Comparative and International Education Society: Problematizing Inequality Conference
admin 7th March 2017

On March 7, OxHRH Deputy-Director Meghan Campbell alongside Tanvir Muntasim (Action Aid), Salima Namusobya (Initiative for Economic and Social Rights), Svlvian Aubrey (Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Delphine Dorsi  (Right to Education Project), and Suzanne Grant Lewis (UNESCO-IIEP) came together to discuss how the normative human rights framework and accountability mechanisms can respond to the growth of privatization in education.

The last two decades have seen an increase in the scale and scope of private actors in education, in particular in developing countries. This trend includes not only an increase in the number of traditional private schools catering to the elite, but also the rapid expansion of low-cost for-profit schools targeting poor households, large-scale commercial investments in private school chains, private tutoring, privatization of education services such as testing, the adoption of private sector management techniques in the public education sector and the growth of community and faith-based schools. Such developments have been fiercely debated, and seen either as a solution to respond education sector challenges, or a threat to equality, inclusion and social justice in education.

Since 2014, an expanding network of communities, organizations and experts have been discussing and analyzing the implications of private actors in education on various human rights dimensions, in particular the right to equality and non-discrimination, in countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific. As a result of these collective efforts, human rights norms and standards related to the role of private actors in education are emerging. Moreover, a better understanding of the role of private actors in education and its limitations, and of increasingly complex governance arrangements such as public-private partnerships, has allowed for a consideration of more nuanced, specific and concrete policy actions.

What is still missing from this analysis is a broadly accepted interpretation of the normative framework against which to assess the implications of the role of private actors in education in different contexts. While there are a range of studies about private schooling and changing dynamics in education governance, there is not yet a common understanding of what is acceptable from equity and social justice perspectives or a clear delineation of the responsibilities and duties of different education actors. Key questions arising include ‘Can governments encourage the involvement of private actors in education while respecting their human rights obligations, and if so under which conditions?’ ‘What standards must States put in place to regulate private actors while respecting parents’ freedom to establish or choose a school?’ ‘How can the involvement of private actors in education be arranged to guarantee the development of equitable and inclusive education systems?’ International and comparative human rights law can help to provide an authoritative normative response to these questions, which are essential for scholars, practitioners and policy-makers alike.

The panel explored efforts made by a range of education stakeholders over the past two years to unpack human rights law in order to provide a normative framework to assess the role of private actors in education. The presentations reflect on a longer term project aiming at developing Guiding Principles clarifying State obligations with regard to private actors in education based on international human rights standards. Together these presentations discuss the process for developing these Principles, the outcomes of broad consultations shaping their development and consider their application in research and practice.

Thanks to Mireille de Koning and Kate Linkins from Open Society Foundations for organizing such a lively panel discussion!

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