Review of Robertson et al. (2012)

Robertson, S., Mundy, K., & Verger, A. (Eds.). (2012). Public Private Partnerships in  Education: New Actors and Modes of Governance in a Globalizing World. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Reviewed by Tyler Hook

Susan Robertson, Karen Mundy, Antoni Vergi and Francine Menashy open Public Private Partnerships in Education: New Actors and Modes of Governance in a Globalizing World with a simple statement that any educator could attest to, noting that “over the past two decades, significant changes in the governance of education systems” have occurred which “involve new combinations of state and non-state actors” (pg.1). Indeed, non-state involvement in education has increased at a furious pace since the turn of the century, as seen with the rapid expansion of low-fee private schools in parts of Africa and global initiatives such as the UN Global Compact. This volume analyzes the complexity of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in educational governance, defined as “cooperative institutional arrangements between public and private sector actors” (pg.1), by drawing on contributions from a range of disciplines, including economics, political science, sociology, and comparative education. The result is an in-depth and substantive analysis of the increasing role of PPPs in the education sector.

The volume’s fourteen chapters are split into three sections, largely based on a set of papers presented in 2009 at the University of Amsterdam. The central questions driving these chapters are “who wins and who loses” in these new partnerships, and “who has the power to decide?” (pg.14). Answers are provided through a review of the transformation of PPP global policy discourses (section 1); an outline of how and why new forms of non-state and corporate intervention in education are taking place (section 2); and case studies of PPPs implementation and impact in a variety of contexts (section 3). Within each section, particular focus is placed on how PPPs are re-shaping and complicating previously public spaces, generating new concerns regarding accountability, responsibility, sustainability, and equity in educational provision.

Section one begins the volume with a thorough analysis of how international organizations have constructed PPPs as a policy idea to be circulated and implemented globally. Contributions by Robertson and Verger (chapter 2) and by Ginsburg (chapter 4) examine the prominence of neoliberal ideology and market logic, including their promotion by global actors in the education for development domain, and how they impact issues of public governance and democratization. Draxler (chapter 3), holding that education should be a public responsibility, looks at both the pitfalls and potential of PPPs, and how PPPs “should be held up to accepted standards of performance” (pg.59).

Section two expands on these analyses by taking a closer look at the participation of a variety of new transnational actors in PPPs. Mundy and Menashy begin by examining the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the impact of its mandate for poverty alleviation, concluding that despite the mandate to serve those at the “bottom of the pyramid,” the IFC tends to invest in programs serving middle-class students (pg.99). Verger and Robertson follow with a thorough analysis of the political and legal impact of GATS on educational governance, arguing that, through regulation mechanisms, the GAT has become “the clearest expression of the multilateral system working to open market opportunities” (pg.122). Section two concludes with three chapters that focus in on particular corporate actors, starting with Srivastava and Oh’s look at private foundations and corporate philanthropy, and the uncritical acceptance of a logic of neutrality and efficiency within partnerships. Chapter 8 utilizes mixed methods to provide an overview of the limitations of corporate philanthropy in educational development. Focusing specifically on US corporate investment, van Fleet finds that corporations largely serve their own interests by supporting programs concentrated in communities of business operations with little coordination of State actors. Bhanji, concludes the section with a case study of Microsoft. Supporting van Fleet’s argument, Bhanji finds that Microsoft is “using PPPs as a new mode of production to stimulate knowledge-based economies to further advance its commercial interests in education” (pg.184).

The final section assesses the impact of PPPs in education, drawing on a variety of case studies spanning the globe. It begins with a short, largely positive overview of the arguments for and against PPPs in education, as well as an evaluation of the empirical evidence on PPP impact by Barrera-Osorio, Guaqueta and Patrinos. Chapter 11 follows with Ron-Balsera and Marphatia implementing a rights-based approach to examine the role non-state actors play in advancing equity, equality, and justice in education, using multiple case studies to demonstrate the continued importance of the State in ensuring the right to education. The final three chapters include specific case studies in rural India (Chapter 12, Harma and Rose), Pakistan (Chapter 13, Fennell), and Peru (Chapter 14, Jaimovich), each drawing on a diverse set of issues, ranging from the affordability of low-fee private schooling (Harma and Rose), to girls’ education (Fennell).

Each chapter in this edited volume provides detailed analysis of the issues surrounding PPPs in educational governance. With most of the analysis focusing on the global south, the volume could have benefited from expanding the scope to include high-income countries in the global north. As seen in the aggressive education reforms in New Orleans and Newark, these new forms of privatized governance are not exclusive to any single region or demographic. Additionally, analysis could have looked more at the influence of PPPs on curriculum, pedagogy and teacher practices, given the impact these have on the social issues central to the volume’s concerns. Regardless, this volume largely succeeds by drawing on a wide-range of disciplines, discourses, and methodological approaches. Particularly strong is its analysis across scales, presenting a complex and nuanced analysis of how partnership networks play-out through different contexts and spaces. The volume is useful to students, policymakers, and academics in international education, educational policy, and development studies who are looking for a comprehensive overview of the field. While most contributors are critical, or at least leery, of the increasing role of PPPs in educational spaces, the volume doesn’t posit any solutions, instead giving readers the information and understanding they need to participate in this complex and important discussion.