Building Future Education in MENA … Does privatization work?

The BETT/BFE MENA exhibit at Abu Dhabi National Exhibit Centre was busy this week. This year it boasted ~ 200 companies presenting their products and solutions to + 6,000 visitors. There were two common messages:

  1. ICT is critical to the success of the MENA education systems.
  2. The involvement of the private sector is necessary to “solve the problems” in the education systems.

This blog will only focus on the latter of the two messages.

Knowledge Partner, The Parthenon Group offered their Regional Education Report highlighting the investment opportunities in UAE and KSA’s education sector in particular. Interestingly, as privatization is being promoted, so too is the notion of increasing the focus on nationalization. Insights on how balance these two elements were lost as Group Partner, Karan Khemka (Head of the Emerging Markets Practice) stated:

There is a clear trend in the region towards private education and a preference for international & mixed curriculum schools because students choose education in English at both secondary and tertiary levels.

This trend might be why Knowledge Partner, Booz & Co.  presented a need for supporting the private sector to meet the growing demands of education. They predicted K-12 spending on education in the GCC – for both private and public – is expected to increase to over $60B by 2020. Partner Chadi Moujaes was persuasive in presenting the arguments that the private sector holds the key if governments offer a more transparent and supportive regulatory environment that would welcome potential investors to play a greater role in developing a successful innovative cost-effective educational system for the UAE.

So what does this mean in practice?

Keeping in mind the clear message that there is a critical role for the private sector, the BFE organized a focus panel including the CEO of EDUGATES international, a Director from Mosaica Education, and a Director from Cambridge Education who all made compelling arguments for the overall positive contribution of for-profit schools in the UAE education sector. Given the panel composition, the arguments complemented one another so well that one might be inclined to think that we should perhaps all move towards a private model.

What was interesting, however, was that about 45 minutes prior to this panel –  on the same platform – was a presentation from the World Bank’s Head of Education for the MENA region on the 2020 Learning For All Education Strategy. It might have been a coincidence, but given that the two sessions were in the same time slot… it might have been structured to raise fundamental questions on the impact of the private sector on the overall educational quality and outcomes in the UAE. For example,

  1. Does the presence of a prominent private school sector increase access to quality learning for more learners?
  2. To what extent does the presence of private schools impact public school attainment?
  3. What is the value-added of private school education as compared to public school education for a national student? In other words, if you are an Emirati parent with a choice, what is the gain and/or loss for your child when you choose a private school?

The World Bank presentation did not advocate or oppose the role of privatization in education. It called for innovative solutions that were shown to make a difference. A key element of the strategy was to systematize monitoring and evaluation to ensure decisions were being made in the best interest of all learners.

In other words, whatever the solution, is there evidence of increased learning?

Given the unique context of UAE, one would think that if this question can be answered… it is certainly in the UAE! But none of the presentations offered any student learning or achievement data.

The question is why not?

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