision of funds, goods or services can, for the most part, be described as small-scale, ‘goodwill’, religiously motivated or community-level. For instance, in their survey, the most commonly suggested advocates for privatisation were parents with means. It is also possible that any self-serving intentions of private actors, be they international edu-businesses or lesser-known philanthropists, remain under the radar. Nonetheless, concerns over the motives of private-sector actors’ involvement in public education are beginning to increase in at least one nation, Trinidad and Tobago, where a teachers’ union representative reported on their disapproval of, for instance, the Ministry of Education’s increasing use of a named private edu-business for the provision of educational services.
4) Selection drives privatisation
Another key condition and driver of education privatisation is the existence of quasi-markets within education systems, where competition related to the highly common practice of selection to secondary-level schooling results in a favouring of private education over public education. League tables and top-performers’ lists then serve as market information for parents. These beg the questions: What can such a situation mean for public schools, especially those in rural areas? What can such a situation mean for those families who are unable to afford it? It appears that high-quality education is becoming commodified, thus limiting equal access and equity and violating one of the fundamental rights of children. Yet competing tensions within education landscapes, such as educators’ pay and working conditions, appear to be the primary focus of attention of teacher trade unions, who can be an important bulwark against privatisation.
5) Inconsistent understanding of privatisation
Also hampering unions’ efforts to combat privatisation is a widespread confusion about what privatisation means, what its features are and what conceptual architecture, including language, is often used to build and articulate arguments for it. We found that participants who might be expected to push back against privatisation were sometimes accepting a conceptual and linguistic framing of the discussion that is favoured by its protagonists. Words do political and ideological work, and so unproblematically accepting framings of education that foreground ‘modernisation’, ‘agility’ or ‘flexibility’ cede ground before the debate has even begun.
Through policy texts, the Caribbean nation states we investigated appear to be variously committed to privatisation as a key mechanism to modernise public education provision and improve outcomes. Selection at the end of primary in many Caribbean nations establishes and reinforces the notion of schooling as fundamentally competitive. These, coupled with inadequate state provision of public education, make for ideal conditions for the promotion and eventual adoption of education privatisation. While participants sometimes see benefits to such privatisation, many are concerned about its implications for equity and the notion of education as a common good.
Our study provides grounds for our recommendations that policymakers first fund education to remove additional, often prohibitive costs for parents of their child(ren) attending school. These include for textbooks and extra-curricular activities. Second, policymakers should tax profits from private-sector involvement in education to fund work towards achieving goals in education-sector plans and/or UN Sustainable Development Goals for education. We recommend that researchers explore more fully who the key actors are of education privatisation in the Caribbean and that teachers’ unions increase awareness of all forms of education privatisation, including the way the way in which it frames the debate through the widespread and unquestioned adoption of corporatised understandings of key terms—it is hard to argue against privatisation whilst accepting the meaning imposed upon key terms by its protagonists.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.