The Importance of the Private Sector in Commonwealth Education

60 per cent of Commonwealth citizens are under the age of 30 – an age group which governments and civil society have a duty of care to educate and support. Education empowers young people, not just with the knowledge and skills they need to earn a living, but in positively shaping their future involvement and contributions to society and the economy.

Education is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, which specifically calls for ‘inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all’. In many countries however, this is a distant ideal which does not seem to be getting any closer.

This problem of education under-provision is especially prevalent in lesser-developed countries, and serves to stagnate economies and growth due to a dearth of skilled workers. A widely accepted pillar of economic development is the requirement for skilled workers, innovators and economic contributors who do not simply drive growth, but also ensure a country’s stable economic future. Some nations can thus become stuck in a vicious cycle of a lack of resources to educate society, resulting in a lack of skilled citizens to drive economic growth and modernisation.

Problems in delivering effective education can also arise in developed countries. Many states cannot bear the financial burden of a high demand for further education, or do not have the expertise and resources to educate and train on the most cutting-edge sciences and technologies. This creates a similar, albeit comparatively less damaging, shortage of future innovators.

There is therefore a very strong case for the private sector to play a role in education provision, a role which breaks through the false stigma of exclusive institutions which leave the poorest and most vulnerable behind.

The private sector can supplement, enhance, and multiply the state’s education system in numerous ways, and through a diverse number of channels. Charitable schools, faith schools, vocational academies, NGOs and for-profit schools can all operate within this space, and can all help to offset the heavy finance and resource burden of education. The state cannot realistically hope to provide for every facet of its entire population’s educational need, be that primary, higher, vocational or specialist. Governments need to work in partnership with the private sector and should do so with enthusiasm.

In practice, this can manifest in an assortment of models, for example where governments pay a private educator a fixed fee per child, or part-fund charities and NGOs to run schools. In other examples, state funded private education can be seen to deliver effective and efficient education in niche sectors, such as special needs schools, or tech-focused universities.

The obvious caveat is that any private sector education needs to be carefully regulated, with the government taking an active and pragmatic stewardship role. Unregulated education can lead to discrimination on the grounds of economic status and social class, and at its worst, can entirely exclude individuals from receiving education in any form. But carefully overseen, opening the doors to the private sector can reap huge benefits, not just through creating better access, but improving quality of education too.

To explore the different ways that the private sector and governments can work together to deliver the best and most universal education, The Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) have announced a commission on the private sector’s role in education, in partnership with LimKokWing University of Creative Technology.

The backbone of the Commission will be a series of high-level seminars in a number of Commonwealth countries, held by a distinguished panel of education experts, and chaired by Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Paduka Lim Kok Wing. The aim for the Commission is to bring together leaders from across the Commonwealth education sector to present case studies, promote policy discourse, and explore pioneering best practices. This will cover all aspects of private sector involvement, from tuition-based education models, to part-government funded organisations, charitable programmes, and everything in between.

Education is a basic human right, and it is of vital importance states ensure their citizens have universal access to quality education. The private sector can have a markedly positive impact on education standards and accessibility, and thus commissions such as these are of fundamental importance to understanding and informing on how education provision can advance.