French-speaking civil society mobilizes against commodification of education

By Luc Allaire
November 1, 2017

The last decade has seen unprecedented growth in the number of private schools, especially in low-income countries. This growth is so robust that it is threatening to bring about profound change in very fragile educational systems.

Many investors, including multinationals, are getting into the highly lucrative education market by offering cheap, low-quality services and targeting poor populations, while ignoring government regulations. The growth of these private actors is especially notable in the areas of elementary and secondary education, where social inequalities are widening.

This trend has been denounced by the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In 2016, a French-language network against the commodification of education was founded, consisting of NGOs, teachers’ unions, community organizations and researchers.

The network’s primary objective is not just to get people thinking and talking about this issue, but to mobilize them against the commodification of education so that educational systems can make the right to a quality education a reality for all and so that private actors cannot jeopardize such a fundamental right.

In March 2016, the French-language network held a founding seminar on the subject at the headquarters of the International Organisation of La Francophonie in Paris. At the meeting, the Comité syndical francophone de l’éducation et de la formation (Francophone Labour Committee for Education and Training, CSFEF) presented the highlights of a survey of 30 French-speaking labour unions.

Highlights of CSFEF survey

  • Privatization has taken hold in every country, in a variety of forms, from preschool to university.
  • Most often, it is the result of public-sector shortcomings.
  • Virtually all labour unions are worried about the effect of the persistence of private education, because it is seen as an obstacle to achieving universal education.
  • States are very tolerant of private education.
  • A number provide financial support for it.
  • The risks of social, ethnic and religious segregation are worrisome.
  • Many African labour unions report that there are expensive schools for the rich and cheap schools for the poor.
  • Private schools are almost always places where staff have no rights: arbitrary decisions are the rule and anyone who makes demands is liable to be dismissed.

The first draft of French-speaking civil society’s appeal against the commodification of education was also discussed at the founding seminar. The appeal was launched in November 2016, with the support of 302 organizations from 38 countries.

It was heard by heads of state and government at the Francophonie Summit in Madagascar in November 2016. Education is a core part of the declaration adopted at the Summit. Several paragraphs echo the demands expressed in the appeal, including those dealing with the importance of having qualified teachers to provide quality education, the attachment to public education and greater control over private education. Heads of state and government also expressed their concern at the proliferation of private schools.

Mobilization continues

In October 2017, in Dakar, Senegal, the French-language network will hold a meeting on the privatization and commodification of education, which will be an opportunity for stakeholders involved in establishing and defending the right to education (representatives of states, international organizations, teachers’ unions, NGOs, researchers) to meet and discuss the current challenges of the unprecedented increase in the number of private actors in education and develop a response consistent with the values of French-speaking societies, nurtured by a long history and established culture of strong public services that provide a foundation for integration and development.

Luc Allaire is the General Secretary of the Comité syndical francophone de l’éducation et de la formation.

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