The issue of private-sector involvement—a global phenomenon

The debate about education for profit is a contentious one, and one that has led to a large amount of research (see, among many others, Ball 2007). The traditional, and largely Western, post-World War II view has been that education is a public good and should not be manipulated for private benefit. It is largely argued in the literature that private companies should not be able to profit from government investment in education and also that they should not be able to shape the education that children receive in order to make more profit.

More recent trends in the West and in developing countries, however, show a major shift in attitude—at the state/government level as well as among the middle classes, especially in developing countries. The trend of allowing for more private education and the increasing demand coming from certain sections of society are of course congruous and largely a part of an increasingly globalised world. Contrary to expectations, even the poorest sections of society sometimes turn to private provision, in the hope of giving their children a better future. An example of this is private slum schools in India, where parents can barely afford the few rupees a day for school fees (see Srivastava 2008). This often results in the State abrogating its responsibilities, as the private and the not-for-profit sectors offer alternatives for different sections of society.

As mentioned in the introduction, the WTO facilitates globalisation through the opening up of all spheres of social life—including public services—to international capital. In effect, the WTO’s education agenda is to facilitate the penetration of education services by corporate capital. The key WTO agreement for this purpose is the GATS. This agreement incorporates the aim of unleashing progressive liberalisation of trade in services, including public services such as education. In the long term, no area of social life is exempt from these developments.

The UN Development Program (UNDP 1999), however, and others have warned that globalisation is increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, between connected and isolated cultural groups and that inequality within countries has increased dramatically in the past 20–30 years. Global forces are also leading to increasing population movement and thus to an exponential increase in intercultural interactions and exchanges. Whereas globalisation is opening doors for a highly mobile, highly skilled international elite, it seems to be closing them for many others, who will either seek to escape or remain locked in poverty.

Consequently, the issue of private education and increased privatisation of state education is problematic. The phenomenon is also different from country to country. Whereas in the United Kingdom, for example, it is more a case of ‘commercialisation’ because the assumption is that the quality of public services will be improved through the introduction of practices and the ethos typical of commercial practice, in India on the other hand, it is more about ‘marketisation’, because what is happening is the opening up of markets in areas where services were formerly under state monopoly control. It is not, however, always as simple as that; some of these markets are being quite carefully shaped with limited private-sector involvement and close state control, while in other cases there is no state regulation whatsoever.

The debate universally is, however, summed up best by Hatcher (2001:58):

[T]he starting point has to be the recognition that there are two distinct logics at work. One is a logic of education, based on social and individual need, and notions of equity and democracy. The other is a logic of business, whose bottom line is profit. Not everything business wants to do is incompatible with education interests. But the logic of business is incompatible with the logic of education.

The question with regard to Myanmar is how far these two distinct logics really contradict each other or whether private education is one of the ways forward in the current difficult situation.