Growth in private education in Africa

The remarkable growth of private schools in Africa in recent decades is a good example of how when people are left to their own devices they can solve problems of scarcity. As an article, Budget private schools: solution to Africa’s education woes?, published in the Financial Times shows private education in developing economies is not only for members of the middle and upper classes. The article states:

“There are an estimated 18,000 private schools in Lagos, which has a population of 21m. Around 1.5m children attend private primary and junior secondary schools, accounting for about two thirds of enrolment, according to the UK Department for International Development (Dfid). By contrast, Lagos has just over 1,600 government schools, though their average student populations are bigger.

The fastest-growing private schools are those which originate in slums and other low-income areas, are owned by local entrepreneurs and cater to a clientele living on $2 a day or less.”

Some believe it is inappropriate for profit-seeking companies to own and operate schools. Education, they argue, is a precious institution that should be solely or mainly the responsibility of government. The FT wrote:

“The role of the private sector in providing education for the poor remains contentious, however, with the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to education recently warning that private providers were in danger of supplanting, rather than complementing, the public sector

“Governments must make every effort to strengthen their public education systems, rather than allowing or supporting private providers,” he told the UN General Assembly in October. “For-profit education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of education.”

The notion that education is a noble cause that is devalued by the involvement of for-profit providers is part of a moralistic thinking that threatens economic development and poverty reduction in countries struggling with low levels of human capital. There are many opinions on what is the prime purpose of education. Just a few obtained from the internet includes to prepare students to live; teach to think intensively and critically; bring people to the realisation of what it is to be human; and develop the learner for living morally, creatively and productively in a democratic society. Without meaning to question the subjective idealism contained in some the definitions, it is safe to say that most parents invest in their offspring’s schooling because they expect the institution to teach their kids useful skills and enable them to obtain qualifications that should improve their prospects in the job market. Poor people see education as a way out of poverty.

Whether viewed as a vehicle for enlightenment or a means of human capital enhancement, schooling is a service that can be effectively provided in the market. Indeed, it is because education is a major contributing factor in the preparation of children for interacting in the world that its provision should not be left to the state. As the Financial Times article explains, it is the failures of public schools that has driven parents from all social classes to look to the private sector.

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