The Role of Private Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Access and Inclusion September 15, 2017

Highlighting the work of Bridge International Academies in Liberia, Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in the New York Times: “Let’s worry less about ideology and more about how to help kids learn.”

I couldn’t agree more with Kristof. Private education provision has an essential role to play in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and other developing regions. With rapid growth in demand, states are struggling to keep up, despite increased investment. Nowhere is this challenge more acute than in SSA.

In what follows I will explore the current role and potential of private education on the continent, drawing upon learnings from The Business of Education in Africa, a major report commissioned by Caerus Capital and supported by the Education Center of Excellence at Parthenon-EY.

Current role of the private sector

The private, not-for-profit and for-profit sectors play an essential role in SSA: as the first article in this series notes, the private sector is likely to educate 25% of African youth by 2021. But private players are involved in different SSA education segments in different ways:

  • Pre-primary: Because education in the early years historically has not been part of core government provision in SSA, the private sector has played a significant role, with an estimated ~26% share of enrollments.
  • K–12: Private provision comprises about 20% of enrollments in K–12 (with 32% in secondary and 14% in primary). The sector is dominated by “mom-and-pop,” religiously affiliated and non-formal education providers. However, scale providers such as Omega and PEAS are reshaping the sector.
  • Higher education: With demand outstripping quality public supply, private providers supply ~30% of seats. This is also a sector ripe for innovation, and distance providers such as MANCOSA and programs leveraging EdTech, such as Kepler, are reshaping the landscape.
  • Technical and vocational education and training (TVET): There is under-provision of TVET, and existing provision is typically poor, despite the urgent need for skilled technical labor. However, demand-driven models such as Andela (which supplants a traditional degree with on-the-job training in the tech sector) hold promise for the sector.
Beyond its role in core education delivery, the private sector is a vital participant in ancillary services, for example:
  • Teacher training: SSA needs to recruit and train 4.6 million new teachers, and beyond this, there are serious quality concerns about the existing pool of teachers. To address these shortfalls, programs like Partners for Possibility help strengthen leadership and management capacity by partnering under-resourced school principals with seasoned business leaders.
  • Education technology: Private models are evolving that change the landscape for distribution and student engagement. Innovative distance learning programs like MGCubed are leveraging technology (in their case, solar-powered equipment) to enable math and English learning in deprived rural communities.
  • Student and institutional finance: Private sector finance can make education affordable for more students. Organizations such as Brighter Investment in Ghana are emerging that make financing available by using intelligent acquisition methods and tracking performance to lower default rates.

Strengths and realities of engaging with the private sector

The private sector can offer strengths, with the potential to improve: 1) access, 2) innovation, 3) quality and 4) relevance.

  1. Access: Private offerings may complement the public sector by helping to increase access to segments poorly covered by government provision.
  2. Innovation: Private education providers also have the flexibility to test and scale new approaches, models and methods that can be adopted as mainstream education practice. Not-for-profit organizations like BRAC adopt flexible models that condense primary curriculum, helping out-of-school children catch up and take national exams.
  3. Quality: There is not sufficient data on private versus public education quality to claim that private education is generally superior to public. But in select cases and contexts, private education does deliver better outcomes. This is often due to better classroom fundamentals, such as lower pupil-teacher ratio.
  4. Relevance: Private providers often have a greater focus on providing relevant education, particularly within sectors where students move immediately into employment after graduation.

It is important to recognize that engaging with the private sector brings limitations and consequences. Like all education providers, private operators bring risks of variable quality. They also do not typically have obligations to serve marginalized groups (such as rural or disabled children) which can lead to inequities in provision. Private providers may be in competition with government for resources and present certain kinds of financial risk not present in the public sector.

However, beyond considerations of the benefits and costs of private education, the facts on the ground are plain: the sector is large and growing. Enrollment in private education is forecast to be in the range of 63 million to 69 million by 2021. The key drivers for this growth are both an increase in the relevant population cohort, as well as a policy push to increase enrollments to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Private providers will continue to play a vital role in the delivery of education in SSA. In the next article in this series, we’ll explore the role of governments in harnessing the potential of the private sector.

This article is the second in a series initiated by David Ferreira and Scott Featherston, Partners at Caerus Capital, focusing on the current role and potential for private education in sub-Saharan Africa. The articles draw extensively on the authors’ work on The Business of Education in Africa, a report commissioned by Caerus Capital and supported by Parthenon-EY’s Education Center of Excellence and Oxford Analytica.

Danish Faruqui is a Managing Director in the Education Center of Excellence at Parthenon-EY, Ernst & Young LLP. Hitakshi Arora, Emerging Markets Education Summer Associate at Parthenon-EY, Ernst & Young LLP, contributed to this article. The views set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.