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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Outsourcing - A 'Bridge' to Quality Education?

Christine Mungai's article on An Africa first! Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm. Why all should pay attention has sparked a heated debate in the social media. Find below some interesting responses and connections

Chambi:


"The word "outsource" was a bad choice. It's my understanding that they are entering a partnership to have Bridge take over a limited number of schools. I don't know a whole lot about the situation but I'm hopeful that it can bring some level of positive change to the education landscape in Liberia. We'll be watching to see what actually happens" - From a Liberian friend involved in the education sector in Liberia.

  
Michaela:

This joint letter from a number of Kenyan CSOs to the President of the World Bank provides an interesting critique of how Bridge International Academies [BIA] has performed in Kenya, and also of the World Bank, Gates Foundation etc. provide support for the private company and not for the Kenyan public educational system. The letter may help inform our own analysis of the BIA/private v. public education issue. 


The criticism breaks down into (a) specific complaints about BIA and its performance and (b) a critique of the principle of supporting a private education provider instead of the public system, which at least in theory strives towards achieving the principle of free education for all. 

On the performance of BIA, the CSOs note: 

-A BIA education is actually quite expensive/not affordable for most Kenyan families, with lots of hidden costs not included in the $6 per month (which in itself is not exactly cheap).

-There is no independent study confirming that BIA students actually out-perform their peers, despite the company claiming high performance rates.

-The company does not invest in school infrastructure, but rather builds flimsy wood and sheet metal structures that will not last.

Now with these criticisms of BIA, it's possible to think that maybe another private provider could do better, or perhaps its just a question of BIA improving its own game. But I think the CSOs raise some interesting, and more fundamental concerns, about private vs. public education provision and the basic need/right for a public system:

-A public education system, which includes trained teachers, is crucial to a country's development, and self-reliance (although they don't quite phrase it that way).

-They specifically criticize the WB for supporting a private, US provider instead of the Kenyan public education systems. This limits the potential to build up durable state capacity in the education sector and also to work towards achieving the principle of free primary education for all, which is in any case guaranteed by law.

I would add to this critique that this shift towards more private education mirrors a trend in the US, which as seen the rapid spread of Charter Schools. They've been aggressively championed by Republican but also Democratic politicians, who argue that they can help solve the budgetary challenges that many school districts face, while also improving performance. The reality is somewhat different:

-The spread of charter schools has actually increased the financial burden in many school districts, because they have an obligation to both maintain the public schools while also subsidizing the charter schools. 

-Charter schools do not out-perform public schools, and when they do, they've been known to expel poor performing students while retaining the better performing students, and this in order to boost the charter schools' exam results and thereby to substantiate their posturing as good performers. This then drains public schools of the better students, adding a further handicap for them. 

-There is a lack of effective oversight of charter schools and a systematic under-reporting of their failures, which is consistent with the aggressive political campaign in favour of charter schools (largely ideological in nature - i.e. private is better than public).
-The roll out of charter schools, which has opened up a lucrative new area for investment, has been plagued by corruption, including politicians contracting out to companies owned by personal/political allies (c.f. Philadelphia in particular). 

I'm not saying all of these issues would resurface in a Liberian or Kenyan context, but they do highlight some of the challenges of a US-born enthusiasm for private education providers, and the largely US-led export of this model to developing countries. I also very much believe that there are no shortcuts to a good educational system (admittedly this is based on my own intuition/ideological proclivities, but the other side of the debate hasn't been any better in providing sound, evidence-based arguments). Whether its the US, Kenya or Liberia, the hard work of building a public education system is the best way to achieve the goals of equal and improved access, quality, and good performance. It's obviously not easy, and there have been plenty of abject failures (corruption, lack of infrastructure, lack of/poorly motivated teachers, etc). But I don't see how a durable solution involves simply throwing in the towel.

 In Kenya, there are already signs that BIA is not achieving its goals while diverting financial support that could otherwise go towards tackling issues in public education. And let's say Liberia does substitute its entire public system with BIA schools, how do you then go back? In 50 years, will Liberia still be dependent on BIA? What if they want to change the BIA approach, will the government have any power to influence the private company through its own education policy? If the government decided to re-invest in public education, where would it find the trained teachers, or teacher training colleges, or even the basic infrastructure? It'd have to start from scratch. 

Of course, that latter scenario seems unlikely, particularly if Chambi's friend is correct and this is only about a few schools and not the entire educational system. Still, it's interesting to extend the logic of privatization and see where it lands us, namely a pretty dystopian situation where a private company controls education, substituting and subordinating the state in the process.

Mabala:

I absolutely agree with Michaela. Although actually i would prefer an alternative to schools altogether that is for another day. But simplistic, externally driven solutions do not work. When I was in Ethiopia they had introduced a South African system through videos in good South African English. When there was a semi-uprising against the government, the first things students burned in the schools were the video sets. This might seem counter-intuitive but in fact these programmes, which the majority could hardly understand were not providing education but merely emphasising to the students that they could not access such an education. 

For those who argue public bad private good let us not forget that the majority of private schools in Tanzania are still pretty hopeless. It is only a few which gain the limelight.

Charles:

I don't think if it is practical to expect African governments, and Tanzanian in particular, to provide 'equal access to quality education'. We neither have the resources nor the strategic capability to pull that off.

Given the state of education in this country I think we ought to experiment with different models and with time we will know which ones work best. The idea of private firms managing operations of existing systems can help improve efficiency and effectiveness. It is a model that is being used in many industries - so why not education?

Also, when a firm builds temporary buildings for classes purists might find that offensive - but what is the point of education, improving buildings or developing minds? This is where expectations ought to be managed. If that is considered a priority the government can choose to focus on the building infrastructure and allow private firms to manage operations.

NB: This idea is a major trend in Telecommunications. Also see this example from the hospitality industry in India and see how this model can improve operations, efficiency and profitability. As long as it is the owners who still determine the policies and objectives, I don't see why the model should be rejected at face value.

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