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The privatisation and commodification of education

Special Rapporteur on the right to education

Over the years, successive holders of the mandate on the right to education have warned against the persistent underfunding of public education and the rapid and unregulated growth in the involvement of private, in particular commercial, actors in education, which threaten the implementation of the right to education for all and Sustainable Development Goal 4.

Depending on their nature and aims, private actors may contribute to the realization of the right to education and offer educational alternatives, thus enhancing, for example, respect for cultural diversity. International human rights law requires States to protect the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions and the liberty of parents to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, but also, importantly, to provide free, quality, public education for all.

In this context, in 2019, the Abidjan Principles on the Human Rights Obligations of States to Provide Public Education and to Reregulate Private Involvement in Education were adopted. They are supported by the Special Rapporteur, who participated in the consultations leading to their adoption.

Find below the work done by the mandate over the years on the issue of privatisation, including reports and events.


Sustainable Development Goal 4 and the growth of private actors in education (2019)

The Special Rapporteur presents to the Human Rights Council and States Members of the United Nations the Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education, and recommends their full implementation. The report contains observations and recommendations on the obligation of States to fund and provide public education and provides some concrete suggestions and solutions. It draws on the Abidjan Principles, in particular with regard to the obligation to regulate private actors involved in education, public-private partnerships and the role of donors and civil society.

Public Private Partnerships and the right to education (2015)

The Special Rapporteur examines public-private partnerships in education, which are inextricably linked to rapidly expanding privatization. He highlights their implications for the right to education and for the principles of social justice and equity. Lastly, he offers a set of recommendations with a view to developing an effective regulatory framework, along with implementation strategies for public-private partnerships in education, in keeping with State obligations for the right to education, as laid down in international human rights conventions, and the need to safeguard education as a public good.

Protecting education against commercialization (A/HRC/29/30)

The Special Rapporteur looks with concern at the rapid increase in the number of private education providers and the resulting commercialization of education, and examines the negative effects of this on the norms and principles underlying the legal framework of the right to education as established by international human rights treaties. He highlights the repercussions of privatization on the principles of social justice and equity and analyses education laws as well as evolving jurisprudence related to privatization in education. Finally, he offers a set of recommendations on developing effective regulatory frameworks for controlling private providers of education and safeguarding education as a public good.

Enough is enough: a conversation with Special Rapporteurs on privatisation and public services

In October 2020 the Special Rapporteur took part in “Enough is enough,” an event gathering several former and current UN Special Rapporteurs. The conversation was an opportunity to reflect on the impacts of privatisation and on building renewed momentum and strategies for the public provision of services related to economic, social and cultural rights, such as health, education, water and sanitation, and housing.
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The Abidjan Principles  

The Abidjan Principles on the Human Rights Obligations of States to Provide Public Education and to Reregulate Private Involvement in Education were adopted on 13 February 2019 in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, following a three-year extensive participatory consultation and drafting process. The Special Rapporteur engaged with the process to develop the Abidjan Principles from their inception to their adoption. Made up of 97 guiding principles, the Abidjan Principles are organised according to 10 overarching principles:

Principle 1. States must respect, protect, and fulfil the right to education of everyone within their jurisdiction in accordance with the rights to equality and non-discrimination.

Principle 2. States must provide free, public education of the highest attainable quality to everyone within their jurisdiction as effectively and expeditiously as possible, to the maximum of their available resources.

Principle 3. States must respect the liberty of parents or legal guardians to choose for their children an educational institution other than a public educational institution, and the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct private educational institutions, subject always to the requirement that such private educational institutions conform to standards established by the State in accordance with its obligations under international human rights law.

Principle 4. States must take all effective measures, including particularly the adoption and enforcement of effective regulatory measures, to ensure the realisation of the right to education where private actors are involved in the provision of education.

Principle 5. States must prioritise the funding and provision of free, quality, public education, and may only fund eligible private instructional educational institutions, whether directly or indirectly, including through tax deductions, of land concessions, international assistance and cooperation, or other forms of indirect support, if they comply with applicable human rights law and standards and strictly observe all substantive, procedural, and operational requirements.

Principle 6. International assistance and cooperation, where provided, must reinforce the building of free, quality, public education systems, and refrain from supporting, directly or indirectly, private educational institutions in a manner that is inconsistent with human rights.

Principle 7. States must put in place adequate mechanisms to ensure they are accountable for their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to education, including their obligations in the context of the involvement of private actors in education.

Principle 8. States must regularly monitor compliance of public and private institutions with the right to education and ensure all public policies and practices related to this right comply with human rights principles.

Principle 9. States must ensure access to an effective remedy for violations of the right to education and for any human rights abuses by a private actor involved in education.

Principle 10. States should guarantee the effective implementation of these Guiding Principles by all appropriate means, including where necessary by adopting and enforcing the required legal and budgetary reforms.

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Read about the level of international recognition of and support to the Abidjan principles