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11 Oct 2022
Zsuzsanna Nyitray and Ashina Mtsumi

Are commercial private schools improving transparency in education?

This blog post is authored by Zsuzsanna Nyitray, Program Officer on the right to education at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) and Ashina Mtsumi, Program Officer on public services and Africa Representative at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR). The post is part of the NORRAG Blog Series on Philanthropy in Education (PiE) which aims to foster dialogue between key stakeholders on critical issues relating to the global and regional role of Philanthropy in Education. In this article, the authors focus on the role of the private sector in for-profit education, looking at the impact that this participation has on transparency and accountability in education. The post highlights the importance of increased regulation of the private sector’s involvement in education by the state, in order to uphold standards of transparency. 

The rapid growth of private, commercial actors has been at the forefront of education debates in the last decade. Proponents of for-profit schooling put forward a variety of arguments in support of their views, addressed recently in the 2021/2 GEM Report, for instance. One view, which will be referred to as the ‘transparency argument’ suggests that private actors improve transparency and accountability in the education sector and therefore help avoid the challenges, including corruption, that too often undermine public education. But is there solid evidence to support this argument? Or should it rather be understood in the context of an influential narrative that believes competition and market accountability provide the solutions for the challenges experienced in the public education sector? This contribution seeks to address this question by highlighting some of the key findings of a new research brief that examined the transparency record of one of the largest for-profit school chains, Bridge International Academies.  

What is transparency and what are the transparency requirements under international human rights law? 

Transparency refers to the extent to which reliable information is accessible by and available to the people in a way that facilitates their substantive monitoring of and participation in processes and decisions. According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report Accountability in Education 2017/18, transparency is an indispensable element of accountability and effective public participation, which in turn is crucial for the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to education. It builds trust and leads to better feedback as everyone can access the required information. In the private sector, as enshrined in the Harvard Principles of Corporate Governance, transparency is considered an important element of good corporate governance and a safeguard against corruption. In the public sector, transparency is a requirement of democratic governance and a bulwark against abuses of power. In human rights law, effective transparency requires the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information (Art 19 UDHR, Art 19(2) ICCPR), and institutions must be open to external scrutiny and responsive to feedback from rights-holders.

The Abidjan Principles on the right to education affirm that, when they deliver and exercise governance over education, states must apply principles of transparency and accountability (Guiding Principle 20). States must also ensure that private education providers act transparently. Private schools should meet transparency requirements and provide access to information about the operation of schools they manage (Guiding Principle 55(a)). Transparency obligations also apply when a State allocates public resources to a private actor (Guiding Principle 66), for instance through public-private partnerships (PPPs). 

Why is transparency essential in education? 

Lack of transparency in any sector facilitates misuse of limited resources and conceals abuse and corruption. It thus undermines trust in institutions and social justice, further harming the most marginalised. Learners at school may experience poor quality teaching, dangers to their health, psychological risks of different kinds, and general risks to their development. For these reasons both public and private education, especially profit-driven education, should be conducted in a clear and transparent manner that enables everyone, including parents, teachers, school heads, officials working in ministries of education, researchers, taxpayers, and funders of education to understand the implications on the right to education, the cost of schools and the performance of schools, as well as the quality of education that learners receive. 

Challenges achieving transparency in the public education sector – do private actors improve the situation? 

Transparency is an important matter for educational providers of every kind, because they have responsibility for the well-being and development of learners. Thus the transparency of commercial providers, such as Bridge International Academies, needs to be addressed specifically, not only because they are providing an essential service (education), but also because they have an additional reason to avoid transparency whenever accurate reporting about their performance, practices, financial position, or reputation would harm their ability to attract investment capital or retain learners.

Achieving transparency in the education sector remains a challenge. The public sector is often criticised for failing learners due to bureaucracy, vested interest, conservatism and corruption.  In 2009, for instance, the United Kingdom’s aid agency (then DFID, now FCDO) suspended aid to Kenya’s primary education services following allegations of corruption in Kenya’s Ministry of Education. In 2018, it halted its aid funding to Zambia, after allegations of fraudulent activity concerning the Zambian education department as well.

Such justified criticisms of specific instances where public education authorities have been wanting have led some donors and policymakers to argue that private education actors will improve the transparency and efficiency of educational services. In 2018, DFID’s education policy stated that DFID would “look beyond stagnant public sectors, instead promoting improved transparency, accountability and coalitions seeking better education and investing through alternative channels which deliver for poor and marginalised children”. This position echoes authors and policy actors who have argued that the private sector is more transparent and accountable than the public sector, primarily because parents feel they have more say over the managers and teachers of private schools, and as a result it is easier to hold them to account. 

This narrative has encouraged a sharp rise in private sector involvement in education. Across the world, many more commercial companies have become involved in delivering and financing education services; more countries rely increasingly on private companies to provide schooling and on markets mechanisms to ensure accountability. 

However, it is important to note that this shift has occurred even though there is little solid evidence that private sector involvement brings improved accountability benefits, and some evidence leans the other way. The record of Bridge International Academies for instance, examined in a new research brief, suggests that privatisation does not necessarily improve transparency and accountability, while other research suggests that private sector involvement can increase corruption.

How to improve transparency in education – some recommendations going forward

While private actors can play a role in strengthening education, there is no reason to believe they can resolve issues of transparency.  Given the lack of solid evidence to support the claim that privatisation will improve transparency and accountability or reduce corruption, it should be treated as an idea and not a fact. To the contrary, the involvement of private actors will generate new transparency problems that societies will need to address. 

What is the best way forward? 

Whether education is delivered by the State or a private actor, it must be regulated, and transparency standards must be enforced. Regulation should ensure transparency and accountability, in particular where private actors have incentives to avoid full transparency. This means that public authorities need to remain involved: devolving education to private actors removes none of the State’s transparency obligations. The opposite is true, because the involvement of private actors increases the system’s complexity and adds actors who are less subject to formal mechanisms of accountability. Improving transparency always requires improving public capacity; this cannot be circumvented by relying on private actors or market solutions. 

Recommendations:

  • Legally enforceable standards should make it possible for all stakeholders, including learners and their families, community members and civil society, regulatory bodies, researchers, and educational specialists, to monitor and analyse the quality of education governance and reporting of educational expenditure and performance.
  • Where a State engages private actors, it should carefully consider their diversity and the risks associated with different models of education and make public their rationales.
  • Commercial actors, especially large ones, have an additional interest to present positive results in terms of performance and value for money, because positive (negative) results directly affect their ability to attract financing and learners. States and education authorities should specifically address this fact when they set, apply and enforce reporting and transparency standards. 
  • To complement State efforts to hold education providers to account and maintain high standards, private sector alliances should do more to set and enforce stringent transparency and accountability guidelines for their members. Their guidelines should draw on human rights standards e.g., as set forward in the Abidjan Principles.

Acknowledging the complexities of the discussion (on transparency in education), this blog argues – based on a recent research brief – that contrary to a widely-held narrative in development policy, the involvement of for-profit private schools may contribute to limiting rather than improving transparency and accountability efforts in education. It also provides a starting point for a broader debate on the role and the limitations of for-profit, private actors for achieving better transparency and accountability in education systems and highlights the need for both national governments and donors to work together to improve the processes and capacities for public authorities to uphold the standards of transparency and accountability to strengthen the education space.

Authors

Zsuzsanna Nyitray is the Program Officer on the right to education at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR). Her work focuses on leveraging international human rights norms in contemporary debates on education, including privatisation and commercialisation of education, and finding/advocating for alternatives that strengthen public education systems and improve access for all children to free, quality, public education. She can be reached at zsuzsanna@gi-escr.org.   

Ashina Mtsumi is the Program Officer on public services and Africa Representative at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR). Her work contributes to advancing the international human rights framework relevant to the public services which are essential for the full enjoyment of human rights, such as education, healthcare and water. She can be reached at ashina@gi-escr.org.

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