• Merriea Mathew (India)

Quality versus Equality: can public-private partnerships (PPPs) solve global education crises?

Most developed countries are facing a 'brain drain' scenario where most of the intellectual capital is lost in physical labor, due to the financial constraints that hinder the native students from choosing higher education. Such voluntary withdrawals from the knowledge economy forced many nations to adopt outsourcing facilities, which incidentally coincided with the advent of the internet revolution. These outsourced jobs reached the low- and middle-income countries, where manual labor was gradually being replaced by white-collar jobs. Alongside employment generation and income growth, their economy benefitted from healthy inflation, modest rise in consumption behavior, increased productive capacity, and above all, increased student enrolments. Various factors can be attributed to this success in LMI countries. The impetus on the education sector by the government and an associated social change in attitude towards school enrolments seemed to be the most contributory ones. However, over the past two decades, new issues have developed in their schooling systems.

Accessibility and inequality have become the prime concern in developed nations, while the quality of the education system pesters the developing ones. To this extent, we consider the following questions: Can privatization improve the quality of education in low- and middle-income countries? Can continuing public sector guarantee better access to educational facilities in these countries, as witnessed in developed nations? In this article, we explore the possibilities of a Public-Private Partnership in addressing both sets of issues in the schooling system. A World Bank study on private and public secondary schooling systems in 5 developing nations found that private schools excelled in student performance in standardized tests, lowering per pupil cost and high organizational standards, as compared to public schools. The efficacy of a flexible internal management structure in private schools that is tailored to the student's aspirations is the primary reason for differences in performance, as opposed to the centralized organizational structure in the public system.

Contrary to the popular notion that private schools excel due to the abundance of financial resources, a study reveals that per student expenditure is relatively lower in private schools, due to an effective input mix of teaching resources, instructional materials, and institutional resources, which is intended to maximize the learning potential. Given the quality benefits of the private sector and the universality of the public sector, the most ideal educational reform would be the adoption of PPPs in the education sector. A public-private partnership is a contractual agreement where public education is combined with the expertise of the private sector to deliver quality services. Countries such as Uganda, the US, the UK, Columbia, and Pakistan have experimented with PPP in this sector. Broadly, there are two kinds of PPP systems in educational institutions- one, private schools receiving public subsidies or the voucher system, and second, privately managed public schools or the charter system. Most developed countries like UK and USA employ the latter type of schooling system, and evidence suggests that the privatization of school management and administration has been more promising. Yet, such results cannot be unilaterally assumed in the LMI countries, due to the financial stress put by charter systems on the budget.

The UK employs private partnerships in infrastructure development and maintenance of schools during the contract period. India accepts private participation in mainly two forms- one, government aid for private schools where teachers' salary is paid by the government in the form of grants, and the other, the corporate sector facilitating hard services like transportation, gym, and IT hardware. Pakistan introduced an 'Adopt a School' program in place, where the corporate sector partners with the government to run the school management to improve its competitiveness. Since schools have reimbursed a portion of the per pupil expenditure, the financial burden on the government is low. The most highly sought-after partnership form is the voucher system in Chile, where students are given vouchers for opting for private schools. These vouchers are direct monthly payments to the private schools provided by the government. Despite the growing consensus on private participation in education service, Finland exhibits high-level achievements in education as per international standards by solely strengthening the public sector. Here, education is considered a public good and all recurring governments give primacy to this goal.

Unlike most developed countries where there was no causal relationship between educational performance and national competitiveness, Finland exhibits economic competitiveness while ensuring internal collaboration among students and schools. Here, the entire set of schools are provided the same financial support by the government and at the same time, private funding is prohibited, which allowed educational equity. Various institutional reforms in the 1990s affected the loosening of private sector regulations and introduced flexibility in educational management standards and an anti-hierarchical system. Finland demonstrates how flexibility in management alongside rigidity in quality standards can bring success to the education sector. An over-restrictive regulatory system in the private sector can suppress the efficiency of education because the performance of private participation depends on the economic and political regime that exists in the nation and the institutional standards governing the private sector. Thus, beyond a hard choice between private and public education, the focus should be on a blend of private and public systems, as it can promote educational equality and transparency.