Debate over for-profit schools in Uganda boils over as Bridge and others refuse to close

A Bridge International Academies school in Jinja Karoli, Uganda. Photo by: Julian Hattem

LONDON — An ongoing dispute in Uganda over how for-profit schools operate in the country has escalated, with the government insisting hundreds of private schools are not licensed and should not open for the new school year, which started Monday.

Many of the allegedly non-compliant schools have closed, a spokesperson for the Ugandan education ministry told Devex, but said they could not specify a number. Patrick Kaboyo, secretary of the Federation of Non-State Education Institutions, an umbrella group for private schools in Uganda, suggested in interviews with local media that about 300 schools had shuttered following the order.

Meanwhile, Bridge International Academies, which runs 63 schools and was among those affected by the order, has opted to keep open its facilities and says 60 percent of its students have been showing up for class. The for-profit school chain has been in a 2-year legal battle with the education ministry over its status and claims it had not received an official order to close prior to the issuing of a press release from the ministry. The company also says it is in the “process” of securing licenses and is therefore entitled to stay open.

Some civil society groups have accused the company of showing a “lack of accountability and respect” towards the Ugandan government by failing to heed the order, and have called on investors, who include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to withdraw their support. They also accuse Bridge of misleading parents, who pay fees to the operator, about the legality of the schools.

But Bridge says it has not received official notice to close, and is doing the best thing for its pupils by staying open.

On Tuesday, a press release from Uganda’s Permanent Secretary for Education Alex Kakooza was published stating that all Bridge schools in Uganda, alongside approximately 1,300 other private schools, should be closed.

It is the latest installment in a long-running saga involving Bridge’s operations in Uganda, as well as in Kenya and Liberia, where the operator also runs schools. For some critics, the company has become a touchstone in a fierce global conversation over education reform and how to get better education to some of the poorest children on the planet, including the role of private schools in developing countries.

On the one hand, teachers’ unions and civil society groups say they mistrust Bridge’s for-profit model, arguing that education is a public good and should be delivered by the state. They also object to the operator’s technology-driven approach — where staff teach from scripted lessons uploaded onto tablets — which they say undermines the teacher-student relationship.

However, Bridge supporters and other advocates of a for-profit model point out that government-run schools in many developing countries, including Uganda, are failing and that innovative solutions are desperately needed. The state sector in many countries is too often marked by low investment, poor facilities and ill-trained teachers, they say. That situation means approximately 260 million children and young people are currently not in education, and those who are in school are often not learning, studies show.

Around 27 percent of primary schools in Uganda are private, and about 66 percent of secondary schools, according to the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, citing government documents.

Ministry says schools must close

What went wrong for Bridge Academies in Uganda?

With high-profile investments from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Bridge International Academies set up 63 low-cost private schools in Uganda. Now, the Ministry of Education is set to shut them down, arguing they cut corners and didn't meet standards. Bridge refutes the allegations and some see the crackdown as part of a broader campaign from public sector unions to limit private enterprise. Devex investigates how the project went sour.

In response to the government release, Bridge said it had “not formally received any statement from the ministry regarding pending licensing files,” and also cast doubt over the validity of the statement published by permanent secretary Kakooza, saying it “is not duly signed,” according to a Bridge press release.

However, Devex spoke to Patrick Muinda, assistant commissioner and head of communications at the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports, who confirmed the authenticity of Kakooza’s statement.

The document accuses Bridge of failing to ensure the “safety and security of pupils,” and of failing to submit the necessary documentation to be licensed as an “international school.” There are also issues with Bridge seeking licensing as an “academy.”

Bridge refutes each claim in detail in its press release and says it has health and safety inspection reports and architectural blueprints and permits showing they are in compliance. The operator also says it has applied to be licensed as “Bridge Schools in Uganda,” not “Bridge International Academies” as it operates elsewhere, and so is neither “international” nor an “academy” for licensing purposes.

Kakooza also accuses Bridge management of embarking on an “aggressive public and social media campaign aimed at hoodwinking unsuspecting parents about the status” of the schools.

Bridge defends its schools

Bridge maintains the charges are unfair and that it is a casualty of a broader, ideologically charged debate about private schools. Morrison Rwakakamba, head of Bridge Schools in Uganda, says Bridge students will suffer if their schools are forced to close.

“Bridge schools have become a lightning rod in a national conversation between the Ugandan government and school operators over licensing,” he said in a written statement emailed to Devex, adding that by refusing to close Bridge they are “putting the needs of these children first. We think Uganda needs more quality schools and not fewer.”

In 2017, Bridge students outperformed their peers in the Primary Leaving Exam, with 93 percent graduating in divisions 1 or 2 compared to the national average of 56 percent, according to data published on Bridge’s website.

‘A striking lack of accountability’

The latest spat between Bridge and the Ugandan government has triggered a response from a group of national, regional, and international civil society groups, who published a joint statement accusing Bridge of undermining the Ugandan authorities’ obligation to monitor and regulate private schools.  

Teopista Birungi Mayanja, regional coordinator of ANCEFA — or the African Network Campaign for Education for All — said the ability to regulate nonstate actors was a “core responsibility of the state” in carrying out its duty to provide access to education as a human right.

“In order to protect the right to education, there must be consequences for actors that are not compliant with reasonable regulations. Private companies operating in Africa must be accountable, whether they are local or American,” Mayanja added.

Sylvain Aubry of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a human rights advocacy organization, added that: “Bridge demonstrates a striking lack of accountability and respect for the regulations and standards put in place to protect children.”

The group has also called on Bridge investors, who include the United Kingdom government, the International Finance Institution, and private donors including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Omidyar Foundation, to withdraw their support.

However, Kaboyo of the Federation of Non-State Education Institutions told local media that while standards should be met, the government would do better to engage in dialogue with the schools affected and work with them to improve rather than shut them down. Supporters of the private schools say the pupils there cannot be absorbed elsewhere, and some parents complain the dispute is affecting their children’s education.

Kaboyo also said that in many cases, schools had submitted their applications for licensing but were still awaiting a decision due to a backlog of cases.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.