Can profit-making in education be justified? Celebrating the Abidjan Principles Third Anniversary
The Abidjan Principles are now entering into their fourth year. In a relatively short period, they have achieved widespread recognition across multiple fields, with official recognitions now totalling ten. Increasingly forming a basis to discussions, an anchor to research, and a reference point in legal systems, it is testament to their validity as a text that as the years progress, the nature of conversations around the Abidjan Principles changes from what they are to how they are being used.
An area of particular tension that the Principles highlight is the role and regulation of private actors. While international law recognises a role for private actors, the commercialisation of education is not allowed and is the subject of increasing international attention, with multiple decisions and publications questioning profit making.
This emergent consensus behind the need to reconsider how we conceive of profit-making in education was the topic of debate on February 14, in an event held to celebrate the Abidjan Principles third anniversary. The event, co-hosted by Right to Education Initiative, GI-ESCR, ISER Uganda, the Equal Education Law Center and GEM Report UNESCO, was attended by 130 people. It featured participation from Manos Antonins, the Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report; Dr Sobhi Tawil, Director of UNESCO Future of Learning and Innovation Team; Dr Jacqueline Mowbray, Assistant Professor at the University of Sydney; Salima Namusobya, Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) Uganda; and Jitu Brown, National Director of Journey for Justice Alliance, U.S.A. The chair was Sandy Fredman, Professor of the Laws of the British Commonwealth and the USA at Oxford University, and a professorial fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford.
The event invited participants to consider the role of profit and commercial practices in education. Crucially, as the world emerges from the worst ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic and states face the implications of economic stagnation and contraction, the question of education commercialisation and its ramifications for learners and systems is particularly urgent. The following discussions draw on the contributions offered by speakers at the event to emphasise the public good function of education, and to challenge the justifications for education commercialisation through economic and rights lenses.
A new social contract for education
At the heart of the Abidjan Principles and discussions around education financing is the recognition of the supreme importance of education for individuals, for communities, and for nation states. Dr Sobhi Tawil, Director of UNESCO Future of Learning and Innovation Team, discussed the recently published report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education, ‘Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education’. He argued that there are two main drivers behind the report’s call to forge a new, transformative social contract for education; the unfulfilled promises of the past to ensure the right to education, and the persistent exclusions, in particular for economically vulnerable and historically marginalised populations, and macro level changes from climate change to technological acceleration generating uncertainty. Sobhi stressed the character of education as a public endeavour and a common good in service of public interests, and which must be accountable to all.
Profit making from a human rights perspective
The commodification of education has been a topic of concern in human rights law for some time. The Abidjan Principles, a document based in existing international law, have furthered debates on this topic while providing specific and detailed guidance on the regulation of private providers. For Jacqueline Mowbray, Assistant Professor at the University of Sydney, profit making is in clear undeniable tension with many principles in International human rights law, including the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Crucially, profit making operates to the exclusion of many groups, among them girls, who are particularly disadvantaged, and rural learners.
Furthermore, Jacqueline stressed that the 4As framework (Availability, Accessibility, Affordability, Adaptability) is fundamental to international human rights law and education, but is not protected when private education operates profit margins. While for-profit providers can increase the availability of education, they do not always ensure accessibility, affordability or adaptability. With this in mind, it can be surmised that profit-making in education is incompatible with international human rights law.
Profit-making in education: a logical economic imperative?
A regular defence of profit making in education rests on economic arguments. However, Manos Atoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring report, challenged these notions in his discourse, and highlighted the incompatibility between profit making and compulsory education discussed in the 2021/2 GEM Report: ‘Non-state actors in education. Who chooses? Who loses?’. He also emphasised the centrality of the Abidjan Principles to the development of the GEM Report and its arguments.
There are three key arguments around privatisation and profit-making in education put forward by the detractors of increased regulation and indeed the prohibition of profit, which Manos proceeded to interrogate. Firstly, education is argued to be not only a public good, but a good with private dimensions. Whilst this element has an aspect of legal relevance and reality, it is important to consider how profit-making can lead to exclusion, particularly of vulnerable learners. Given the ways in which exclusionary practices motivated by profit are incompatible with international human rights law, Manos stressed that profit is incompatible with the fulfilment of the right to education.
Secondly, profit is often seen as a fair reward for innovation. But what innovation is can be hard to determine, and may also be exaggerated for market purposes. Crucially, Manos stressed that innovation should not be harnessed for individual gain; instead, good ideas should be tested and rolled out for the benefit of entire systems.
Finally, it is often alleged that private providers should be allowed to make gains if they meet their contractual obligations. Yet for Manos, this argument on efficiency asks a bigger question: where do efficiency gains come from? As the recent GEM Report highlights, some gains come from the exploitation of structural weaknesses, which should be addressed by States and not left to market forces. These arguments serve to undermine the economic rationale for profit-making in education, while highlighting the need for regulation.
Uganda: Unchecked commercialisation and the growing consensus against profit
Critiques of education commercialisation can appear abstract. When considered in the context of national education systems, they acquire greater urgency. In Uganda, the steady expansion of private actors and profit making in education from 1992 onwards was addressed by Salima Namusobya, Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) Uganda, as a prime example of the dangers of unchecked commercialisation in education. She discussed how a combination of regulatory liberalism and fiscal incentives attracted businesses into education, and has led the nation on a journey from individual to chain private schools, with the later appearance of international private chains such as Bridge International Academy. Currently, there is 39% private ownership of schools at primary level, 66% at secondary level.
What are the implications of this concentration of private ownership of education? Education thrives as a lucrative business in Uganda. Salima noted that private schools work to increase profit margins through tuition fees, exorbitant extra requirements, and compulsory purchase of materials from schools - in addition to tax evasion, and falsification of test results for higher school attainment to secure profit margins. For parents, this amounts to a choice between debt and continued schooling for their children - often to the detriment of female learners.
Salima’s report of the situation in Uganda is sobering. Yet, as she stressed, given what is known about the importance of education for individual and national development, in a socio-economic context like Uganda’s profit making can be seen as all the more outrageous.
The crossroads which the Ugandan education sector found itself in and the efforts of civil society have led to recourse to the Courts, who have recommended the use of the Abidjan Principles by policy makers. For its part, the Ugandan Government has put in place an education policy commission, to reexamine education and ensure that all children, regardless of social status, have access to quality education. Whilst there is some distance to travel to address the issue of education commercialisation and ensure the right to education for all learners in Uganda, Salima emphasised the growing consensus that profiteering in education is harmful, and needs to be addressed.
Those who are closest to the pain must be closest to the power: Educational iniquity in the USA
For Jitu Brown, National Director of Journey for Justice Alliance, U.S.A, in the US it is not necessarily fees charged to parents that reflect the principle privatisation problem, but the awarding of public contracts to for and non-profit private providers, many of whom have unscrupulous and inventive methods of excluding children from accessing and continuing in their centres.
He highlighted how private providers establish systems to facilitate access for children whose families are able to attend multiple meetings, meet multi-stage application processes or fundraise. This infers a socio-economic bias to application in many schools, which prevent children from disadvantaged backgrounds from entry. At the same time, he highlighted how those who do gain entry are penalised through exorbitant fines, for instance for uniform misdemeanours like not wearing a belt. A particularly insidious example of a Chicago school boasting both high test scores and a high percentage of college-leavers was discussed; Jitu noted how this particular institution was achieving results through a ‘meat-grinder’-esque operation in which children were fined to the tune of $400,000 per year, with those considered to threaten the school’s portfolio pushed out in order to continue securing funds from the school board for the purposes of expansion.
These examples demonstrate deeply worrying precedents which imperil the right to education. In addition, Jitu cited a study conducted by the Journey for Justice Alliance which shows that acts protecting students with disabilities and the poorest students are being underfunded to the tune of $580 billion dollars.
What are the implications of this shortfall? Without the right resources, the mandate of Brown vs Board of Education is not fulfilled and legislative gains enjoyed in the USA are at risk. Crucially, Jitu stressed that this puts the school choice movement, which emerged as a racist white reaction to desegregation, back on the table. Jitu and the Journey for Justice Alliance have defined education as inspiration and information that can prepare young people to impact the world. All children must have this opportunity for inspiration, yet iniquity in education driven through commercial practices in education threatens both legislative gains and individual and community opportunity.
Profit making in education is normatively unacceptable. It is incompatible with international human rights law. It is economically incoherent. These are reasons enough to move away from profit-making in education, but furthermore, it’s implication for education systems - though context-specific and divergent - share a nefarious character which weakens the quality of education and the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
As the Abidjan Principles enter their fourth year of existence and the aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt, there is an urgent need to reconsider profit-making in education in all national contexts. As states attempt to rebuild in constrained economic circumstances, there is a risk that commercialised education becomes more commonplace. Yet profit making imperils the right to education for all, and the risks to learners and to the long term stability of education systems of increased profiteering are extremely high. In this complicated panorama, the Abidjan Principles offer a vital resource to understand rights, obligations and responsibilities.
Watch the full event here:
Towards the end of profit making in education? Abidjan Principles 3rd Anniversary event.
Consult the Abidjan Principles here.
Eleanor Rosenbach is Communications Manager at Right to Education Initiative