Monday, February 8, 2016

Privatization of education sector

The Saudi government’s recent announcement that it plans to privatize its education system offers some tantalizing possibilities for Saudi citizens, but it also poses far more questions than answers on how such a massive undertaking would be implemented and whether such a plan is even workable.
Privatization of a public agency is fraught with enough unknowns that it could be doomed to failure without proper government monitoring. Americans and British citizens witnessed a boon in privatization beginning in the 1980s of services ranging from prisons to airports to fuel production. The results have been mixed, but one thing for sure is that middle-class workers and unions in the West took huge hits in available jobs once private companies started running things.

Having said that, there are many successes in private education. Public secondary school graduates are more likely to be unprepared for university level courses than their private school graduate counterparts. Students’ proficiency in a foreign language and strong critical thinking skills can’t hold a candle to students graduating from private schools. Memorization techniques still taught in the Saudi public education system, long since rejected by most countries as a poor method of teaching, remains the preferred system.

But to make the plan work there must be strong oversight by the Ministry of Education. There also must be competent staff to implement and maintain that supervision. Yet even with strong supervision there are many obstacles to consider. Public agencies’ foremost obligation is to serve the masses. Private companies’ obligation is to serve its shareholders, investors and its owners. 
The gains that Saudi Arabia has seen in the past decade to preserve the environment may be threatened by private business that may subvert environmental rules. Larger companies are in a better position to create a monopoly of ownership of schools. And perhaps the most important concern for privatized education is that if there is a lack of transparency then corruption will soon follow.

Parents may very well turn a blind eye toward these potential issues. That won’t mean they will be faced with their own set of a problems of sending their children to a private school. Already, Saudi Arabia is rife in controversies at the local level of parents battling school administrations over high tuition costs, which begs the question of whether the government will put a cap on tuition or require privatized schools to follow a uniform tuition schedule. Will each school have the same curriculum? Will memorization as a teaching method be thrown out? Will the government establish a set of standards government when hiring teachers domestically and from abroad?

The premise of privatization is that it saves governments money and the private sector can run a service efficiently and provide better quality. In theory private sector employees make less money than government workers. The private sector can cut bloated payrolls and function with fewer workers. 

But studies have shown, including a 2011 survey published in the Washington Post that it doesn’t always work out that way. The study found that 33 out of 35 jobs farmed out to private companies, including engineers and auditors; actually cost the US government more money. And there’s the rub. Private companies may bid low for a government contract to run a school, but at the end of the day the government is still paying those businesses. If the private sector takes away one thing in securing government contracts, it’s that those contracts are a cash cow. Of course, when a private company’s sole purpose is to obtain government contracts to run a service the potential for corruption increases.

Since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ignited the privatization spree nearly 40 years ago economists still can’t agree whether the strategy really works. One thing is certain, though, private companies jumping on the government contract gravy train see huge profits. And that’s the bottom line.

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