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Private Education’s Public Benefits

LAGOS – Africa’s economies are finally beginning to roar. In 2000-2010, after decades of sluggish growth, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2060, Africa’s population could reach 2.7 billion, with a billion-strong middle class.

This is no mere rosy scenario. More than 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under 30 years old – a youth bulge that could fuel rapid economic development, as has happened in Asia over the last three decades. Moreover, Africa’s economies have already begun to diversify, placing less emphasis on natural resources relative to thriving tourism, agriculture, telecommunications, banking, and retail sectors.

In order to maintain growth and continue to attract foreign direct investment – which rose six-fold in the last decade – Africa must develop a high-skilled, well-trained workforce. But inadequate education and training are the continent’s Achilles’ heel. Indeed, African business leaders often cite finding people with the right skills as a major challenge to their operations, especially in high-tech industries.

This is not surprising, given Africa’s poor educational provision. Illiteracy levels exceed 40% in several countries. South Africa’s National Planning Commission estimates that 80% of the country’s public schools are underperforming. And, in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, public-school students lack the core skills expected at their age and grade level.

The reasons for poor performance are deep-seated and complex. Inadequate financing means large classes, insufficient books and teaching supplies, poorly constructed schools, and aging infrastructure. Low wages for teachers do little to attract the best and brightest to the profession.

While Africa’s leaders are well aware of these shortcomings, they lack the resources to address them alone – especially given growing demand from the youth bulge. To reach the next stage of development, the private sector will have to fill the gap left by the state and NGOs.

In many developing countries, as the middle class grows, more families seek affordable private education for their children. India’s 2011 Annual Status of Education Report showed that in 2005-2008, private-school enrollment increased by 38%. Likewise, enrollment in private schools – largely low-cost institutions – exceeds 40% in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda.

In emerging economies, the private sector has some clear advantages over NGOs and the state, and this extends to schools. It can quickly scale up and make large investments in new markets – including for education – without bureaucratic delays, while building on proven models and international experience.

Furthermore, the private sector can drive educational achievement at a lower cost than the public sector. A World Bank study on language and mathematics showed that, for the same cost per pupil, private schools in the five participating countries (Colombia, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Thailand) performed 1.2-6.7 times better than public schools in terms of student achievement.

The private sector also brings innovation to the classroom. For example, some providers are developing teaching models in which students can watch teacher-created videos online outside of class, so that precious teacher-student face time can focus on interacting rather than lecturing.

Similarly, skilled teachers can now deliver interactive e-lessons to many classrooms at once, even if they are hundreds of miles away. As a result, students in places where schools have not yet been built, or too few qualified teachers are available, can still get an education. After all, a lecture from a good teacher – even if it is broadcast over the Internet – is preferable to face time with an untrained adult.

International policymakers must recognize the private sector’s potential to play a crucial role in educational provision, just as it does in the provision of health care and drugs. Private-sector education – subject to the buying decisions of parents, who will closely scrutinize their investment – is the best long-term guarantor of quality.

That has been a highly controversial proposition in the West, where debates about education are highly politicized and often fall within familiar ideological boundaries. But there is widespread consensus that Africa will need a massive increase in educational capacity over the next few decades. And, as the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) noted in 2010 “The demand for education services (in Africa) is rising at a faster rate than governments can supply.”

In other words, meeting Africa’s need for significantly higher educational capacity over the next few decades will require private providers. But some families will be unable to afford private education for their children, no matter how low the fees are. So the private sector must share expertise with public schools, and, where possible, offer free places to the poorest children.

Moreover, private education providers must be accredited, regulated, and closely monitored. Just as some private companies perform better than others, some schools might shine. But all must adhere to established performance standards.

For decades, education has been the preserve of governments and charities in Africa, cut off from the expertise and investment that private companies can provide. Now Africa has reached the point that, without a drastic increase in private education, its economic transformation could stall.