How does private schooling growth affect the public system and educational equity?

The following blog is based on the UNESCO IIEP Strategic Debate: How does private schooling growth affect the public system and educational equity? Research evidence from Nepal, on October 4th 2017. The research was presented by Priya Joshi, who presented her analysis of private sector growth in Nepal and the impact of this on the public sector and system wide equity. You can watch the debate here

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Private Schooling

In recent decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of private schools in many countries across the globe[1]. This is a particularly striking phenomenon in low income countries. Private schools are often viewed as the solution to many of the issues facing public education, such as large classroom sizes, teacher absenteeism, and low outcomes in tests and examinations.

The Debate

The growth in low fee private schooling has heightened the debate around the provision of education. This has tended to centre around two ideological positions, with the neoliberal position advocating for private schools on one side, and those concerned with the public good on the other, arguing for free public primary and secondary education for all.


Those in favour of private education argue that greater school choice and competition between schools boosts educational quality. For example, if a private school does not offer a high standard of education, pupil enrolment will decrease leading to financial loss for the school. A further argument in favour of private schools is that they can offer more variation in the type of education they provide. This means that parents can match the school they choose to send their children to with their own preferences (beliefs etc). This will then lead to a higher level of engagement with the school, and educational outcomes are likely to increase.

What about Equity?

The arguments in favour have been countered by those concerned with issues of equity and the public good. One concern that has been raised is that an increase in private schools will lead to the erosion and eventual take-over of the public system, undermining the provision of free and equal education for all. Education, in this argument, should not be viewed as a market. When education becomes a market, the most disadvantaged families lose out and inequalities are deepened. Pupils from more advantaged backgrounds end up in better schools, pooling their resources together, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds end up in under resourced schools. In this argument, states should provide free primary and secondary education for all, and investment and resources should go toward strengthening the public system. 

The Research

In Nepal, education is constitutionally mandated as free and universal, and considered the prime responsibility of the government. However, beginning in the 1990s, there has been a great increase in the demand for private schooling (Thapa, 2015). In both Kathmandu District and Chitwan District, where the study was conducted, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of private schools since this time. In Kathmandu there are now around 1000 private schools ( Conversely, enrolment rates in public schools have declined.

Interactions between public and private

One of the arguments used in favour of private schools is that through increased competition they will increase the standard of education provision in public schools, as both public and private compete with one another. However, the research found this not to be the case. Instead there was a lot of stigma around public schools. Many of the parents in the study who sent their children to private schools viewed public schools as sites of learning for children from lower social classes, in particular Dalits. It was also found that politicians and those in powerful positions in Nepal chose to send their children to private schools. In this way, those with the power to strengthen the public education system have little motivation to do so. Politicians were also found to view government schools as sites for political manoeuvring, to gain prestige and appoint positions based on political affiliation. The welfare of the students attending public schools appears to have been forgotten; they are sites that can be used for personal gain, with little care for those who, in their view, pose minimal threat to their position. From this, it is easy to conclude that there is a lack of political will to improve the public education system, catering to those already most disadvantaged in society.

In this way, private schools are not only reproducing inequalities already apparent in society, they are also deepening them. In an already stratified society, they are continuing to create classes of students according to their socio-economic background, as parents with economic and social capital enrol their children in the type of school that suits them, pooling their resources. Private schools are providing an exit option from public systems (, removing resources and the will to reform. It is only the middle classes who are benefiting from this growth.

Priya Joshi concluded by arguing that without community support and the political will to change, the divide between public and private schools will continue to widen and deepen. She noted that changing this picture, of a dying public school system, will take effort and commitment and needs urgent attention. Currently, it is the already marginalised who are being overlooked and there is an urgent need for policies that are designed to decrease social stratification.

Other studies have found that countries with low levels of socio-economic stratification tend to have better performing education systems overall ( When education becomes instrumentalised and the economic returns take precedence over the public good [2], it appears that inequalities within society are reproduced and even deepened. The changes taking place in Nepal appear to be at the expense of social cohesion, something that is particularly worrying in an already fragile context. 

Thapa, A. (2015). Public and private school performance in Nepal: an analysis using the SLC examination. Education Economics, 23(1), 47–62.





[1] For example, the percentage of enrolment rates in secondary education grew from 19% in 1998 to 25% in 2015 (

[2] as can be seen from the focus and emphasis on English and the belief that this will lead to better employment opportunities and social prestige,