Demographic & social challenges

The private sector: an essential role in education for developing countries

Developing countries have witnessed a significant trend since the end of the 1990s: the growth of private education. While some see it as a chance to make up for the shortcomings of the public system, others point to the limitations that are inherent in this type of divestiture by the public sector. With more than 260 million children and adolescents missing out on education worldwide1, the time is right to examine a complex situation and its many implications.

Published on 08 September 2021


Access to education is a fundamental right. In line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Millennium Development Objectives (2000), the United Nations duly made access to “inclusive and equitable quality education” the fourth of its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. But while education is an essential part of every society, it has a particularly crucial role to play in developing countries. Firstly, as several studies have shown, learning is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty, improve health and promote peace. But there is also a demographic aspect in play for developing nations, where the population tend to be younger. Countries in Africa have by far the youngest populations, with an average age of 19, while the figure for the United States2, for example, is 38. And by 2030, the number of school-age Africans will rise by more than 170 million3.

The need to make up for the major shortcomings of public education

Faced with such a colossal challenge, there are good reasons for optimism. Since the launch of the Millennium Development Objectives in 2000, developing countries have significantly increased their commitment to education. A range of measures have been used to increase both supply (building new schools, expanding the distribution of school textbooks) and demand, through major awareness-raising campaigns. These commitments have translated into a sharp rise in school attendance, with the number of children of primary school age who were not in education falling by nearly half, from 102 million to 58 million. In 2018, UNESCO estimated that 8% of children were not registered with a primary school4. Similarly, the share of adolescents not in education has dropped from 25% to 15% over the course of the last 20 years, with high school absence falling from 49% to 35%.

This underlying trend cannot be explained solely by the actions of governments. In recent decades, the rise in the number of schools has coincided with another phenomenon: the growth of private sector education. In low-income countries, 16% of primary school children are now at private schools, compared to 9% in 19755. In 2014, private companies in sub-Saharan Africa were teaching 14% of all primary school children, 20% of those in secondary education and 31% of students in higher education. Private education represented between 60% and 85% of the schools in Cameroon and the Democratic republic of Congo, and up to 90% in Haiti6.

However, an important point needs to be borne in mind: the word ‘private’ has a broad definition, with research carried out by Rohen d’Aiglepierre in 20187 identifying three types of private operators in education. His analysis indicated a difference between more vocational institutions (based on religious, ethnic, linguistic and other considerations) and those with a more social focus, notably those created by NGOs. The third group were designed with a profit-making objective, such as Curro Holdings8 and Advtech in South Africa and Botswana, and CairoInvest9 in Egypt.

The undeniable strengths of private schools

But what’s the reason behind the global rise of all these institutions? The first explanation is, logically enough, the lack of government-financed schools in developing countries. Many governments fail to provide the level of funding required to meet demand. This explains why many private schools, particularly those created by NGOs, are operating in isolated areas where no public education is available. However, private schools are far from just making up the numbers for the public sector, with the quality of the teaching very often being a differentiating factor. A study by the World Bank10 showed that among six sub-Saharan countries in Africa, parents were more satisfied with private schools than with public ones. Higher levels of investment, lower absenteeism among teachers, more effective teaching methods, an obligation on teachers’ part to report to their leadership teams and competition among schools were just some of the reasons for private schools providing a higher-quality education11.

Another key factor was that private didn’t necessarily mean a high cost for parents. In countries like Sierra Leone, for example, private school fees are relatively affordable, representing less than 5% of GDP per capita. Similarly, there has been a major expansion in low-cost private schools in Pakistan, Peru, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana12. To give a practical example, the schools fees charged by the Bridge company in Kenya are an average of $74 year. According to the company, a family living on $1.25 a day could send three children to one of its schools by spending 10% of its family income13.

Private education, a temporary or a permanent solution?

So, is private education the right solution for dealing with a key challenge facing all these countries? There is no easy answer. Some limitations are all too real, starting with the fact that in countries like India, for example, private operators are investing in the wealthiest areas. At the same time, school fees are not a neutral issue. A study by the World Bank in 16 countries showed that the majority of pupils educated in private schools are from the wealthiest backgrounds14. It follows that the poorest children are being excluded from the best schools, which leads to inequalities that are carried over from one generation to the next. In addition, when a choice needs to be made among several children of the same family, it is often made to the detriment of girls.

At a broader level, the unprecedented global crisis has added a new dimension to these challenges. There are real fears that the countries being hardest hit by the pandemic will not be able to maintain their efforts in terms of educational budgets. At which point, private operators would inevitably have to continue to play their part, while governments and their financial partners would have to make education a top priority.

One example clearly underlines the importance played by education in a country’s development. In 2019, the Chinese government invested some 3.5 billion RMB ($500 million) in its education system, representing 15% of the national budget. It was the result of an unprecedented effort made over the last three decades to make a success of its transition to a knowledge-based economy. The key to this strategic decision was the fastest ever growth in higher education, with admissions rising from 3.4% in 1990 to 51.6% in 2019. Developing countries clearly do not have the same resources, but the decision to make education such a priority is certainly a revealing one.


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