The privatisation of education is a growing and complex issue.
Privatisation is a process, which can be defined as the 'transfer of assets, management, functions or responsibilities [relating to education] previously owned or carried out by the state to private actors' (Coomans & Hallo de Wolf, ‘Privatisation of Education and the Right to Education’ in de Feyter & Gomez (eds.), Privatisation and Human Rights in the Age of Globalisation, 2005).
Private actors may include companies, religious institutions, or non-governmental organisations. There are many different ways in which privatisation can occur, through for example, the development of public private partnerships. Additionally, the unmonitored and unregulated expansion of private sector provision of education, such as for profit schools or low fee private schools, may have a privatising effect if students have no other choice of school.
Private actors have the liberty to establish and direct educational institutions, under international human rights law. This liberty is subject to the requirement that these private actors must conform to minimum standards laid down by the state. It is also closely associated with the state’s obligation to respect the liberty of parents to choose schools other than public schools for their children if they wish to do so. The educational choice of parents ensures that families can choose education that is in line with their own religious and moral convictions.
While international human rights law does not clearly state who the direct provider of education services should be, CESCR General Comment 13 states: 'it is clear that article 13 [of the ICESCR] regards states as having principal responsibility of direct provision of education in most circumstance. States Parties recognise for example, that the "development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued"' (1999: Para. 48).
The state is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the right to education is upheld regardless of the provider of education. Under international human rights law, states have the obligation to regulate and to monitor private education institutions. The state must ensure that private providers meet minimum standards, as laid down by the state, and that educational freedoms do not lead to extreme disparities of educational opportunity for some groups in society (ICESCR, 1966, Article 13; CESCR General Comment 13, 1999: Para. 30).
Privatisation of education is sometimes promoted as a means of filling gaps in the provision of education. However, the ongoing trend of privatisation of education raises serious concerns about its negative impacts on the enjoyment of the right to education, particularly regarding the availability and accessibility of free education, equality of educational opportunities, and education quality.
Private actors that provide educational services must respect the right to education, and the state must ensure that all private actors that play a role in education provision are accountable. Guidelines have been developed to provide a framework to better define the role of private actors with regards to human rights, including the right to education. See, for instance, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), General Comment 16 (2013) of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on State obligation regarding the impact of business sector on children’s rights, and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' draft general comment on 'State obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the context of business activities.'
In addition, the Human Rights Council has established an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, whose mandate shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. For further information, see ESCR-Net and FIDH's Treaty Initiative.
The following case-law relevant to privatisation of education and the regulation of private providers of education includes decisions of national, regional and international courts as well as decisions from national administrative bodies, national human rights institutions and international human rights bodies.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, Articles 2 & 13; General Comment 13, 1999)
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, Articles 3 & 26; General Comment 28, 2000)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979, Article 2; General Recommendation 28, 2010)
UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960, Article 10)
ILO Convention 169: Indigenous & Tribal Peoples Convention (1989, Article 27)
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990, Article 11)
Charter of Fundamental Freedoms of the European Union (2000, Article 14)
European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1948) and its first Protocol (1952, Article 2)
European Social Charter (1997, Articles 15 & 17)
In 2019, a group of 57 eminent international experts adopted the Abidjan Principles following a three year consultative process involving hundreds of stakeholders. The ‘Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education’ are a landmark text which compile existing international law standards to clarify the right to education and the role of non-state actors.
RTE sits on the Abidjan Principles secretariat. We played a significant role in their development and adoption, and we continue to support their promotion and dissemination.