Photo by note thanun on Unsplash
Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

Better education financing and regulation of private interests is urgent to ensure equitable, inclusive, and resilient education systems

Education International responds to the 2021 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report "Non-state actors in education: Who chooses, who loses?"

published 13 December 2021 updated 17 February 2022

The 2021/2022 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report) analyses the role and involvement of state and non-state actors in education and in the education sector. The stated aim of the report is to consider non-state actors in education ‘through the lens of equity and inclusion’, which were among the commitments made when governments adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.

The Report takes a broad definition of non-state actors, encompassing private corporations, philanthropic foundations, the media, researchers, think tanks, parents, and non-governmental, civil society, trade unions, and faith-based organizations. It introduces emerging debates around the roles of non-state actors across education sectors, focusing on four elements: provision, regulation, financing, and influence.

Education International champions free, quality, publicly funded education for every student in every country, recognises education as a human right, and considers education to be a public good. Consequently, we agree with the basic premise of this year’s GEM Report that any benefits to be harnessed from non-state actors’ contributions in education must not be ‘at the cost of higher inequality’; and that the involvement of non-state actors in education ’should not dilute government responsibilities for guaranteeing the right to education.’ We also agree with the Report’s assertion that a key consideration is the extent to which non-state actors advance or ‘hinder efforts to ensure equity, and inclusion in education.’

Non-state actors in education: an increasing trend

The Report finds that support for public provision of education remains strong: in an analysis of the status quo in 35 high- and middle-income countries, ‘89% of adult respondents said the primary responsibility for providing school education rested with governments’ while ‘75% of respondents favoured more public education spending’, with spending support increasing in countries with higher levels of income inequality.

Despite this public support, the Report finds that the role of non-state actors in education is on the increase, with significant regional variation: Central and Southern Asia have experienced the highest share of private enrolment at primary and secondary levels, as well as the largest absolute increases since 2000. At the same time, public education budgets have been shrinking, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online education in many countries. Today, non-state actors provide education to 350 million children across the world.

Non-state actors are also increasingly involved in other areas of education provision, such as: textbook provision, curriculum development, assessment systems, transport, or meal services. The Report notes this increase particularly within the early childhood, adult and tertiary education, and in technical and vocational education and training (TVET); non-state actors are present in these sectors – ‘sometimes at the expense of equity and quality’. At the primary and secondary levels, there was a 7% increase in provision of education by non-state actors over a ten year-period: up to 17% at primary level in 2014 and up to 26% at secondary level in 2014.

Globally, non-state actors lead care and education services for children under 3 in private institutions, very many of which are for-profit. The numbers of private providers at the pre-primary level have risen significantly in some regions and fallen in others since the early 2000s. Overall, there was an increase from 28.5% to 37% between 2000 and 2019 of private institutions in total pre-primary education enrolment. As the numbers of such institutions increase, more and more of the poorest households find themselves unable to afford early childhood education for their children. In addition, the quality of ECE provision by non-state actors is ‘highly variable’, and very few low- to middle- income countries are in a position to implement quality assurance procedures ‘that go beyond administrative requirements’.

At the tertiary level, the Report finds that nearly all countries ensure tertiary education provision through a combination of state and non-state actors. This is due to societal demands ranging from a preference for religious or culture-oriented institutions viewed as providing ‘different’ education, to the elite institutions favoured by the affluent, and smaller non-denominational institutions catering to increasing demand for tertiary education in contexts where public budgets are shrinking.

Quality is compromised at the tertiary level, where the ‘profit orientation’ of non-state actors can exacerbate challenges linked to market concentration and the prioritization of profit over high academic quality. In upper-middle-income countries, a greater share of non-state actors in total enrolment is associated with greater inequality in attendance.

The Report finds that resources to accredit and monitor non-state tertiary institutions are often lacking, while regulations that promote equity tend to be more scarce than administrative rules. In addition, households are having to take on a larger share of funding tertiary education because, for the most part, non-state institutions - especially smaller, non-elite institutions - rely heavily on fees for their funding. The Report’s findings echo those in Education International’s recent research on the commercialisation and privatisation of higher education in the context of COVID-19, which highlighted how private actors sought to make long-lasting sectoral changes following Edtech companies’ increased involvement and influence in higher education provision, due to the rapid pivot to online learning as education institutions went into lockdown.

The need for more and better education financing remains urgent

The Report highlights adequate financing as one of the key measures through which governments can most effectively protect and universally fulfil the right to education, given the SDG4 pledge to provide one year of ECE and a twelve-year cycle of free, publicly funded education. In 2019, EI Research assessing progress towards SDG4 found that the main barrier to governments’ ability to deliver on this pledge is the fact that national education budgets remain low and aid budgets neglect the education sector. The GEM Report states that one in three countries spend less than 4% of GDP and 15% of total spending on education. ‘Data collected by the UIS for 71 countries suggest that the median education share in total spending decreased from 14.1% in 2019 to 13.5% in 2021’. There are, thus, huge gaps between governments’ stated commitments in education and the reality; this is where non-state actors – too many of whom are in search of lucrative business opportunities – can potentially emerge and proliferate.

Regulation of non-state actors in education is critical

The report stresses the lack of governance and regulation of non-state actors by governments, noting that: ’Fragmentation, lack of coordination and overlapping or unclear articulation of responsibilities can negatively influence equity and quality’. Accordingly, the Report calls on governments to ‘hold education providers accountable for compliance with standards on quality, inputs, safety and inclusion.’

EI supports the Report’s call for regulatory and legal frameworks to be developed in a ‘participatory, transparent, and equitable manner through coordination, collaboration, and cooperation.’ Unregulated and unmonitored non-state actors have created an environment with mixed learning outcomes and increased social segregation and inequality. As the Report identifies, these also create specific challenges for teachers working in private educational settings, such as unstable contracts and lower pay.

Outsourcing education to non-state actors can undermine professionalism and lower the status of the profession, particularly for teachers and education support personnel. Outsourcing teacher education and professional development to non-state providers can also affect education quality.

The Report notes the negative impact on teachers’ working conditions within private educational institutions; as was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many private school teachers had their salaries cut or contracts terminated. Education International supports the call for teachers to be ‘valued as professionals in all schools’, and for their labour rights to be protected.

More than a question of choice: education is a human right

Education International is concerned about the increasing numbers of non-state actors and their growing role within education. Although the GEM Report analyses non-state actors in education through an ‘equity and inclusion lens’, assertions such as: ‘publicly funded education does not have to be publicly provided’ or ‘education is also a private good’ do not seem compatible with a consistent human rights approach to education. It is difficult to see how education can be both a public and a private good, where the latter depends on a profit-based commercialisation of the sector. We do, therefore, strongly endorse the recommendation in the Report that: ‘Regulating or banning profit making can be used to address school choice policies that exacerbate inequality’.

EI agrees with the Report’s assertion that: ‘The question for policymakers is not just whether non-state involvement in education meets agreed standards of quality, but also how non-state actors help or hinder efforts to ensure equity and inclusion in education’. It does not seem to be the case that governments, non-state actors and all stakeholders in education share a common understanding of what is meant by ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ within education. It is vital to also ask, therefore: who defines what is equitable and/or inclusive with regards to education? How will progress be monitored and assessed, and who will be responsible for monitoring and evaluation?

As the global federation for teachers’ and education support personnel’s representative organisations, Education International remains convinced of the need for governments to step up investment in education and in the education workforce as a matter of urgency. The Covid-19 pandemic is showing us just what is at stake when education systems are not financed in ways that make them robust enough to withstand shocks and crises: the right to quality education that is publicly funded and free at the point of access becomes an empty pipe dream for millions of children and young people around the world. As well as reversing the trend of shrinking educational budgets, governments must also assess and address the context-specific pre-existing inequalities affecting students and educational staff, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. It is long past time to address structural shortcomings and vulnerabilities in the education sector, and to build education systems that will be more equitable, inclusive, and resilient now and in the future.