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Issue #1769      March 15, 2017

Book Review by Dr John McCollow

The Privatisation of Education:

A Political Economy of Global Education Reform

Educational privatisation is a trend driven by a variety of ideological, political and economic factors, which are explored in this valuable and important book. In the globalised economy, education is implicated as a key means of improving national competitiveness and as a potentially profitable industry itself. The private sector is portrayed as more efficient. effective, diversified and innovative than the public sector.

Increasingly, “involvement of the private sector [including for-profit entities] in education systems” is seen as both “inevitable” and “desirable” (p177). However, the privatisation agenda is not monolithic. Verger et al. identify six different paths towards privatisation. These include education privatisation resulting from a drastic restructuring of the state’s role in delivery of public services.

Examples of this type of educational privatisation – where it takes place as part of a wider program of restructuring of the state along market lines – include Thatcher’s England and Pinochet’s Chile. In both cases it occurred under conservative governments which were deeply committed to economic neo-liberalism and ruthless in implementing their agenda. The structural changes wrought proved immune to reversal by subsequently elected centre-left governments.

The Nordic path

Scandinavian countries have been far from unaffected by the privatisation agenda. With the notable exception of Sweden, which introduced vouchers and for-profit schools, most of the changes can be characterised as “endoprivatisation”, that is, as changes designed to make the public sector act more like the private sector, rather than “exoprivatisation”, which entails opening up services previously provided by the public sector to private operators.

Scaling up privatisation

The United States is identified as a leading example of this path to privatisation. The decentralised nature of the American schooling system has meant that educational reform is subject to interventions from various players at local, state and national levels. Implementation of neo-liberal reforms has been uneven and contested. Nevertheless, privatisation has advanced, though charter schooling has proved far more amenable to implementation than vouchers.

De facto privatisation

This path to privatisation is typically followed in low-income countries. In some of these settings, there is a history of low-fee, private schools set up by local entrepreneurs in response to inadequate provision of public school facilities. More recently, governments and international aid and financial agencies have encouraged the growth of these low-fee schools as a means of providing increased educational opportunity and economic growth without imposing a severe additional funding burden on governments. This expansion of low-fee private provision has been enthusiastically taken up, with large, often international organisations supplanting local entrepreneurs as operators.

PPPs in the education sector

The Netherlands, Belgium and Spain are examined as nations where faith-based institutions have historically played an important role in providing schooling (on a non-profit basis). These “public-private partnerships” (PPPs) pre-date the ascendancy of neo-liberalism as a global policy imperative. Nevertheless, these private institutions can espouse neo-liberal “school choice” arguments to support their continued subsidisation by the state, and their presence as a rival to public schools can lead to the adoption of practices by the latter that are seen as positioning of themselves competitively, for example, private sector management practices.

Privatisation by way of catastrophe

Natural disasters and violent conflicts can set the stage for the implementation of radical reform. “Emergency measures” become the basis for a complete restructuring of social institutions, schools included. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the public schooling system of New Orleans was reorganised: more than 7,000 teachers were dismissed, the teacher union wiped out and numerous charter schools established (before the hurricane New Orleans had 112 public schools and 8 charter schools; by 2014 only four public schools remained in operation). A similar agenda was put into place as part of the international recovery program following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The aftermath of wars in El Salvador and Iraq has also seen the implementation of privatised schooling on a large scale.

Other useful and readable chapters in the book include one dealing with the various non-state actors who play important roles in prosecuting the privatisation agenda, and one on the groups opposing these reforms – of which teacher unions are by far the most prominent.

Education International provided a research grant to support publication of the book.

The Privatisation of Education, published by New York: Teachers College Press, 2016.

Queensland Teachers’ Union Journal

Next article – Youth unemployment

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