In recent years, the schooling system in developing countries has seen a surge in for-profit institutions. Here, Anja Nielsen questions whether profits should be a priority over something as invaluable as education for all.
Education as a Human Right is an endless pursuit – it can only be achieved if it is continually sought after and can never be satiated. With this recognition of education as something to which all individuals have a fundamental right comes a certainty of provision and purpose. Treating schools as platforms for the deliverance of this right of all children means their objective is never fulfilled; as long as there are children present, there is a purpose for the institution.
But what happens when the very nature of education is shifted, when a school is no longer a place where a child exercises their Human Rights and it ceases to be a place of learning, opportunity and inquiry? What happens when a school becomes a business, providing services to consumers on the basis of amassing profits and in a way that ultimately must satisfy a cost-effectiveness model?
Private schools have ‘mushroomed’ in recent years, and in some countries (such as Pakistan) now account for 40% of school enrollment. For-profit schools are a specific form of private actor in education that begs yet another, more vital, question: What happens when a school driven by profits, rather than by providing an education, ceases to be profitable?
The answer? It shuts down. Salima Namusobya, director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), highlighted at a Human Rights Council side event in 2015 that this is already happening in Uganda. Private school owners decide that their business is no longer viable, and act in the way of any able businessperson; cut their losses and end the commercial endeavour. As a private, unregulated body this can happen at any time, in any place, to the detriment of a child’s access to education. With parents treated as consumers, they are expected to access the product of learning outcomes elsewhere, irrespective of the impact (socially, pedagogically, and logistically) this can have on the child.
Uganda is not alone in the trend of for-profit education. Something that has long been a staple of the elite classes has now trickled down to a model of schooling known as Low-Fee Private Schools, or LFPSs. Since the coining of this term in 2001 by Dr Prachi Srivastava, this model of education has been heralded by some as a way to deliver low-cost education to all members of society. The UK’s Department for International Development, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and educational giant Pearson join many other entrepreneurs, governments and charities in exploring the option of this model of education.
Aside from the initial dubiousness of charging for something that has been defined by both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child as necessarily free (at least until the primary age), Dr Srivastava, among many other practitioners and academics, point out numerous other issues with LFPSs. Among them, affordability, quality and equality: for whom are these schools ‘low-cost’, what sort of education are the schools providing, and are the poorest households comfortably able to send all of their children to school? These are issues to be addressed elsewhere, as I return to the initial question: What happens when a school driven by profits, rather than by providing an education, ceases to be profitable?
When delivering on the right to education is the sole focus of a school, its mission, motivation and purpose are never at risk. As long as there are children, there are Human Rights to be preserved and ensured. For-profit schools must remain profitable in order to continue to be viable, putting the school and its students’ futures in the hands of markets, rather than rights. This is the precarious situation into which children, especially those at Low-Fee Private Schools, are placed. Why support models of education that endanger the sustainability of learning, when there is the clear alternative of public education, grounded in ensuring the basic rights of all people? The motivation of delivering a Human Right is meaningful in its insatiability; it is a never-ending fountain of purpose. One from which every school should draw meaning and purpose.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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