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Reviewing the education partnerships between the state and non-state actors

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As the debate around education providers intensifies, looking at the evidence of what works is crucial

What is the role of non-state actors in education?

In recent years, many low and middle-income countries have seen a rise in public-private partnerships in the education sector, with private companies or charities collaborating with governments to run schools through subsidised funding and as charter schools. Their role within the education sector, however, remains one of the most contentious issues in contemporary education debates. A key question in particular is whether it is appropriate for development finance to effectively contribute to private profits, in regions where significant numbers of schools serving low- and middle-income families are privately run, such as in South Asia and much of West and East Africa. 

Attempting to steer the debate, the Abidjan Principles, published in February 2019, offer guidance for governments in managing non-state actors in the education sector, specifying governments and international donors prioritise public education over private service providers. Taking the principles a step further, the Global Partnership in Education declared in June 2019 that its funds could not be used to support commercial enterprises unless under exceptional circumstances.

Despite the ongoing debate, it is still unclear how effective the public-private partnerships in the education sector are. There is a desperate need for more evidence to inform thinking, policy, and development spending in this area.    

Expanding the evidence

To help bridge the evidence gap, a new online hub was launched. This aspires to collate the entire contemporary academic knowledge on public-private education partnerships in the English language. It is a resource with enormous potential, however there are currently several notable limitations to it:

  • Limited language inclusion: the hub contains only English language publications, which impact geographical focus of research. Out of 82 publications in total, only 7% pertain to East Asia and the Pacific, while Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa represent even less.
  • Narrow research focus: there is a skewed distribution of research between education levels, with 63% of studies pertaining to primary and/or secondary education, while only two articles discuss pre-school education, despite the significant size of the private sector provision for this area.
  • Exclusion of non-academic research: Currently, the hub excludes literature not published in peer-reviewed journals – thus excluding the most recent knowledge available. These publications often go through their own independent rigorous peer-review processes, such as the Evaluation Quality Assurance and Learning Service from the UK’s Department for International Development, and include valuable insights from underrepresented research.

Diversifying the body of evidence seems both logical and necessary. Monazza Aslam, Shenila Rawal and Sahar Saeed have published a rigorous review of the evidence for public-private partnerships in developing countries Contributing to the wider debate, OPM has also recently published a number of reports, including an extensive diagnostic of pre-school provision in Liberia, an evaluation of the relative performance of private schools in Lagos, and a framework for financing and regulating the private education sector. Although providing much needed evidence on the public-private partnerships in the education sector, these are not available on the hub, despite their significance to the policymakers and contribution to the debate overall.

Increasing the availability of evidence to support reasoned debate will be key to understanding the non-state sector role in education and the way forward. While the hub is a welcomed start, much still needs to be done to provide decision makers with reliable evidence on the best ways to engage with the private sector. This is doubly important as the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal deadline looms, and with it the target to provide equitable and high quality education for all children around the world.