Private education is increasingly popular in many Arab countries, but the high cost of private schools and a lack of state oversight threatens to make educational inequalities worse, a recent report from Unesco warns.
Colliers International estimates that 10.6 percent of Egyptian students attend private schools and that 2.1 million extra places will be needed by 2030.
In Jordan, about 26 percent of students attend private schools, according to government statistics. The figure jumps to 54 percent in Lebanon, despite the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, which have caused an exodus of students from private to public schools.
The report, titled “Non-State Actors in Education: Who Chooses? Who Loses?” is Unesco’s 2021-22 Global Education Monitoring Report. It includes recommendations to ensure “quality education for all.”
The report shows that 40 percent of pre-primary students, 20 percent of primary education pupils, and 30 percent of secondary and university students are educated in private institutions worldwide.
But many countries lack adequate regulations on private education, or the capacity to enforce them, it says. This undermines the quality of education and widens the educational divide between rich and poor.
Meeting a Public Sector Shortage
Abdul-Latif Mahmoud, a professor of educational research at Egypt’s independent Sohag University, said: “The expansion of private schools came to meet the shortage in public schools. However, the lack of real control over private schools, in terms of the quality of education, made them a commercial for-profit means only.”
“We have rules designed by private schools that exclude students from enrolling in them”. These rules include “personal interviews with students and families, through which students can be rejected based on their social background or their parents’ jobs.”Abdul-Latif Mahmoud
A professor of educational research at Egypt’s independent Sohag University
Suleiman Tarazi, a Jordanian educational expert, believes that the problem for most Arab countries is that they lack a classification system for private schools.
In Jordan, he said, Education Law No. 3 of 1994 and its amendments are limited to classifying private educational institutions into categories. The law “sets a minimum and maximum for the tuition fees imposed on students, without stipulating conditions related to quality control at these schools.”
The Unesco report focuses on non-state actors across all education systems, including schools run by faith-based organizations, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, and for-profit commercial entities. It points out that many countries “allow these schools, most of them not registered, to operate without any oversight.”
The report reveals that only 27 percent of countries “explicitly prohibit profit-making in primary and secondary education, which runs counter to the vision of 12 years of free education for all.”
It adds that “more than 55 percent of countries have regulations preventing selective admission procedures in private schools. Only 7 percent have quotas supporting access of disadvantaged groups.”
Exclusionary Tactics and Fees
In Egypt, Abdul-Latif said, “we have rules designed by private schools that exclude students from enrolling in them”. These rules include “personal interviews with students and families, through which students can be rejected based on their social background or their parents’ jobs.”
“Minimum standards have to be set by governments across public and private schools, to make sure that the most disadvantaged students have equal opportunities to benefit from quality education.”Audrey Azoulay
Director-general of Unesco
Private schools seek to “reap profits not only from tuition fees but by commodifying educational services such as transportation and administrative services,” he said.
In Jordan, Tarazi said, a major problem is “the unjustified constant rise in school tuition fees year after year, contrary to the regulations, in addition to the high fees for uniforms, books, and transportation.”
According to the report, “households in the least developed countries spend a disproportionate amount of their income to educate their children. Households account for 39 percent of education expenditure in low- and lower-middle-income countries, compared to only 16 percent in high-income countries.”
In a news release, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco, says: “Minimum standards have to be set by governments across public and private schools, to make sure that the most disadvantaged students have equal opportunities to benefit from quality education.”
Significant Hidden Costs
The report notes that public education in low-income countries also has significant hidden costs. An analysis of 15 low- and middle-income countries shows that uniforms and supplies accounted for almost two-fifths of households’ educational expenditures. In these countries, 8 percent of families have to borrow money to pay for their children to go to school.
“The unjustified constant rise in school tuition fees year after year, contrary to the regulations, in addition to the high fees for uniforms, books, and transportation.”Suleiman Tarazi
A Jordanian educational expert
“Study expenses in public schools have increased dramatically, almost doubled, in the last two years,” Abdul-Latif explained. Private tutoring is a burden on families, as is the cost of uniforms and textbooks.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused “an increase in the number of students moving from private to public schools, and has ended the educational opportunities for others,” the report says.
In Jordan, for example, 51,000 students moved from private to public schools last year, a record. In Lebanon, the percentage of Syrian refugees ages 6 to 14 enrolled in schools decreased, from 67 percent in 2020 to 53 percent in 2021. In addition, 20 percent of those who applied for distance learning programs could not enroll.
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Unesco concluded its report with several recommendations. It urged countries to increase efforts to guarantee free, publicly funded access to one year of pre-primary and 12 years of primary and secondary education for all children and young people; to set quality standards that apply to all state and non-state education institutions; and to strengthen government capacity to monitor and enforce regulations.
It also recommended that governments encourage innovation for the common good and bring together all actors who develop good practices, and to protect education from narrow vested interests.