4 September 2018

The private sector has a part to play in tackling the global education crisis

By Adesuwa Ifedi

All over the world more children than ever are attending school. However, many do not acquire foundational skills in reading and mathematics. In fact, according to the UN, the majority of children in the world are still not learning these basics.

One way to seriously make an impact is to bring more players into the field. Why not harness the strengths of other sectors to join in the fight? That is why the world needs more education public-private partnerships. They are sadly still a rarity in Africa, but these partnerships hold the key to unlocking a much needed boost in the provision of education in the developing world. This was seen in Liberia last year, when a PPP delivered a 60 per cent increase in learning outcomes over just 9 months.

Growing up and working in Nigeria, I’ve seen first hand how a government can find it difficult to deliver high-quality primary education to a very large population in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria still has millions of out-of-school children, and around a third of primary school age children are not in classrooms. But I’ve also seen first hand how the private sector can be a strategic ally in the fight to make sure everyone gets access to a quality basic education.

This notion of the private sector helping deliver a public service as important as education — as we do at Bridge International Academies — is a sensitive political issue in the West, but not here in Africa where it’s increasingly common. Today about one in five African children go to a private-sector school, and the number is rising. The World Bank, the IFC, the UK Government, the World Economic Forum, the Global Education Commission and many other bodies agree that the learning crisis is so severe that as many actors as possible should be joining the struggle.

Of course, donor governments have to consider how their taxpayers would view this policy shift, and civil society groups need to consider the views of their membership.The question is whether there would be a public outcry if social enterprises and the private sector were more involved in public education provision.

New research strongly suggests that most people in the US and the UK agree with those in the global south that the private sector should help governments provide more schools in parts of the world where there are not enough. The new research reveals public support for more low-fee schools and for more free schools under public private partnerships.

Seventy-five per cent of US respondents to a national poll endorsed education public-private partnerships to help countries struggling with sufficient access to education. When people were asked if companies and other types of school operators should be running more schools to help governments in low- and middle-income countries the most popular answer was “yes”.

Findings from the US survey reveal that three-quarters of the American public surveyed believe there should be more education public-private partnerships in developing countries. Only 6 per cent disagreed. Sixty-two per cent of those surveyed thought charities, NGOs, companies and faith organisations should support governments by running extra schools in order to meet proper standards. Only 10 per cent disagreed.

The UK survey results show that most respondents believed that it is a good idea for parents to be able to send their children to an affordable school in countries where there are a lack of primary schools. Twenty per cent of respondents disagreed. Fifty-two per cent of those surveyed thought that there should be more private providers of affordable education or free education where the government struggles to offer enough schools for all. Only 13 per cent of respondents disagreed.

The American and British people are right, there is an urgent need for more school providers to help address the chronic lack of learning in parts of the world where governments have insufficient or ineffective education systems. Some people have been trying to say that the private sector should not get involved. But the truth is plain to see – people want all types of school operators to help so we can help delivering learning for all children as quickly as possible.

It is encouraging to see the public supporting fresh solutions to tackle the learning crisis in regions like sub-Saharan Africa. Public Private Partnerships are widely used to tackle challenges in other sectors — such as health and agriculture — and it makes sense that donors and local governments would increasingly turn to this tool to bolster their efforts. It is understandable that taxpayers would choose to support development models that embed accountability and outcomes into any government investment.

Both American and British respondents expressed support for quality low-fee schools. When asked, “In countries where there is a reported lack of quality primary schools, a social enterprise company could run a school that costs parents about $7 US dollars per month to send one child there” the most popular response in both countries was “I think this is a good idea”. Some of our recent work to empower girls in STEM subjects only strengthens the appeal of our work to stakeholders around the world.

The polls also uncover how the US and UK public greatly underestimate the scale of the global learning crisis. About 90 per cent of US people thought there were fewer than the real number of out of school children worldwide, or chose “I don’t know” when asked to estimate. The true scale of the challenge is 263 million children and young people currently out of school.

The American and British people mirror the opinions of people in low- and middle-income countries. According to research carried out by The Varkey Foundation, almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of Ugandan parents are happy for private companies to run free-to-attend schools – higher than the global average of 46 per cent, but lower than the other African countries surveyed. In Kenya it is 72 per cent. Eighty-five percent of Indian parents whose child attends a state school would be fairly likely or very likely to send their child to a fee paying school if they could afford it and there was a suitable place available. Indian parents show the highest level of support of all the countries surveyed for private companies running free to attend schools (73 per cent).

Looking at all this data, it is increasingly clear that many parents in the developing world, plus leading international bodies, and people in developed western economies, all agree that the private sector should be helping to address the global lack of learning. Broadly, civil society is for affordable schools and for education partnerships.

Adesuwa Ifedi is VP of policy and partnerships at Bridge International Academies.