COVID-19 and education in Asia: Is privatisation a driver of inequality?

Education in Asia is becoming increasingly privatised and commercialised. To learn more about the impacts and future trends of the sector, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Nepal spoke with Education International.

Education is a fundamental human right. But nonetheless, inequality in access to public education is widening, the lack of financing continues, and the digital divide is growing – not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 100 years ago, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) was founded with the goal to enable children from working class backgrounds to access education. And until this day, education has remained a central pillar of our work across the globe.  

Together with Education International (EI), the FES Nepal Office invited participants of three EI-affiliated teachers unions from across Nepal to discuss current challenges for privatisation of education in Nepal and globally. With 32 million members globally, out of which 10 million educators and education support personnel are located in the Asia-Pacific region, EI has been advocating for quality teaching, quality tools and quality learning environments and adequate financing of education. 

FES Nepal used this opportunity to talk to Anand Singh and Melane Manalo about the state of privatisation of education in Asia and its growing inequality in access to education.


What is the state of privatisation of education in Asia? Do you see growing inequality in access to education in context of this?

Anand: Most of the developing countries in the region meet their global commitments to allocating 4 – 6 percent of their GDP to education. However, the public education systems are still struggling with poor infrastructure, insufficient teaching workforce and lack of public funding. This is leading to a rapid privatisation and commercialisation of education.

Research carried out by EI in the Philippines, India and Nepal highlights government actions such as creating exemptions or loopholes for private providers, demonstrating a lack of political will to enforce and monitor adherence to the right to education laws, and facilitating commercialisation and privatisation of education. The reports show how these political choices have led to a continued growth of ‘low-fee’ private schools in these countries. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, India, the state government handed over 5000 public schools to Bridge International Academies, a ‘for profit’ chain low fee private schools, to run. The private schools are allowed to operate without adhering to national legislations.

We saw in the Philippines that Ministry of Education signed a Memorandum of Understanding with APEC Schools which allowed them to operate without following any regulations on curriculum, school infrastructure, teacher qualification, salaries and working conditions. These schools specifically target the poor and have attracted the interest of global corporations and foreign investors, who, on the pretext of providing affordable low-cost quality education, have been investing in budget schools as well as setting up for-profit schools/school chains. Such trends are not only turning education into a commodity for sale and profiteering but also restricting access to quality education for girls and students from poor and marginalised communities.

That is why EI and its members organisations are working to stopping privatisation of education in Asia and strengthening of public education systems. In this direction, Education International launched a Global Response campaign against privatisation and commercialisation of education along with its member organisations across the globe. As part of the campaign, education unions have been emphasising that undermining public education and promoting edu-business is detrimental to the larger interests of society.


How do you see the effects of COVID-19 pandemic on privatisation in the education sector?

Melane: The inadequate efforts towards ensuring access to quality education by the governments is providing opportunities to the expansion of privatisation in the education sector which is also flagged by an EI report from last year.

The research shows that the global education industry is capitalising on the education crisis created by the pandemic. Since school closures, there has been a huge upsurge in profitmaking by education technology (edtech) companies. Commercial companies have increased their involvement in public education by entering into new pandemic networks – multi-stakeholder coalitions including edtech companies, major transnational corporations, international organisations such as UNESCO, the OECD and the World Bank, national governments and other actors.

The pivot to distance learning has allowed private actors to position themselves at the centre of essential education services – not just as a response to the crisis and the need for emergency remote teaching – but for the long-term.

Also, the pandemic has affected the education workforce in many ways. Among the sectors in education, however, private school educators have been the worst hit, especially teachers in early childhood education, which is dominated by private providers, as thousands have not been paid salaries for months, many lost their jobs. In Nepal alone more than 50,000 teachers in the private sector have not received their salaries for months. The pandemic has also amplified the precariousness of private school teachers and support staff, who in addition to possibly being under contract employment may not enjoy similar protections of their rights as those in the public sector.


The pandemic made education in many parts of the region only possible through digital means for long periods. How is Asia in particular coping with this huge shift?

Melane: The closure of schools and the sudden shift to distance modes of teaching and learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic have badly affected the quality of education delivered to students as well as the terms of employment and working conditions of teachers and education support personnel. This impact on students and educators further manifests the inadequacies and inequities in education systems that existed from long before the current crisis.

The pandemic is causing increased digital, rural-urban and gender divides. In most countries, the public education system has poor infrastructure, teachers and students have not been trained in the use of digital technology, and students particularly in rural areas do not have access to internet.

Preliminary findings of the recent EIAP – ILO study on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic in education and teaching in Asia-Pacific present a bleak picture. The study shows how school closures and the shift to distance modes of teaching-learning have extended the working hours and responsibilities of teachers and education support personnel, exposing them to health and safety risks and, in many countries, delaying and reducing their salaries and benefits.

We fear that widening of inequalities in access to quality education, reduction in education funding and inadequacy of education resources amid the pandemic risks a further slowdown in the progress of Sustainable Development Goal 4 and may further encourage the rise of private, for-profit players in education.


What are the future trends in education in Asia? Which specific areas do you think need most consideration in education policy?

Anand: Since the beginning of the pandemic, teachers and education support personnel have been at the frontline of ensuring that learning is not disrupted for any student, despite the numerous challenges of digital illiteracy, access to digital infrastructure and equipment, and lack of social interaction. They overcame the challenge of the unknown and came up with innovative teaching and learning methods, despite the odds and personal and professional setbacks.

More than ever, it is urgent for governments and the international community to ensure that the well-being of teachers and students is put at the centre of any education recovery policy. The pandemic has given an opportunity to a) increase education funding, b) build resilience of education systems with teachers at the discussion table, and c) support teachers’ professional development, provide safe and secure working conditions, and ensure their participation in decision-making.

Moving forward, education systems must recognise and commit to putting teachers at the heart and at the decision-making table for solid and transformative education recovery, where teachers themselves are engaged and empowered in addressing their needs and demands and in ensuring education for all.

Thank you Melane, thank you Anand for this insightful interview. We wish you all the best for your important work, which highlights the challenges in regard to privatisation in the education sector!

Anand Singh is the Chief Regional Coordinator and Melane Manalo is the Regional Coordinator for Education International in the Asia-Pacific. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

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