By Carol Anne Spreen, New York University & Sangeeta Kamat, University of Massachusettes, Amherst
Private for-profit multinational corporations are making billions of dollars by charging poor families around the world to send their children to school. At the same time, governments have been shirking their obligations to provide quality public schooling by diverting significant funds to private sector actors and inviting them in to run large segments of the education system (from pre-school through university level). If education is a fundamental human right, why should the world’s poor be paying billions to multinational corporations for their education?
An un-regulated market
With nearly 200 million pupils in primary and secondary schools, India has the largest youth demographic in the world. Estimates place the potential value of India’s education market at US$110 billion and, as an emerging economy, multinational corporations like Pearson, along with international chains like Bridge International Academies, have encouraged privatization of the school sector education through the promotion of private schooling, vouchers and public-private partnerships, especially targeting low-income and working class communities. This sector, in the avaricious minds of the profiteers, represents a vast untapped market.
At the same time, government-funded schools have suffered from disinvestment and neglect for decades, creating a mass exodus of working poor and middle class from public schools and leaving the poorest and most vulnerable behind. Recent primary school enrollment has reached 96 percent (with most of the growth in public schools), and girls make up more than 50 percent of new students.
While tremendous gains have been made, this is clearly not enough. India also has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world (which is more than the entire out-of-school population in sub-Saharan Africa). In many ways schools have not been adequately resourced to handle the increasing school-going population – there is a huge teacher shortage, only 53 percent of schools have functional girls’ toilets and 74 percent have access to drinking water.
The lack of political will to adequately finance, support and monitor the public education system has legitimated corporate sector “solutions” to the education crisis. The massive growth of low fee private schools is directly related to the government’s failure to meet its Constitutional responsibilities and obligations under the Right to Education Act as well as its international obligations to provide free quality education as a fundamental human right.
Privatisation versus the right to education
In a report published by Education International titled Profiting from the Poor: the Emergence of Multinational Edu-businesses in Hyderabad, India due to be released later this week, we call on Indian policymakers and education advocates to critically examine the public discord over ‘failing government schools’ that is being used to justify the establishment of low-fee private schools, and instead look at the compounding factors that have led to the decimation of public education over the last decade (despite legal frameworks such as the Right to Education Act).
Our report reveals a complex, well-networked assemblage of global actors that are invested in the business of private education and who stand to make a considerable profit from it. We challenge the multinational actors’ claims that private schooling for the poor can be profitable while simultaneously promising a quality education.
Our research shows that, despite expectations, low-fee private schools have not delivered anything close to a quality education. We suggest that privatisation leads to increasing inequalities based on gender discrimination and social exclusion, as well as, the de-professionalisation of teachers. User fees in education undermine the right to education, exacerbating inequality and contributing to social stratification.
Children have the right not only to a free public education, but also to a quality education, in schools that are adequately resourced and with teachers who are professionally trained. The Indian Right to Education Act (2010) underscores the right to free and compulsory education for children between 6 and 14 and lays out key principles and standards for education provisioning, including for private schooling.
Yet, according to the RTE National Forum only 10 percent of schools are in compliance with the Act. Adequate funding and better provisioning of the public education sector is desperately needed. India’s education budget hovers at around 3.8 per cent of gross national product (GNP) which is far short of the 6 percent commitment made previously. In March of this year, in an address to the Right to Education Forum Stocktaking event, Vice President Hamid Ansari officially recognized the inadequacy of state funding of public education.
From profit-making to discrimination
Children who attend private schools already have a wide social advantage over their pubic school peers, further discriminating against the poor whose only option is to go to under-funded and poorly maintained government schools. Rich and poor children across India have radically different schooling experiences and, there are huge disparities between urban and rural schools.
The low-fee private school explosion (for example, nearly 70% of schools in Hyderabad are private) is rightly criticised for “legitimising the present multi-layered, inferior quality school education system where discrimination shall continue to prevail to the elites who are able to afford school fees in a country where a large number of families live in absolute poverty.”
It is estimated that 37 per cent of the country’s population live below the poverty line and could not afford even the cheapest low-fee private schools. On average, 30 per cent of household expenditure across different income categories is spent on private schooling. Moreover, all types of inequalities in household expenditure on education – by gender, rural‐urban, across household quintiles – are the highest in primary education.
And yet, the assumption that low-fee private schools are “better” must also be called into question. Our report echoes a growing body of research which shows that low-fee private schools are failing to meet most universal standards of quality education.
They use cost-cutting approaches such as poorly trained, low-paid and unqualified teachers; they operate in sub-standard, poorly resourced and inadequate learning facilities in rented or temporary buildings; they rely on narrowly-based standardized and replicable scripted learning materials that are not linguistically or culturally appropriate, nor do they promote equity or diversity; and, they rely heavily on technology for teaching, learning and staff training, encouraging rapid reach and leveraging costs over deep learning experiences.
Also research on learning outcomes is mixed – there are very few studies of low-fee schools that are externally conducted and most do not control for socio-economic differences between students that can greatly affect learning outcomes.
The future of education will depend on political commitment
Throughout the world governments are trying to redefine and promote education quality for all. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the current blueprint for global education policy, not only expanded the scope of education beyond access, it also included goals and specific targets regarding “inclusive quality education for all… in addressing gender disparities and improving teaching and learning”.
More importantly, central to SDG Goal 4, is increasing the number of qualified teachers. Our report centrally argues that the provision of entire school sectors cannot be run on the basis of unqualified, minimally trained and underpaid (mostly) female teachers. India must better support teaching and learning – but not with a tablet and minimally trained instructors who read from a script of narrowly defined learning materials.
Ensuring a quality education for all children means providing opportunities and resources for teachers to build skills and capacities so they can go beyond the basics and provide an inspiring education that is respectful and non-discriminatory, gender-sensitive and culturally responsive, and develops life skills for sustainable livelihoods.
There is ample research highlighting the urgent need for the revitalisation of and reinvestment in government schools in India. There is an equally urgent need to stop the rampant commercialisation of education and profit-seeking of multinational corporations.
A key reason why for-profit schools are on the rise and receiving billions annually in fees, corporate investments and money from poor families is that international power players, local politicians, lawyers, business leaders, and celebrities have been willing to vouch for these companies, serving as their paid lobbyists, board members, investors, and endorsers.
While India is looking for solutions to provide high-quality learning opportunities to for all students, a primary question should be whose interests are being served by these private actors? The privatisation of education undermines the right to education, further encouraging separate and unequal education for the poor.
It also leads to teacher deprofessionalisation and exacerbates inequality across gender and class. This should serve as a serious reminder of the reasons why schools should not be for sale and a warning that multinational corporations should not be determining learning content, nor be permitted to make profits from governments’ largesse and the meagre earnings of poor communities. Ensuring the right to education and that all students have access to a quality education in India will take more than promises or a legal mandate.
It will take a Global Response to fight against private interests and the commercialisation of this most critical public good!
You can download the report Profiting from the Poor: the Emergence of Multinational Edu-businesses in Hyderabad, India here
 Quote from well-known educationist Anil Sadagopal. “FTN: Privatisation no cure for India’s education ills – India News – IBNLive”. Ibnlive.in.com. 3 February 2010. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
Unite for Quality Education is a campaign of Education International (EI), the voice of teachers and other education employees across the globe. Join the 30 million members EI represents (through its 400 affiliated organisations in more than 170 countries and territories) to demand that quality education for all remains at the top of the agenda for a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future.