RTE, together with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), held webinars on 24 and 31 July 2020.
The discussions explored The Guiding Principles on the Human Rights Obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education (Abidjan Principles) and their application in the context of covid-19.
The webinars focused respectively on public education and private education.
Participants included judges and representatives of civil society organisations from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Sierra Leone.
'The aim of the conversation in these webinars is to better understand the problems facing civil society and judiciaries in the four countries in ensuring the protection of the right to education in the context of Covid-19 and the increased privatization of education,' said ICJ Commissioner Justice Jamesina King of Sierra Leone.
The Abidjan Principles, based in large measures on existing international law and standards, were developed by leading international experts and adopted in 2019.
They clarify and set out elements of state obligations to uphold the right to education and related standards in both public and private educational settings.
Participants were able to deepen their understanding of the Abidjan Principles as well as the increased pressure placed on education systems across Africa as a result of covid-19.
'COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated already well-known issues in the realisation of the right to education' and the 'divide in quality of access to education between public and private sectors,' added Justice King.
'Private actors in particular… have been reported to have capitalised on the pandemic to extend their business in the education sectors.'
Participants raised concerns about the use of public funds to support private actors in education, an issue which is addressed by the Abidjan Principles.
Ashina Mtsumi from the GI-ESCR, summarised the Abidjan Principles and emphasised that: 'States’ first priority should be public education, as there is no obligation for states to fund private actors in education.'
A theme emerging from the discussions was the important role of the state in regulating private actors in education in the context of the global pandemic. Judges discussed the role of the judiciaries in their respective countries in ensuring the protection of the right to education.
'Can courts force private institutions to continue [operating] or even reduce school fees as an incidence of the right to education?,' Justice Joel Ngugi of Kenya asked.
Justice Ngugi also highlighted the need for governments to ensure that schools are safe for all learners in the context of covid-19.
Judge Lydia Mugambe said that while in Uganda the pandemic had seen some private schools continuing with online learning, learners in public schools had had to depend on state provision of learning through newspapers and news stations which had not been sufficient. In the covid-19 context, states must ensure that they continue to 'require private instructional educational institutions to meet the minimum standards set by the State', as indicated by the Abidjan Principles.
'The real problem is that our infrastructure is bad, the education system is bad and we have had a constitutional right to education since 1994 and I am embarrassed to say that the covid-19 crisis has not exacerbated the problems, but has exposed the problems and have left no place to hide for years and years of government negligence,' said former Justice of the Constitutional Court in South Africa Zak Yacoob.
Representative from civil society organisations from all four countries emphasised the increasing risks introduced to the right to education as a result of privatisation of education in Africa.
Khanyo Farisè (ICJ Legal Adviser) e: Nokukhanya.Farise(a)icj.org
Tim Fish Hodgson (ICJ Legal Adviser) t: +27828719905; e: timothy.hodgson(a)icj.org
This article orginally appeared on the ICJ website and has been republished with permission. See the orginal article here.