Accountable private, for-profit actors

Students on the island of Ometepe, Nicaragua, hold up new laptops provided by One Laptop Per Child.

Credit: GEM Report/Fundacion Zamora Teran & OLPC, Inc.

Accountable private, for-profit actors

Key Messages

  • The private sector has an increasingly large involvement in education. One in five children eat daily school meals, most contracted in part or in whole to private companies. Spending is expected to reach over US$200 billion by 2022 on private tutoring and over US$250 billion by 2020 on education technology. Investment by the largest multilateral investor in private education in low and middle income countries, the International Finance Corporation, grew by over US$450 million between 2009 and 2014.
  • Far stricter regulation of private sector involvement is needed to ensure that profitability does not trump equity and quality.
  • Mechanisms to hold private providers of school meals accountable depend on country context. In Brazil, electronic auctions have greatly improved transparency and lowered administrative costs.
  • Private tutoring, paid out of pocket, widens the education advantage gap between haves and have-nots. When teachers serve as private tutors, conflicts of interest arise. In Nepal, teachers covered less material in school to increase demand for tutoring.
  • Governments need to enforce educational technology contracts better to ensure equal access and utility. In Thailand, a private provider of laptops could not deliver 800,000 tablets, refused to pay late fees, filed for bankruptcy and terminated the contract. But governments also need to think beyond procurement to incorporate learner needs into curriculum design and to train teachers adequately.

Private, for-profit actors provide both core education and ancillary services, such as feeding programmes and instructional materials. Given their influence in education, they must be held to account effectively.


School meals are the world’s most widely provided form of social protection. One in five children eats school meals daily. In several countries, meals are partly or wholly contracted to private companies. To be effective, private contracting requires clear government and provider responsibilities, transparency and adequate funding.

Effective government monitoring can help ensure that food providers target those in need. In Chile and Ghana, the entire school feeding supply chain is outsourced. But while Chile’s nutrition programme is well monitored and targeted to poor students, in Ghana food does not properly target poor communities, political interference is widespread and government funding for monitoring is insufficient.

In several countries, meals are partly or wholly contracted to private companies


Private tutoring is a global phenomenon involving at least half of surveyed high school students in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, China and Spain. In the Republic of Korea, an estimated 81% of elementary students and 56% of high school students received tutoring in 2014. The global market is expected to surpass US$227 billion by 2022. Private tutoring can increase students’ stress and strain household budgets.

Governments mainly encourage accountability by providing consumer information, partnering with schools and working with teachers’ unions to develop standards. Hong Kong, China, requires tutorial centres to obtain licences and supply information to clients. It promotes transparency with an online list of registered centres and prosecution of unregistered centres.

The global market of private tutoring is expected to surpass US$227 billion by 2022

Allowing teachers to provide tutoring can create conflicts of interest. In Nepal, teachers covered less material in school to generate more demand for tutoring. However, many teachers offer private tutoring to cope with low salaries and lack of adequate instruction time. Some countries have regulations governing teacher involvement in private tutoring. Georgia’s 2010 Teachers’ Code of Ethics discourages teachers from tutoring their own students, while Japan prohibits full-time teachers from private tutoring. By contrast, teachers are permitted to tutor their own students in Uzbekistan.


Many governments use private textbook providers to reduce publication and distribution costs. Some public-private partnerships have been cost-effective; one in Uganda reduced textbook costs by two-thirds.

Clear responsibilities, media coverage, government commitment and societal action can improve textbook delivery and development. In the Philippines, a combination of government action and civil society involvement helped increase transparency in textbook bidding processes, cutting average prices and development and delivery time in half between 2002 and 2005. CSOs can also help monitor textbook content. In Texas, United States, grass-roots action pushed publishers to revise textbooks that strongly distorted climate change facts.

Private corporations are answerable only to their shareholders, raising concerns about their accountability to citizens for delivering a public good such as education

Private corporations are answerable only to their shareholders, raising concerns about their accountability to citizens for delivering a public good such as education. Antitrust lawsuits have been filed to block Pearson, a large education services company, from achieving a monopoly in education markets. In response, the company launched an internal accountability initiative whose results will be known when formal reporting begins in 2018.

Governments have partnered with private tablet and laptop providers to overcome the ‘digital divide’ among students and schools. However, many such initiatives have benefited vendors, not students, owing to poor procurement and contract enforcement, as in Thailand. India abandoned its Aakash programme in 2015 without meeting its objectives. In the meantime, the vendor, DataWind, had become a leader in low-cost tablet innovation.