By M. Moschetti, M. Martínez Pons, E. Bordoli & P. Martinis
Over the last decades, privatisation policies have taken centre stage in many processes of educational reform globally. In Latin America, these policies have played an important role since the 1990s, leading to an increasing participation of private agents in educational provision.
However, the Uruguayan case has not only remained somehow immune from the excesses of this privatisation agenda – presenting moderate to low levels of private sector participation – it has also kept a strong centralised public education system.
More recently, however, research has identified a significant shift in the discursive order especially driven by a series of new actors, including think-tanks and civil society organisations, which transcend the classic forms of endogenous and exogeneous privatisation.
Building on case study methods and informed by a cultural political economy (CPE) approach, our research aims to characterise the discourses and strategies increasingly used by different actors to promote policy ideas potentially leading to privatisation policies.
The high dropout rates in secondary education and the country’s stagnation in PISA results, along with the internal disagreements within the governing coalition, have led to the emergence of a discourse that questions some aspects of the ‘cultural consensus’ of public education highlighting the virtues of private provision.
In this context, new salient actors -such as the Centre for the Study of Economic and Social Reality (CERES) and the Eduy21 foundation- have emerged having achieved greater impact in the media and influence in public debates.
The rhetoric of crisis
These organisations have expressed the need for a reform on the basis of a very negative diagnosis of the current situation of Uruguayan education. The narrative of crisis they use is certainly typical of the initial stages of policy transformation processes. Following this diagnosis, for instance, CERES has built a corpus of diffuse and unsubstantiated policy recommendations around the idea of school autonomy.
Indeed, both CERES and Eduy21 have deployed a series of actions in order to influence public opinion. These actions seek to gather the media attention and build spaces for exchange, socialisation and discussions of ‘innovative’ policies.
Given the limited forms of privatisation of and in education present in the Uruguayan educational system and, most importantly, given the overall institutional road-block to privatisation measures, pro-private actors seem to have decided to advance through educational policy making, getting increasingly involved into the production and diffusion of policy ideas.
This new form of privatisation seems to replicate practices from think-tanks and foundations in the global North to effectively influence public policy-making through investing money and efforts on material resources, knowledge production, media power, and creating formal and informal networks to reach a consensus among multiple actors around particular public policies.
Although non-state actors in Uruguay have managed to permeate in the public debate and seem to have succeeded in spreading the idea that ‘educational reform cannot wait’, their proposals still lack definition.
Overall, their policy prescriptions respond to global norms conjugated with local elements such as the criticism of the ‘bureaucratisation’ of educational governance and the ‘block to innovation’ supposedly embodied by teacher unions.
This is the case of the discourses that advocate for greater school autonomy and accountability, widely extended and considered ‘intrinsically positive’ by different actors in the whole political spectrum even in the absence of conclusive empirical evidence about its effects.