In 2009 a group of educationists came together for an informal discussion on the growing trend of privatisation in education across the globe. The meeting was sparked by several developments including the rapid proliferation of low fee private schools in South Asia, the prominence of charter school debate in the USA and the support by the IFC of risk assessments of private investment in the education sector in Africa. Additionally, the reform of the education system in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina – explained so compellingly by Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine – raised serious questions about the role that private sector interests, capital and systems had to play in public sector spheres. The binding concern of these developments regarded how social injustices were being meted out by these changing dynamics. The global financial crisis that started in 2008 looked heralded a perfect storm for yet more rapidly increasing privatisation.
The meeting set in motion a series of other meetings in Africa and then Asia, bringing together small groups of educationists, academics and government policy specialists to share perspectives on different facets of privatisation. Several issues emerged from these discussions.
One was that there was very little critical discourse on privatisation in the public domain. Additionally, while the academic literature on global dynamics was relatively substantive, the library on national level processes was thin. In effect, it was difficult for civil society organisation and governments to access research and resources, and to participate in debates on privatisation.
Another was that privatisation was a deeply complex issue. While perhaps an obvious point, as the discussions developed it became clear that privatisation meant many things to many people in many different contexts. And while some similarities were evident, the variables were both numerous and diverse in each case.
Yet another was that the division of opinions on particular forms of privatisation – low fee private schools for instance – were being played out in a rather tight academic circle, the practice and policy implications of which were unclear.
A further issue was that privatisation took many forms. Private tutoring, for-profit private schooling and the myriad of arrangements under the rubric of educational public-private partnerships, to name a few, all contributed to and cherry-picked from the growing but disjointed discourse on privatisation writ large.
An additional point was the notable lack of a social justice lens to the discourse and discussions.
These led to an awareness of how the changing dynamics of education in most countries over the last 30 years obscures an understanding of how the requirements of human rights and economic and social justice are to be met under the new and increasingly pervasive conditions of private, public, and private-public provision in education. In turn, this gave rise to the Privatisation in Education Research Initiative (PERI), a multi-annual global initiative seeks to contribute to a better understanding on whether, through what mechanisms, with what outcomes, and for whom the increasing adoption of a widening range educational service regulation and delivery mechanisms might lead to more effective and equitable education systems.
PERI has two key objectives:
- Animate an accessible and informed public debate on the relative merits and demerits of alternative education provision that leads to informed choice by governments and parents. To this end, PERI will create a nonpartisan platform through which different normative, theoretical and empirical positions on the privatisation of a range of education services can be debated;
- Centralise a social justice lens through which to debate the consequences of changes in the coordination of education services. This will be achieved through a twin-track approach of scholarly research and media work, which will be accessible through the PERI website, which will also feature discussions, forums, and other resources.