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Recently, a piece of good news has appeared that World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) upholding the right to education in an official commitment and decided to freeze investments in private for-profit pre-primary, primary and secondary (k-12) schools. Currently, the whole world is facing the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and passing through very trying times, with a third of the global population under lockdown. School closures are impacting more than 1.5 billion children. In such a scenario, this is a big win for civil society and an encouraging decision in favour of billions of children, especially those who are at the margins and dependent on the public system.

This landmark decision by IFC has responded to the concerned voices about the effects on segregation and exclusion, inadequate education quality, avoidance of standards and regulations, poor labour conditions, and profit-seeking behaviour of commercial schools. Hundreds of civil society organisations including Right to Education Forum (RTE Forum) and individuals from different part of world urged earlier to the World Bank through an open letter to take a clear and principled position in support of free, publicly provided education and against the use of development aid to fund for-profit or commercial education. They raised the issue of increasing phenomenon of commercialization of education in lower-income countries because donors are actively using public aid money to drive privatization in these countries, including the World Bank group. They mentioned that while most of its funding goes to support public education provision, the World Bank is also funding some market-oriented public-private partnerships (PPPs) through its International Development Association (IDA). It is also actively advising countries to pursue PPPs and adopt reforms that reduce regulations and incentivizes the growth of private education markets. It has also increased its direct support to commercial private education providers through the International Finance Corporation (IFC)-including fee-charging, for-profit school chains, which clearly undermine state obligations as defined in international human rights law. 

European Parliament and Global Partnership for Education (GPE),the biggest multilateral fund for education, had already taken strong positions against to support commercial or for-profit education provision. The UN Human Rights Council, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and various UN Treaty Bodies have also recognized the obligation to progressively secure free, public, not commercialized, education as a right. 

In the year of 2015, The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education Mr. Kishore Singh has submitted his report to United Nation General Assembly wherein he had raised his concerns on the rapid expansion of privatization of education through deregulation and liberalization of education sectors. In this report, he has majorly highlighted the challenges of public-privatete partnership in education in safeguarding education as a public good. On similar lines, Education International, world’s largest teachers’ union held its 7th World Congress in Ottawa on July 2015, where it passed a resolution against privatization of education services.In its resolution, it said, “EI is concerned that privatization and commercialization policies have the effect of undermining the right to free quality public education and may create, exacerbate and entrench inequalities in access and participation as well as erode teaching and learning conditions in schools.”

These positions uphold the principle that education is a right, not a market commodity. Investing in free and inclusive education of good quality is the best way to ensure the fulfilment of SDG 4.

In India, there has been an incremental rise of privatization of education both in terms of increase in the number of private schools as well as in the numbers of students enrolled in them. The DISE data has provided trends of elementary education in India according to which there has almost 24.28 per cent increase in the number of private schools in between 2010-11 to 2014-15. In contrast, the growth of government schools is only 1.51 per cent. When it comes to the enrolment of students, during the same period, there is a steep rise of 24.42 per cent in private schools as against an 8.55 per cent decline in enrolment in Government schools. We need to keep in mind that it was in the year 2010 that the Right to Education Act 2009 came into force and in spite of this, there is a visible declining trend in public education both in terms of the number of schools as well as in enrolment of students in public schools. On the other hand, during the period private schools have not only been opened in large numbers and attracted students leaving the public school system. Inadequate spending on education by Govt of India proved one of the significant barriers for slow implementation of RTE Act within the stipulated timeline. It shows the apathy of state towards the strengthening of the public education system.

Private schools across rural and urban areas have been on the rise and a significant segment of education today, almost 30% of elementary education, 60% secondary education, and 75% higher education are privatized. There are different types of private unaided schools with varying fee structures: from low fee to elite, high fee demanding schools. Andhra Pradesh Government has signed an MOU with the private school chain, Bridge International Academy (BIA) for making the state their knowledge hub in the year of 2015. The Government of Andhra Pradesh has also invited the BIA to set up its India headquarter in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh. The entry of a big player like BIA with its deep pocket and highly influential investors like Facebook, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank etc, may lead to an even greater push for privatization of education in the country. Civil society in general and RTE Forum, in particular, have vehemently opposed the stance governments. Private schools are also trying to redefine the quality of education by their minimal standard of learning outcomes like reading, writing and numeracy. Five States of India –Manipur (73.3%), Kerala (62.2%), Haryana (54.2%), Uttar Pradesh (51.7%), and Meghalaya (51.7%) – have more than 50 per cent children in private schools (in the elementary school age group).

This trend of increase in private schools indicates the fact that education as ‘social public good’ is losing its base and privatization, commercialization and corporatization of public education are gaining momentum. There is an internationally known trend that reinforces the positive correlation between income and private schooling. In India, as household income increases, there is a greater tendency to send children to private schools, whereas children from the poorest households continue to access government schools. The data also clearly highlights gender bias in terms of more number of boys being sent to private schools as compared to girls. At a time when there is a fast growth of private schools in the country, thousands of government school are getting closed across India in the name rationalization/merger of schools.

According to a longitudinal study carried out by Azim Premji Foundation in Andhra Pradesh on school choice programme, “contrary to general perception, fee-charging private schools are not able to ensure better learning for children from disadvantaged rural sections as compared to government schools.” It also makes it clear that private schools do not add any value as compared to government schools when socio-economic factors are adjusted. It also says that several factors, both inside and outside of school, have a bearing upon the learning outcome of a child. This is a trend that is also highlighted in international literature: the DFID comprehensive review on the functioning of private schools (Day Ashley et al, 2014) also concludes that there is ambiguity about the size of the true private school effect.

The recently adopted Abidjan Principles on the right to education lays out the existing human rights obligations in this regard and guide how IFC can ensure its investments support the right to public education.

Civil society organizations welcome the IFC’s leadership in recognizing that its education investments must not undermine the right to education, including public education, and that there have been concerns with past investments in this regard. 

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