Education is a social investment aimed at shaping the present and the future. Like other investments, it should abide by the rules of a market that demands quality, relevance, durability and reasonableness of price in order to be attractive and appealing to its users.
In low-income economies, the public sector often struggles to meet its mandate for delivering quality education. Weak systems and opaque operations (and sometimes corruption) contribute to this situation.
Engaging the private sector and private schools and leveraging their strengths in the delivery of education — while adhering to government-set standards — could help bridge this gap, strengthen education and ultimately lead to better learning outcomes for students.
In many places, it is clear where the public sector isn’t living up to expectations for education, as the private sector takes on an increasing share of education delivery. In Nigeria, for example, the 2015 National Education Data Survey showed that private schools account for 28 percent of primary school enrollment in the Southeast and 40 percent in the Southwest. According to Development and Cooperation, 33 percent of Kenya’s primary schools are private, and so are 15 percent of all secondary schools. In these cases, private schools’ prevalence can be attributed to several factors, including struggling ministries, unmotivated teachers and teaching professionals, crumbling infrastructure, lack of teaching learning materials, limited funding and loose relationships between the government and communities.
These are compounded by the fact that ministries do not have a clear policy on how to engage with other education providers. The result is obvious: the rapid deterioration in the quality of education provided by the public sector, creating opportunity for the private sector to fill the gap.
When properly implemented, the private sector’s engagement in education boasts dynamism. It is incentive-driven. It is agile and creative. It can easily adapt to changing market demands or circumstances. And, above all, it has the potential and frequently the means to deliver education as a social commodity to society.
However, there are risks to allowing private schools to operate and expand without regulation. Private schools without sufficient oversight can operate at sub-standard level or even be unsafe. Classroom instructors may not have the requisite qualifications to teach, may not follow the national curriculum or administer standardized tests. They might suffer from scarcity of textbooks, teachers’ guides, supplementary reading materials and teaching aid materials.
And, if solely driven by profit, private schools can promote inequity and marginalize lower-income students. In Somalia, according to UNICEF, the majority of education services are run privately and operate on a fee system under a weak government structure. Without regulation, the result is predictable: poor quality of education.
Engaging the private sector
How can public education systems work with the private sector in a meaningful way without losing their important oversight responsibilities? This calls for a new approach.
Governments should create space for all education stakeholders including the private sector to become involved, including in the formulation of education policies, standards, strategic plans and regulatory framework from the outset and on a continuing basis. Above all, governments should be supported by putting in place strong regulatory mechanisms and quality assurance systems for education, not just for the benefit of public schools but private schools as well.
Bilateral and multilateral funding agencies could support governments to understand the benefits of public-private partnerships and assist in the development of tools and mechanisms for how to better engage the private sector. They can also encourage the private sector to invest in education while holding governments accountable for creating better-regulated education systems.
Higher education is where private sector engagement is highly sought after. Investing in higher education can be an expensive venture, and running or managing higher education also requires a greater degree of sophistication. The private sector should be encouraged to take partial ownership of the sub-sector to facilitate access to higher education for students who want to continue their studies. Continuing education through non-residential means such as online learning is also a space in which the private sector has great potential. Additionally, privately owned institutions for higher learning could be sources of innovation driven by cutting-edge research.
Strengthening private schools
As governments create space for the private sector to get involved in public education, the public sector can also work to strengthen private education.
Governments can offer a variety of support to establish and advance high-quality private education, such as simplifying and facilitating licensing for private entities, religious organizations and other interested parties that want to offer education while adhering to government-set regulations.
The government could provide land or other facilities for education delivery. It can encourage the private sector to set up training institutes to train teachers and other education professionals who have the desire to work in private or public schools.
Governments should also provide supervisory oversight to private schools to ensure quality.
Encouraging investment and partnerships
Encouraging outside investment and partnerships with other private sector companies can also strengthen the quality of education.
Governments can facilitate dialogue between private schools and banks to increase access to financing and microcredit to support school improvements and encourage easy access to loans for private school operators or other businesses interested in investing in education. Governments could also partner with and incentivize private publishing houses to make teaching and learning materials available to a wider audience at an affordable price.
By supporting the establishment of private and community school associations, governments can help them bargain collectively with banks, publishing houses, and even the government itself.
It is in the interest of making this social service available to the widest possible segment of society, especially children and youth, that the public sector has to engage or provide space to the private sector to take part in it.
This will first create an opportunity to allow more resources to be allocated to education as well as ease the financial burden the government will have to shoulder in delivering education to a wider segment of the society. Second, it will encourage creativity or innovation, enabling education to be more responsive to the evolving skilled labor needs of the market and society in general. And third, more competition will promote improved quality of education services in the future.
Semere Solomon is a Senior Director with the Africa Center at Creative Associates International.