Africa: Educators united to resist privatisation and defend quality public education

published 11 April 2022 updated 13 April 2022

Privatisation, the importance of State funding in public education, and campaigns to combat the privatisation and commercialisation in and of education all came under the spotlight at a recent online forum. Organised by Education International’s Africa Region (EIRAF) office, the webinar focused on the need to resist privatisation and defend quality public education on the continent.

Privatisation is one of the greatest threats to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education and the objectives of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa. That is according to EIRAF President, Christian Adai Poku, who opened the EIRAF webinar on 6 April. “Unless this issue is addressed as a matter of urgency, our vision of the ‘Africa We Want’ will remain nothing but a pipe dream for millions of children and youth in the region.”

EIRAF has been mandated by various Congress Resolutions to campaign against privatisation and commercialisation in and of education, he said. In addition, the Global Response to the privatisation and commercialisation in and of education campaign meant that African unionists were able to compel the Government of Liberia to invest in public education.

Despite this and other efforts, privatisation remains one of the biggest challenges in Liberia and elsewhere in Africa, Adai Poku pointed out.

Government failure to invest in public education

He also condemned the fact that many African governments have failed to keep their promise to invest in quality education for all. According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, African governments allocate 4.4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or 16.8 per cent of their national budgets to education. This falls far short of the minimum education financing benchmarks of six per cent of GDP and 20 per cent of the national budget, respectively. This has created space for profit-driven corporates and their partner foundations, supported by international organisations, to privatise and commercialise education, he added.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has created space for education technology (edtech) businesses to position themselves as providers of digital education solutions. This, coupled with other forms of privatisation and commercialisation of education in Africa, is likely to further threaten the provision of quality public education, leaving rural children, those with disabilities, migrants, refugees, and girls furthest behind.

In her intervention, Education International’s Deputy General Secretary Haldis Holst made it clear that “governments are responsible for fair, progressive taxation systems to finance public education. They must provide inclusive, relevant content in education and answer the needs of teachers.”

Four key paths to educational privatisation

Researcher, Curtis Riep, presented his preliminary findings of a continental survey on privatisation and commercialisation in and of education in Africa. He noted four key privatisation paths:

  1. Privatisation as a structural reform and market response to State incapacity
  2. Privatisation through public-private partnerships
  3. Privatisation through the expansion of low-fee private schools
  4. Privatisation by way of crisis or emergency

He also explained that EIRAF member organisations had identified key drivers contributing to the growth of private school opportunities across the African region. These drivers are:

  • Perceived low quality of public schools (i.e., poor teaching, learning resources, or learning outcomes discouraging demand for public basic education)
  • The deregulation of licensing requirements for private, independent, or alternative schools
  • Inadequate government expenditure on public basic education
  • Public-private partnerships in the provision of basic education
  • Lack of public-school options after graduating from primary school
  • High demand for low-cost private schools
  • External assistance supporting private provisions of basic education

Riep acknowledged further areas to be investigated for this research study, including the ongoing impacts and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways in which it is creating new pathways to privatisation and for-profit activities in education. In addition, case studies could be undertaken of African countries that require urgent targeted action to respond against privatisation and defend quality public education.

Global Response campaign in Africa: positive impact, but more to do

Dr. Limbani Nsapato introduced the preliminary results of the process evaluation of the Global Response campaign to the privatisation and commercialisation in and of education. He observed that privatisation/commercialisation of education has slowed in some African countries. However, responding unions suggested that, over the past five years, privatisation/commercialisation activities had increased while public financing of education had declined.

The unions also urged Education International and its affiliates to increase their engagement around reversing and halting the privatisation/commercialisation trajectory. There is much work required to achieve the overall project impact in the targeted countries, i.e., Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Côte d'Ivoire.

Nsapato recommended:

  • Governmental funding of education and ensuring that these funds are judiciously used in public schools
  • International financing institutions and development partners reviewing their education financing policies towards guaranteeing publicly funded inclusive and equitable quality education
  • An ongoing campaign against privatisation, ensuring the enforcement of strict rules and sanctions on promoters of private education
  • Building the capacity of stakeholders in education to understand and support the campaign aimed at halting education privatisation
  • Education International and affiliates investing in research
  • Education International and affiliates mobilising resources to make Global Response a sustainable campaign

Statement on Resisting Privatisation and Defending Quality Public Education for All

Webinar participants also adopted Education International’s Africa Statement on Resisting Privatisation and Defending Quality Public Education for All.

The statement calls on African governments “to take immediate policy, legislative, and budgetary measures to ensure universal access to free quality public early childhood, primary and secondary education, as well as make tertiary education progressively free, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education commitments”.

Governments throughout the continent should also “regulate the activities of private education providers, ensuring that they guarantee educators’ rights, including freedom of association, the right to organise and collectively bargain”.

Education International and member organisations will also put pressure on governments to allocate at least six per cent of GDP or at least 20 per cent of their national budgets to education. Developed country partners should meet their commitment to allocate at least 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to development aid and ensure that at least 10 per cent of all Official Development Assistance is allocated to education.

The challenge presented by digital technologies

In his closing remarks, EIRAF Regional Director, Dennis Sinyolo noted: “Research evidence is crystal clear: privatisation and commercialisation of education is on the rise. Privatisers have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to expand their business opportunities under the guise of providing technology solutions to our governments.”

He acknowledged that “the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that digital technologies are important but cannot replace teachers or in-person, in-school teaching and learning”. However, “the privatisers’ claim that technology will solve all educational problems in Africa negates the fact that schools and other education institutions provide the safest and most equitable environment for quality learning”.

He emphasised that “we need to close the digital divide by putting pressure on governments to equip all our education institutions with appropriate digital infrastructure, to regulate data costs and to build the capacity of educators to use technology as a tool for teaching and learning”.

A wake-up call to do more to challenge privatisation

Sinyolo stressed that the online forum was “a wake-up call for us to do more to challenge privatisation in all its forms”. He called on governments to regulate the activities of private education providers, to guarantee teachers and education support personnel’s right to form and join a trade union of their choice, and to engage in policy and social dialogue, including collective bargaining.

We will “remind African and all governments that money put into education is not an expense, but an investment; an investment in our children and their future; an investment in the Africa we want”, he concluded.

Agreeing that the battle against privatisation and commercialisation of education will not be easy, as the privatisers will try to fight back through the media and other fronts, Sinyolo also explained that “they have the money, but we have the power of our members; the will and commitment to defend and promote quality public education for all.”

“To counter the privatisers’ strategies, we need to build a strong evidence base, organise and mobilise, both within and outside our movement, and communicate effectively. If we stand together in solidarity we shall overcome and succeed in our quest for quality public education and decent working conditions for all. For we are stronger together!” he concluded.