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28 Aug 2018
Rita Locatelli

Education, beyond public to common good: what implications for the Education 2030 Agenda?

This blog post is part of the NORRAG Debates stream on the Right to Education. Rita Locatelli, research fellow at the UNESCO Chair of the University of Bergamo, Italy, illustrates some of the main ideas developed in Education as a public and common good: Reframing the governance of education in a changing context, ERF Working Paper n. 22 (Locatelli, 2018).

The new global commitment to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” envisaged in the Education 2030 Agenda may represent an opportunity to significantly rethink the purposes and organization of education. Both the 2015 Incheon Declaration and the Education 2030 Framework for Action reaffirm a humanistic vision based on the principles of education as a public good and as a fundamental human right. Having said this, and as acknowledged in Rethinking Education (2015), these principles need to be re-contextualized in light of the changing educational landscape.

The notion of education as a public good traditionally underlines the primary responsibility of the State in ensuring the right to education for all and in safeguarding public interest in education. However, this principle is increasingly being questioned by the greater diversification of actors and sources of funding at all levels. These dynamics may lead to the weakening of the role of the State in ensuring equality of opportunity and social justice, with deleterious effect on education provision, especially amongst marginalized communities. More in general, recent trends of privatization and marketization tend to favor a vision of education as a mere private/marketable good for which individuals and households should bear the costs.

It is important to reinterpret the principle of education as a public good in a context characterized by the increasing involvement of non-state actors and by the blurring of boundaries between the public and the private. The State maintains a fundamental role with regard to the normative principle of education as a public good. It is the guarantor of the right to education, enshrined in numerous conventions and declarations and in Sustainable Development Goal #4. Having said this, beyond traditional functions of provision and funding, it is important that the State’s regulatory and monitoring functions are progressively strengthened. Indeed, the need for greater State regulation has been at the center of recent consultations on the draft Human Rights Guiding Principles on State Obligations with regards to Private Involvement in Education aiming at developing a normative framework to assess privatization from a social justice perspective.

Moreover, while reaffirming the primary responsibility of the State in the governance of education, the principle of education as a public good arguably implies that all discussion on education should pertain to the sphere of the ‘public’ and not be confined to private or market domains. However, the way the public sphere should be reconstituted requires a shift in culture in order to significantly revisit and reshape the way public institutions themselves function. The existence of a democratic system guaranteed by the State represents the prerequisite for the development of more inclusive and participatory institutions. At the same time, it is essential to develop new strategies that may combine both top-down and bottom-up approaches so as to integrate the notion of education as a public good with the fundamental social and cultural components of education which are often disregarded within standardized approaches.

The concept of common goods may be helpful to develop complementary frameworks likely to strengthen democratic and participatory approaches to educational governance. This concept highlights the purposes of education as a shared societal endeavor and responsibility. Indeed, “common” means com-muniis, that is the equal sharing of duties and responsibilities, and is contrary to “immune”, in-muniis, without duties. Unlike ‘public goods’, which can be enjoyed as individual goods, ‘common goods’ necessarily require forms of collectivity and shared governance both for their production and enjoyment. Because of their intrinsic social and relational value, they cannot be reduced to economic resources or to factors of production. As such, this concept calls into question the current utilitarian model which sees education as a mere individual socio-economic investment and favors a humanistic approach which implies the enhancement of the cultural, social and relational dimensions of each educational process.

With regard to the growing involvement of non-state actors, the notion of education as a common good puts greater emphasis on the quality of the actions and relationships established among different stakeholders. This implies a shift in the balances of current arrangements of power, especially between the private corporate sector and public institutions, in order to develop forms of cooperation grounded in social relationships more than in profit-making purposes. It is about responding to the challenges of governments to deliver quality education not by relying on market-based approaches, or returning to the ways of functioning of highly centralized bureaucratic states, but by envisaging new and innovative public institutions that can improve quality and efficiency thanks to the empowerment and the greater cooperation with the forces present in society.

It is evident that the concept of education as a common good does not propose easy paths. It presupposes the establishment of democratic spaces and structures that can promote the free exercise of responsibilities in order to enhance true participatory processes where the diversity of opinions is valued, and different visions of education are put forward. This constitutes the core issue of democracy, which is necessarily a quest, a dynamic process which involves multiple power struggles that need to come to a compromise.

In order for processes in education to become truly democratic, it is essential that all actors – from public institutions to the private sector, community organizations, households or individuals – are in condition to assume responsibility. This presupposes the establishment of accountability mechanisms to ensure that all actors meet their responsibilities (GEM Report, 2017/18), and an integrated approach to education based on the principle of lifelong learning, as reaffirmed in the Education 2030 Agenda. Indeed, given the greater complexity and unprecedented changes in the education landscape, there is a need to re-contextualize the right to education, so that it is not limited to the right to schooling but is also extended to the right to life-long learning. The UNESCO Learning Systems in a Complex World project being launched may provide significant guidance on this.

As illustrated above, the concept of education as not only a public but also a common good may provide useful elements on which to ground more inclusive and equitable education policies and practices in a context of greater involvement of non-state actors. Collaborative efforts by multiple stakeholders are increasingly fundamental to develop more focused, innovative and integrated strategies in order to fulfill the Education 2030 Agenda. The concept of education as a common good may encourage the design and implementation of innovative forms of cooperation based on the values of solidarity and mutual benefit and on a vision of education seen not merely as an economic tool for economic and individual progress, but mainly as the process through which human beings and communities can be empowered and develop their full potential.

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