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20 May 2021
Zain ul Abidin

The Effect of COVID-19 on Non-state Involvement in Education

Abstract: This NORRAG Highlights features guest author Zain ul Abidin, a Policy Researcher at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi Center of Education and Consciousness. Abidin describes the strong presence and role of non-state actors in education in the global south, particularly in South Asia. Amidst the global pandemic, survival of many non-state schools is at risk. Is there potential to develop a safety net which can absorb the significant learning losses that might occur due to the absence of non-state actors in times of COVID-19? 

Despite the prevalence of large-scale education systems spearheaded by the state, non-state actors in education have emerged as a large and growing sector in low- and middle-income countries over the past two decades. Today, as many as 30% of children globally are educated outside of the public school system (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). In 2018, 42% of pre-primary, 18% of primary, and 26% of secondary students globally were enrolled in non-state sector – which comprises of a vibrant mix of non-profit, for-profit, and faith-based organizations providing schooling and other education services. The presence of non-state actors in education is substantial in the global south, particularly in South Asia. For instance, around 50% of the school going children in India  and one fifth of the children in Pakistan are enrolled in privately-owned schools.

In the new education landscape amidst the global pandemic, where this sector has emerged as an innovative force and a valuable collaborator in the efforts to sustain child learning through the crises, operations of many non-state actors are now at risk. The current situation of COVID-19 pandemic may mean many non-state schools serving in low-income communities face new challenges ranging from loss of revenue to outright closures. This period has also provided some new insights on the impact of COVID-19, particularly with regards to rethinking SGD4, education financing, and the role of non-state actor on catering to the needs of children in low- income communities during and following the pandemic.

Today, the rise of non-state sector in education is qualitatively different from its historical context. It would not be wrong to say that the first education opportunities for children, in nearly every country’s educational history were provided by non-state schools/institutions. It is worth recognizing the wide spectrum along which the non-state actors fall, which is no longer limited to just private education. They range from profit initiatives to NGOs, diverse public-private partnerships to local community lead organizations, privately run large chains to low-cost private schools which often operate under government supervision.  A review highlights that a moderate number of schools run by non-state actors have slightly better learning outcomes than state counterparts.[1] Non-state actors can ensure the provision of education to those belonging to the less well-off families by providing quality education along with a lower fee structure and in many cases provide free education as well.  However, despite this, there is still limited evidence that they reach the most marginalized and extremely poor and more data is certainly required in this regard. Contextualizing the private versus public debate for the case of Pakistan, evidence shows that 42% of all school-aged children within the age bracket of 6-16 years were enrolled in government schools whereas 58% of children were going to non-state institutions. The children in non-state schooling show better performance—for e.g. 72% of class 5 children in private schools are able to read a story as compared to 67% of children in government schools.

The pandemic has further exacerbated the enrolment and quality gap that need to be bridged in order to achieve the commitments of Education for All (EFA) and the and SDG4 targets. Furthermore, there is a growing evidence that shows the pandemic has not only affected the 1.6 billion learners with global shutdown and school closures but is also threatening the operations of many non-state schools. These face a wide range of challenges pertaining to reduction in fee collection, lower school enrollment, settlement of the financial obligations on schools (loan payments, rent and bills) and the cost to preparing for building back better and safe reopening. Many non-state schools are being forced to close permanently due to the financial consequences of the pandemic on their business.

Non-state actors serve a growing share of student learning needs during global school closures

While the risks faced by non-state schools continue, it is pertinent to recognize the positive spillovers they create and key gaps they fill in educational ecosystems. The large and growing share of children being taught globally by non-state schools is well-captured in a new study, which summarized in the piece points towards prioritizing financing for non-state education, where it serves a large growing share in catering to the students learning needs during the lockdown. Data from the aforementioned study reports 59% of respondent’s active involvement in community efforts to tackle the pandemic, from disseminating accurate health information and WASH resources, to providing families with food. Similarly, a review centered on EdTech reinforced the crucial role of NGOs and other private actors as they emerged as one of the largest providers of EdTech related innovations. These insights are also aligned in educational response to COVID-19 in Pakistan, as non-state stakeholders (i.e. Taleemabad, Sabaq) provided most of the digital content for national educational channel TeleSchool along with provision of statistics for prevalence of resources that can be leveraged for delivery of distance education at village/district level.

Apart from innovation, non-state actors play a vital role in increasing access to and participation in basic education, where government schools are failing or non-existent, non-state schools in form of low-cost private schools have emerged as one particular promising avenue to deliver basic education to the marginalized communities. Low-cost private schools have developed somehow spontaneously over the past 15 years in many developing countries worldwide: in Asia (India, Pakistan), Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya) and Latin America (Colombia, Chile). Several non-state actors are bridging the gaps in national/provincial education delivery in Pakistan as well. Notably, Pakistan Education Foundation (PEF), The Citizen Foundation (TCF), CARE foundation and Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) among several others.

The global pandemic is placing the survival of many non-state schools at risk

In the new global education landscape of school shutdowns amidst global pandemic, survival of many non-state schools is at risk. While non-state actors collaborated extensively to keep children learning through the crisis, survival of many non-state actors globally is at stake due to budget cuts and/or funding diversions. Data from GSF’s member survey shows that 62% described continuing to operate as “extremely challenging” in the circumstances. They reported not only battling lost school-fee revenue, but with other crucial sources of income at risk, disruptions in donor contributions; government subsidies on hold or delayed; and reduced access to capital from financial institutions due to economic shocks as reasons for this challenge. If the situation persists and progresses to a point where even half of this sector shuts down, the ramifications will be grave as already strained government education system will have to cater to the needs of a huge number of students. Not to mention the loss of a competitive sector which is increasing in demand by the parents and is gradually being perceived as a key contributor to positive educational outcomes on a larger scale, particularly in developing countries (Tooley, 2012)

Way forward

With the aid of government and the public sector via financial or service partnerships, there is potential to develop a critical safety net to absorb the significant learning losses that might occur due to the absence of non-state actors. However, a public-private partnership might result in the amalgamation of the two sectors to a point where non-state actors might lose the incentive to be competitive, client-centered and/or innovative, a key element of their service-provision. Private sector partnerships, however, can be fruitful especially within the domain of corporate social responsibility. For instance, a partnership with cellular network providers to subsidize and/or increase internet coverage to promote digital educational content delivery might be a potential long-term relationship to increase the efficacy of education even after schools reopen post pandemic.

International education funders might be able to leverage this opportunity to strategically place themselves in the political economy of education in a way to influence both state and non-state actors in a positive way for a long time and evidence is emerging in that regard.  In conclusion, with significant non-state actor’s contributions globally, there is a need to fully understand, acknowledge, and redesign the support system available for these actors. A collapse of this segment of global educational ecosystem has the risk of exacerbating the ongoing global learning crisis and result in losses of varying nature and magnitude with no cushion to absorb the resulting shocks. Thus, this necessitates a global integrated policy response by governments, education partners, donors and civil society to financially support the non-state actors. Particularly, in addressing the most pertinent challenges of financing, safe preparation for reopening and prospective socioeconomic losses as a result of reduced enrollment.


About the author: Zain ul Abidin is a Policy Researcher at ITACEC. He is an education activist interested in non-state actor engagement in education, and is currently working on a Second Chance Program for girls’ education funded by FCDO. Email:

Editorial Note: The author reported no conflicts of interest with respect to the contents of this post.

[1] This report was selected as a primary source after a lengthy literature review because we were looking for a report which is updated, based on a very recent survey and secondly, covers multiple areas across multiple countries.

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