by Momina Afridi, University of Toronto
Increasing donor dependency and a desired “quick-fix” to the schooling dilemma of millions have pushed some low-income country governments in Africa and South Asia to collaborate with international private school chains. Bridge International Academies (BIA) is a for-profit that aims “to be the global leader in providing good schools and high-quality education to underserved families, giving millions of children an education that enables them to fulfil their potential.”[i]
Amidst reports that BIA might be planning to expand further in South Asia, and may be negotiating an agreement to operate in Pakistan, known for its growing low-fee private school sector, its important to take stock of the organization’s track record in providing “knowledge for all”.
Funded by well-known private investors including the International Finance Corporation (World Bank’s private sector arm), Omidyar Network, Zuckerberg Education Ventures, Bill Gates and public state agencies from the USA, United Kingdom, France, Norway, Netherlands and European Union, BIA is running over 500 schools in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria.
In Liberia it is operating schools, outsourced by the government as part of a public private partnership called Partnership Schools for Liberia. However, over the past few years the organization’s education model and practices have come under strong criticism from researchers, academics, civil society organizations, intergovernmental human rights bodies and Ministries of Education in Kenya and Uganda.
Exclusion of the poor
Contrary to BIA’s portrayal of its programs, the for-profit chain excludes the poor and the marginalised, including children with special needs[ii]. Studies in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria all found the mandatory fees to attend Bridge schools to be significantly higher than the USD 6 per month or USD 72 – 74 per year usually claimed by the company[iii]. Taking into account significant non-fee expenditures these schools are well out of reach of poor families.
Violation of educational standards and Labour rights
In Uganda, a recent study found that BIA neglected legal and educational standards established by the Government regarding the use of certified teachers, accredited curriculum, appropriate teaching methods, adequate school facilities, and the proper authorisation of schools iv]. Documents from BIA show poor labour conditions and it was found that in Kenyan BIA schools, teachers are required to work 6 days a week (59-65 hours) for a salary that is barely above the poverty line (about USD 100 a month). Contrary to its marketing claims BIA schools may actually be providing a poor quality education, by “minimizing costs by relying on a workforce of poorly trained, unqualified teachers, many with only three weeks’ training, who are given e-tablets to deliver inflexible, scripted lessons, developed in the USA, and oriented to a narrow curriculum.”[v]
In February 2018, the Ugandan Minister of Education decided to close Bridge Schools in the country for failing to meet minimum education as well as health and safety standards after an 18-month negotiation with the company[vi]. Similarly, in Kenya, Bridge schools were ordered to close by a local education authority for failing to meet required standards and “operating illegally.”
In addition, the UK Parliament, the UN, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have conducted their own inquiries and analyses of available evidence and have raised concerns about the quality of education, relationship with governments, lack of compliance with government regulations and high cost fees in BIA schools.
In Liberia, the government’s own commissioned evaluation found the programme operated by Bridge to be inefficient, unsustainable and damaging to neighbouring schools. Thousands of students were pushed out of their schools when they were taken over by Bridge.
Pakistan, a new laboratory for BIA?
Government officials and policy makers, in light of the Right to education enshrined in Article 25A of the Pakistani constitution, must not experiment with the education of a population which includes 24 million out of school children (OOSC).
This is crucial for Pakistan, a country where gender inequality, lack of inclusive education and a segmented education system based on wealth, combine to produce exclusion and inequity for marginalised populations.
The unchecked and unregulated rise of low fee private schools in Pakistan, along with the promotion of Public Private Partnerships by both local and global actors, have already resulted in schools violating the right to education for all, exploiting a large female workforce paid much below the minimum wage, providing a low quality education, excluding the poorest of the poor, girls, OOSC and children with disabilities.
In a context where the government is already unsuccessful in regulating existing low fee private schools, the arrival of BIA might possibly worsen things. BIA’s for-profit motives, exclusionary practices and violations of education standards in various countries are the opposite of what the struggling Pakistani education system needs. While BIA might see Pakistan as an ideal context to experiment in and take advantage of the education market with a number of players, for Pakistan it would be imprudent and at complete odds with its goal of providing education for all to enter into an agreement with BIA. The existing evidence points to the failure of BIA in catering to the educational needs of the poor and marginalized in various low-income countries. Pakistan cannot afford to aggravate its education crisis by experimenting with the future of its children and youth by letting BIA into its education system.
[ii] See e.g. Bridge Vs Reality: a Study of Bridge International Academies’ for-profit schooling in Kenya, available at: http://bit.ly/2h1Rml9; Schooling the Poor Profitably: the innovations and deprivations of Bridge International Academies in Uganda, available at: http://bit.ly/2cSQidq
[iii] In Kenya, tuition fees alone ranged from USD 6.40 to USD 10.57 a month. Adding other mandatory items, such as uniforms, the monthly costs jump to an average of USD 17.25 per month, or USD 207 per year. Similarly, in Nigeria, with most parents needing to pay for computer access and lunch, the total for a year at BIA for a child in early primary grades was calculated to be at least USD 129.91 (USD 10.8 per month). In Uganda, the fees were calculated to range between USD 129 and USD 152 per year (USD 10.75 to 12.7 per month).