How Can Public-Private Partnerships in Education Work for Disadvantaged Students?
Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) have become a widespread form of education delivery in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). How can governments and providers ensure they achieve learning outcomes for the most disadvantaged students?
PPPs in education can take many forms. Historically, LMIC governments have relied on PPPs primarily for contracting out education infrastructure, including construction of new buildings and classrooms. However, in the past two decades, many LMICs have achieved a rapid expansion of universal basic education that existing, resource-constrained public school systems have struggled to accommodate. As a result, many LMIC governments have begun pursuing PPPs not only for infrastructure and construction, but also for education provision as a whole through low-cost private schools and voucher schemes. PPPs have now become a widespread model for education delivery, with many governments pursuing PPPs as a cost-effective model of expanding access and improving the quality of education for disadvantaged students.
Despite being a relatively recent model for education delivery, significant research exists on PPPs for education provision and how they affect education access and quality. Many studies offer promising evidence that PPPs increase enrollment and access to primary and secondary education. However, despite some strong case studies of successful PPPs, the evidence is mixed on whether PPPs improve learning outcomes for the most disadvantaged students. Further, it is often the case that while PPPs might expand access, they may also disproportionately serve upper-income students and increase inequality.
A new evidence brief from the Education Finance Network reviews the literature on PPPs to understand the conditions necessary for the PPP model to succeed in improving learning outcomes for disadvantaged students. This topic was also the focus of an Education Finance Network event last year, What does it take to develop a successful PPP in education?, which convened researchers and practitioners with experience engaging in PPPs. Through both the event panel discussion and the evidence brief, several factors were identified that affect the success of PPP models:
1. Policy design and structure of the PPP matters
PPPs can have varying levels of success depending on their design and structure. The design of a PPP to improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged beneficiaries generally falls into three categories:
- contract or charter schools (public schools that outsource management to private providers);
- subsidized schools (private schools that receive government subsidies to expand their enrollment to low-income students); or
- voucher schemes (governments provide parents with vouchers to cover fees for any chosen private school).
Of the three models, research has found that both voucher schemes and subsidy programs have succeeded in increasing enrollment and access for out-of-school children and are more cost-effective than contract schools. However, evidence around learning outcomes across PPP models is more mixed – one systematic review finds that subsidy programs are the sole model that saw evidence of improved learning outcomes in LMICs.
At the June 2022 Education Finance Network event, Dr. Adrián Zancajo, Lecturer at Manchester University, highlighted the limited evidence on PPPs, especially related to equity outcomes. Dr. Zancajo further cautioned against relying too heavily on PPPs in education without factoring equity considerations into the PPP’s structure and policy design. This aligns with research highlighted in the PPP evidence brief; with one key study showing that the most successful subsidy PPPs are those that allocate subsidies according to both the number of low-income students enrolled and the educational outcomes of those students.
2. PPPs that are strategically located can improve access for hard-to-reach, out-of-school children
One of the most important benefits of PPPs that emerges from the literature is the potential to expand educational access in a highly cost-effective way. In many LMICs where education is perpetually underfunded, governments are severely limited in their ability to expand public schools to rural areas where a large percentage of the school-aged population is out of school. This is particularly the case for secondary schools, as most governments opt to dedicate the majority of their limited resources towards primary education rather than secondary. Rather than requiring governments to establish new public schools in underserved areas—a process with extremely high start-up and administrative costs for building infrastructure and hiring teachers—PPPs allow governments to rapidly expand educational access by increasing the enrollment capacity of private schools that already exist in areas where students live.
For example, in Uganda, a PPP program was established that allowed existing secondary private schools to qualify for a government subsidy for every fee-free space they allocated to students. Private schools could only participate in the program if there were no available government secondary schools located nearby. The program succeeded in increasing enrolment for students who would not otherwise receive a secondary school education and improved learning outcomes.
3. Autonomy, accountability and strong management of private providers is critical for improving learning outcomes
PPP models vary significantly regarding how much autonomy private providers have in hiring practices and pedagogical methods. Studies have found that schools with more flexibility and autonomy tend to see better learning outcomes. However, autonomy and flexibility alone may not necessarily result in good management practices and performance, when the PPP program does not have sufficient accountability incentives (such as funding being tied to learning outcomes). Evidence suggests that strong accountability of the provider is crucial for PPPs to achieve successful learning outcomes.
Given the strong emphasis on accountability and autonomy for successful PPPs, the Network’s event discussed this issue in detail, with panelists sharing their on-the-ground experience. Laura Brown, CEO of Promoting Equality in African Schools (PEAS), highlighted that PPP schools under their operation are more likely to achieve equity when teachers are performance-managed by PEAS (as opposed to appointed by the government). In the case of PEAS, autonomy in school operation has allowed for greater innovations among the schools, which has promoted equity. For example, these efforts included enrolling young mothers, improving safeguarding with a focus on marginalized groups, and ensuring inclusion targets are written into the PPP contracts.
4. Government capacity to monitor providers is an important success factor
A final consideration for PPP success depends on the capacity of the government to oversee, monitor, and enforce requirements of the providers. Government regulation and oversight are critical to ensuring that private providers prioritize equitable enrollment of students above profit-seeking objectives and can minimize the risk of increased inequity.
However, during the Network’s June PPP event, Dr. Adrián Zancajo also cautioned that although many consider government oversight a panacea to ensuring PPPs remain equitable, under-resourced governments often enact regulations that they do not have the capacity to enforce. For example, a recent key study of a PPP program in Liberia highlighted the challenges that emerged due to a low-resourced government with limited capacity to oversee providers, including expulsing low-performing students to keep test scores up and capping enrollment in oversubscribed schools. As such, increasing equity in PPPs will require enacting regulations that require strong government capacity, but this also must be met with private schools that are motivated to meet equity requirements independently, based on their own goals and mission for their program.
5. PPPs are one tool in the toolbox
Given the challenges many countries face in education provision, PPPs can help fill critical gaps in access, equity, and learning outcomes for disadvantaged students. However, their success depends on numerous conditions that must be weighed, with equity considerations at the forefront. As Suezan Lee, Education Finance Specialist at USAID's Center for Education, highlighted during the Network’s PPP event, we should be careful not to see PPPs as a magic bullet, but rather one tool in a toolbox for governments to mobilize finance and improve service delivery. She also highlighted that, for USAID and the CATALYZE program, an important factor to ensure the success of PPPs is the quality of the partnership with the host country government. Government buy-in and commitment are essential to improving non-state education as a complementary piece to improving education outcomes.
A more in-depth discussion on this topic can be found in the evidence brief Public-Private Partnerships in Education: Conditions for Success. The Education Finance Network aims to provide accessible evidence on topics related to non-state actors in education and their financing and will publish a series of evidence briefs on the effectiveness of various models of core and ancillary education services delivery over the coming months. For more information about the Education Finance Network, including how to become a member, please visit our webpage.
This blogpost was made possible through support provided by the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, Private Sector Engagement (PSE) Hub and Center for Education, U.S. Agency for International Development, under the terms of Contract No. 7200AA19C00080. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development.