Uganda’s closure of Pearson-backed academies raises questions re low-cost schools in global south
Uganda has closed all schools run by Bridge International Academies (BIA), a global chain of for-profit, supposedly ‘low-cost’, private schools. The schools, backed by international edu-business Pearson and philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, were shut after only one of the 63 schools had been licensed. BIA schools had poor hygiene and sanitation, operated in shoddy buildings and used materials which ‘could not promote pupil interaction’.
BIA received funding from the Department for International Development to the embarrassment of Education Secretary Justine Greening who was in charge of DfID when the funding was agreed.
In 2016, DfID expressed concern that UK taxpayers were funding an organisation that couldn’t be accessed by the poorest 10%. In its report on Nigeria, where BIA also operates, DfID found the alleged affordability was misleading. BIA claimed it could educate children for $6 a month but Dr Joanna Härmä, Centre for International Education, told DfId’s International Development Committee the real fee was about $15 a month. DfId concluded that even BIA’s minimum fees ‘may be prohibitively expensive’ outside Lagos state. And even inside Lagos, Dr Härmä told DfID that BIA would never set up a school in a slum area ‘because there is no market for them there’.
And there’s the crux - markets must be found if organisations offering low-cost schooling are to set up schools. In poor countries this is done by proposing low fee-paying schools (LFPs) which can then buy in products deliverable by untrained staff; in the West it’s done by rubbishing state education and claiming it’s failing.
But market-led options aren’t sustainable for remote areas nor are they “socially equitable”. It would be better to improve the quality of education for all rather than rely on LFPs,
Providers of low-cost schooling such as BIA are not motivated by altruism but by making a profit. And when market forces enter education, equity is at risk. UNESCO* agrees:
‘Where access depends on paying fees, many of the poorest are left behind. And private providers are highly unlikely to locate to sparsely populated and remote areas, so reliance on private provision can reduce educational and social equity for poor and remote populations.’
When organisations like BIA make inroads into education, it can reduce a government’s capability or willingness to provide state-funded free education for all. Sidelining state provision can prove lucrative for organisations seeking to profit out of providing an alternative. But education is a human right not a commodity that can be bought and sold.
*Quoted by DfID page 39