Exploring educational privatization worldwide
Today we continue our look at global education policy.
Last week, I spoke with Andy Green about social cohesion, one of the two main pillars found in most, if not all, of education policies worldwide. The second pillar, as Professor Green pointed out, is education for economic development.
This global policy of education has recently manifested, in many countries, through various practices and processes of educational privatization.
With me today is Toni Verger to talk about the global diffusion of education privatization not as a global education policy per se but as a set of processes through which private actors participate more actively in a range of education activities that have traditionally been the responsibilities of the state. In this sense, privatization directly impacts education policy.
Not only is Toni a co-editor of the Handbook of Global Education Policy but he is also a co-author of a new book entitled The Privatization of Education: A political economy of global education reform. In our talk today, Toni discusses his book on education privatization, outlining the factors driving its spread globally.
Toni Verger is researcher in the Department of Sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He will join Andy Green, Bob Lingard, and Karen Mundy on December 12 for a public webinar focused on global education policy.
Citation: Verger, Toni, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 53, podcast audio, November 28, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/toniverger
Will Brehm 1:26
Toni Verger, welcome to FreshEd.
Toni Verger 1:28
Thank you, Will.
Will Brehm 1:30
Give us an idea of the reach of educational privatization around the world.
Toni Verger 1:36
Well, education privatization is increasing in quantitative terms. If you look at the expansion of enrollment in private schools according to different regions, you can see how in all world regions there is an important increase, especially in Latin America, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the numbers are quite impressive. But I would say that it’s also important in qualitative terms in the sense that education privatization and what should be the role of private actors in education systems is today at the center of global education reform debates.
Will Brehm 2:19
So, how would you actually define educational privatization?
Toni Verger 2:24
Well, generally speaking, education privatization would be a process through which private actors play an increasing role in different governance activities of the educational system. Whether it is the ownership, provision, financing, regulation, and so on. But I also find useful the distinction that is quite famous now done by Ball and Youdell, that they differentiate between exogenous and endogenous privatization, with exogenous privatization being the openness of the education systems to the role of private actors. But endogenous privatization is quite different in the sense that it means that the public sector can also behave like the private sector. So, endogenous privatization would be the importation of techniques, values from the private sector, sometimes for-profit sector, into the way public schools are organized. I think that this distinction is very useful but also, we should take into account how these two types of education privatization somehow fit each other. Because in a more exogenously privatized education system with more private actors providing education, it’s probably true that also public operators will be forced to engage in competition dynamics, and will have to import like, let’s say, marketing or managerial techniques from the private sector.
Will Brehm 4:03
So, in your new book, that you’ve co-written, you really look around the world at different practices of educational privatization. Can you just give us a few of the most poignant examples of the various extremes that we see in the phenomenon of educational privatization?
Toni Verger 4:27
Right. Well, in this book that I did with Clara Fontdevila and Adrián Zancajo that has been published by Teachers College Press, we really wanted to unpack the global phenomenon of education privatization. Education privatization in the literature is usually associated to neoliberal reforms in the Anglo-Saxon world. Because basically, there is lots of pieces of research analyzing the reforms in the UK and in the US. But we really wanted to introduce complexity to the policy processes behind education privatization. And we wanted to show how diverse is this phenomenon somehow. And what we did was a systematic review of the literature, which is a methodology that is very useful to produce new knowledge without having to produce new empirical case studies. And we basically reviewed more than 200 pieces of research. And they allowed us to understand how education privatization happens through very different political and policy processes worldwide, and in a way that it goes beyond this neoliberal approach to educational reform.
Will Brehm 5:50
So, what’s amazing -so, you mentioned earlier that you see this phenomenon in Latin America, and Southeast Asia, and in North Africa, but also in countries like Australia, and America, and Hong Kong. So, these are such diverse countries. And yet, they are following a similar set of policies. Maybe not a similar set of practices, but what you’re grouping into as educational privatization. What is driving this growth? Why are so many diverse countries experiencing educational privatization today?
Toni Verger 6:35
Well, there’s not a single driver that is pushing for education privatization. Of course there are, like, global drivers. Economic globalization is putting a lot of pressure in public budgets. And some governments are being forced to introduce budget cuts in education or they are seduced by ideas like new public management in public sector reform. This is, let’s say, a phenomenon that we could consider that is globalizing. Also, at the level of the demand side, more and more families, especially middle-class families, but also poor families, they really support ideas around school choice and the values of consumerism is more and more accepted. The idea that education systems shouldn’t be monolithic and more diversified. And, of course, there are international organizations that are putting a lot of pressure for the global adoption of educational reforms like charter schools, voucher schemes, and so on. But beyond this, there are also national institutions, national constituencies that are influencing the way education privatization happens and through which policies is happening. And just to give you an example that is very different, the path toward privatization in places like Chile and the United Kingdom. That education privatization was like the consequence of a very drastic, neoliberal structural reform of the state than in places like the Netherlands, Belgium or Spain. That are countries where there’s a long-standing tradition of private sector participation, usually, private schools, from different church orders that they were in the education system much earlier than the neoliberal wave of reforms started.
Will Brehm 8:38
You also talk about what you call soft drivers or the ideational drivers of privatization. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by this idea?
Toni Verger 8:51
Yeah, this is right. Because somehow -not only in education reform studies also in public reform studies, there is an emphasis on the analysis of economic drivers, political drivers, that are drivers of a more material nature that are easier to observe. But what we are witnessing today is that education privatization and other global education policy ideas are more and more promoted through semiotic strategies and construction of meaning production of truth. What we are witnessing today is how more and more governments, but also international organizations need to legitimate their decisions. For instance, on the basis of evidence, what are so called international good practices. So, we really support this idea in our book, that these ideational factors are key to understand why education privatization happens in very different contexts. Especially in advanced democracies where deliberation and other types of ideas, the changes are important when it comes to taking policy decisions. And what is more interesting for this approach, in the case of education privatization, is that there is no evidence, or at least very conclusive evidence supporting the adoption of education privatization. So, the strategies of, let’s say, think tanks or philanthropic organizations, when it comes to convincing the public opinion to policymakers about why it is good to adopt a charter school reform or voucher reform, I think that these are very important elements that should be observed in empirical research on the political economy of educational reform, basically.
Will Brehm 10:56
So, what you’re saying is that the evidence to show, say private schools, or privatized education, is somehow better or achieved better outcomes than say, public schooling. The evidence simply is not there to suggest that sort of finding?
Toni Verger 11:16
Yeah. And it is even worse than that in the sense that evidence is mixed when it comes to learning outcomes. And generally speaking, once you take into account the socioeconomic status of students, the private sector is not doing better than the public sector in most countries. But I would say that there is quite conclusive evidence on the fact that more private sector participation, especially when it is associated to market dynamics of the school competition, is generating more and more educational inequalities, school segregation, problems of inclusion of students with educational needs. So, I think that here, the interesting phenomenon is that despite we know that somehow in some respects, educational privatization is not producing good social outcomes, it is still globalizing.
Will Brehm 12:17
Right. And that’s where the production of truth comes in, right? So, all of these different actors that have some sort of interest in educational privatization help produce a truth that based on research evidence isn’t necessarily the truth. But policymakers see it as such.
Toni Verger 12:37
Yeah, this is right. Sometimes they produce the truth. Sometimes they just work as knowledge brokers, and they select those pieces of evidence that support their policy preferences. But yeah. That is absolutely the way it works in some countries.
Will Brehm 12:54
And so, what’s the role of researchers? Many of whom get consultancies with some of the global actors pushing privatization?
Toni Verger 13:08
Well, I think it depends on the country. The research community is more embedded in policy, advocacy movements. But sometimes I feel like the most influential researchers in the education privatization debate are not necessarily members of the academic community. They are usually, let’s say, members of international organizations like the World Bank, or a broad range of think tanks that are very much influenced by partisan politics. In a way, those pieces of academic research that have been peer reviewed, are usually very cautious when it comes to recommending education privatization solutions. And those pieces of research that are more used by privatization advocates are usually reports or other types of knowledge products that have not gone through, let’s say a more rigorous quality assurance process before publication.
Will Brehm 14:27
So, thinking more about this idea of the production of truth and these ideational factors driving educational privatization, when you did this enormous literature review of different studies around the world of educational privatization, did any standout to you, in particular, of just an unbelievable case of an ideational factor creating the circumstances by which privatization occurred?
Toni Verger 14:55
Yeah. Probably the best example here is the US. That is a country very well known for having many think tanks and lobby groups participating in the political arena. And an outstanding number of think tanks, philanthropies that are very active not only when it comes to supporting educational programs but also to try to influence education reform processes. So, that is what has been called “venture philanthropy”. There is a very good example of this in the state of Washington, Lubienski and Au produced a very nice piece of research on this published in the last World Yearbook of Education, where they show how the Gates Foundation and like-minded philanthropic organizations, supported with millions of dollars a campaign in favor of the adoption of charter school legislation. And here, this combination of material and ideational resources was key to understanding why this referendum on charter school legislation was accepted by a majority of the voters.
Will Brehm 16:19
So, philanthropy and think tanks, they play a big role in producing this truth that privatization is quote unquote, good
Toni Verger 16:29
Right. This is for North America. But if you look at how education privatization debates are happening in, let’s say, some low-income countries, you will see other types of actors coming in. Of course, some philanthropic organizations are also there but also transnational corporations like Pearson, international aid agencies like the UK aid agency, DFID, are also being very active in the promotion of private solutions in educational systems.
Will Brehm 17:05
Can you give an example of that in developing contexts where these aid agencies like DFID or USAID, or what used to be called Australian Aid, or the companies like Pearson? How do they actually go about it?
Toni Verger 17:26
Well, I think that a very recent and good example is what’s going on in Liberia now. There is a very ambitious educational reform going on supported by the aid community but with the participation of chains of private schools like Bridge International Academies and the Arc Foundation. And this reform started when the President of Liberia and the Minister of Education of Liberia, they decided to solve the problems of their educational system by outsourcing the whole system to a private company. In this case, it was Bridge International Academies. In the end, this won’t be such a big movement in the sense that not all the schools will be, let’s say, “charterized”, and not all schools will be charterized to Bridge, there will be also other providers being involved. But I think that this is a very good example of a very recent experiment with privatization. Of course, the initial idea came apparently from the national government, but a lot of international actors have played a very important role when it comes to framing and to designing the final educational reform.
Will Brehm 18:57
I guess that the issue that just gets me so, I guess, confused is: why would the government of Liberia propose this as the solution?
Toni Verger 19:10
Right. I was in a meeting organized by the Open Society Foundations, where there was a debate about this very recent process, and people from the Ministry of Education in Liberia was there. They basically say that they didn’t have control over the educational system and that they didn’t know what was going on in their schools. So, I think that they attributed this radical decision to a sort of lack of control and administrative capacity. And well, I think that the reason why the President took this decision is that he went to a visit to Uganda and visited there some Bridge Academy schools. And he found that this was a very fascinating experience, and that he would like to import the model. Interestingly, one month ago, The Washington Post announced that these types of Bridge Schools are being challenged by the government of Uganda because they are not fulfilling the basic standards of quality that are established in the country’s legislation on education. So, I think that it is also interesting to see as an example of how sometimes very weak ideas and policy solutions travel.
Will Brehm 20:41
And I guess a similar question could be asked for a country like the UK or Australia. Like why would government’s embrace this logic of educational privatization? I mean, I understand in the Liberia case, if there’s the lack of capacity of some sort. And there’s this company that is basically saying, we will fill the gap. And so, I can see how that would be enticing. But what about other countries that have many people pay taxes, and there’s lots of money in education, and the state has historically run systems of education. Where is the motivation for policymakers to really embrace this idea of privatization?
Toni Verger 21:26
Yeah. There’s not a single rationale when it comes to adopting educational privatization reforms. And I think that the case of the UK that you just mentioned is a very good example of this. In the 80s, with the government of Margaret Thatcher they adopted educational reforms promoting market solutions in a very ideological way. And because they were convinced that the role of the private sector and competition was the way to organize all types of public services. And it was also a way not to be only more effective but also more efficient because in the context of the neoliberal doctrine, efficiency and reducing costs in the provision of public services is a high priority. But in the late 1990s, in the UK, there was a government from the Labour Party, and somehow this government continued promoting these types of private solutions in education but apparently for different reasons. So, there were arguments of equity and arguments of modernization of the education system behind it. So, instead of the traditional neoliberal arguments, the government of Tony Blair continued somehow with a privatization agenda in education for drastically different reasons but with very similar policy outcomes.
Will Brehm 22:58
It’s very fascinating. So, all different ideological, kind of, backgrounds and politics could support the same sort of policy that you’re saying causes all sorts of bad outcomes like segregation and inequality, and oftentimes lower achievement scores than students in public schools. But yet we have policymakers from the “left” and the “right” all arriving at similar policy solutions.
Toni Verger 23:34
Right. Yeah. What we saw in our review is that in the 80s, beginning of the 90s, partisan politics was a very important part to be able to understand why some countries did privatize education or not, with of course right wing conservative government supporting privatization and left wing and social democratic governments supporting public intervention. But in the 90s, there is an ideological movement in the context of social democratic parties that is known as “the third way” that made these parties to be closer to the ideas of new public management, private sector participation. Not as a way to promote only efficiency and competition but as a way to modernize educational systems and to give more. These social democratic parties detected that some of their natural voters, they were unhappy with this idea of monolithic public services, and that they wanted more choice, more options. So, they thought that by allowing some sort of public-private sector participation in education they would be responding to these new demands of the middle class. But as I said, I think that initially, they were not thinking about privatizing in a very drastic way. But here again, we have a very good example in Sweden, a country where the social democrats thought that they had to reform and modernize public education in a way that would give more autonomy to schools that would allow the private sector to operate. Social democrats were thinking about not-for-profit organizations, teacher associations, families organizing new types of schools with alternative pedagogies. And they created a regulatory system that made it easier for the conservative government that came after to approve a voucher system reform. And what happened is that a big number of for-profit operators started participating in the educational systems, especially in secondary education. So, you can see how some initial reforms that are apparently innocent, or they have good intentions behind, can drastically change because of other political and economic factors.
Will Brehm 26:16
It’s such a good example because you really show how complex this phenomenon of educational privatization is. And it’s certainly not as simple as saying, there’s somehow this singular idea that’s spreading globally, and everyone is adopting it. It’s much more complex than that. And that’s what’s so refreshing about your work.
Toni Verger 26:41
Yeah, that’s it, actually. We want to challenge this idea about education privatization somehow promoting policy convergence. I think that what we are witnessing is convergence in terms of outcomes, let’s say increasing enrollment in private schools globally. But the policies are not converging. And the policies are very, very diverse. And also, the trajectories behind these reforms are as diverse as the countries and regions that are part of this very complex world.
Will Brehm 27:21
Right. It’s like to understand it, you really have to dig into the historical context of these different governments to understand how these policies form the way they do.
Toni Verger 27:33
Right. Yeah. In a way, I think that historical institutionalism is also very much behind our main point in this book and in the way that we see educational reform happening globally.
Will Brehm 27:51
So, we’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about the drivers of educational privatization around the world. I want to just kind of go on the flip side and ask: have there been resistance to the phenomenon of educational privatization?
Toni Verger 28:11
Of course. There are many resistances to educational privatization for the reasons I mentioned before. Because it’s usually a policy approach that promotes educational inequalities, and educational segregation. It’s also a policy approach that doesn’t help to support teacher professionalism, and usually the private sector pays less and worse to teachers. And this is why teacher unions are probably the political actor that is more active when it comes to resisting educational reforms promoting privatization, of course, with a very big diversity of results. In some countries, teacher unions are very effective when it comes to stopping education privatization or market reforms. In some countries, unions are so strong that governments, they don’t even dare to promote education privatization. In the early 2000’s, the Minister of Education in Colombia wanted to promote a very similar reform to the one in Chile with a very ambitious market voucher system, but he knew that this couldn’t advance. So, then, he proposed a charter reform as a second best. And of course, we also have examples of countries where the education privatization process has been reversed, or at least, some of the most emblematic programs of privatization has been closed down. Ontario in the 90’s, had a very ambitious charter school program. And I will say that now, the number of charter schools in Ontario is very limited. And Chile, the most marketized education system in the world, is going today through a very ambitious educational reform that is trying to de-commodify the educational system. Although of course, this is still a very open empirical question whether this will be possible or not. Because I really think that once an educational system has introduced a big number of market logics, middle class groups are very happy with their school choice possibilities. The private sector is being organized as a very effective lobbying. It’s really difficult to reverse but we will have to look at this educational reform in Chile very closely to see whether this is true or not. And there are other countries that are less well known like Bolivia, where I think that is a global exception when it comes to this privatization trend because in the last decade the number of private schools in the Bolivian education system has been reduced in a very important way.
Will Brehm 31:23
So, it seems like this idea of the production of truth in these different locales is in different forms of crystallization. Some truth seems harder to break than others. But what do you think the future of educational privatization is going to be?
Toni Verger 31:42
Well, I expect that we will see even more divergence in terms of the fact that some empirical cases will demonstrate that education privatization is not a global linear trend. That somehow it can be reversed. And I really think that this could be important to happen because of the fact that educational equity -according to me, this is my personal opinion- should be at the center of the structuration and organization of educational systems. So, I really hope that the private sector has a more reserved role when it comes to organizing education systems globally. Because I think that this is the way to promote not only educational equity, but also educational excellence. But again, I think that social scientists, we’re not very good when it comes to predicting the future. I think that it is enough for us to try to explain what is happening. But yeah, if I had to guess, or if I had to tell you how I see the future. It would be with more public sector involvement.
Will Brehm 33:02
Well, Toni Verger, thank you so much for joining FreshEd.
Toni Verger 33:07
Thank you to you. Bye.