Public-Private Partnership in Education | Sunday Observer

Public-Private Partnership in Education

14 June, 2020

Public-Private Partnership (PPP) has been the buzzword in development strategies for a couple of decades though it has existed even longer than that.

There is no single definition of PPP accepted worldwide, and most of the versions of the definition, more or less, are parallel to the one stated in the 2014-PPP Reference Guide published by the World Bank as: “a long-term contract between a private party and a government entity, for providing a public asset or service, in which the private party bears significant risk and management responsibility, and remuneration is linked to performance.”

The government entity here, of course, can be any ministry or a branch of a central or local government and the private party can be a company, a foundation, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), a community-based organisation (CBO) or an academic institution local or international. 

Even though PPP can be seen as a common practice in most other sectors such as infrastructure development and other economic activities, education has been confined to the exclusive jurisdiction of the State in all the countries, especially, since primary and secondary education is considered universally as a fundamental human right.

Therefore, a common feature, in all types of different models of PPP in education, would be the initiatives taken by the Government inviting the private parties to join through specific projects such as setting up new institutions, running the institution or a particular activity in the education process.

 PPP is certainly different from privatisation and a strong Government oversight is needed when it is used in the field of education.

We have been having all three models, fully governmental, completely private and PPP (which is known as semi-governmental) schools in Sri Lanka successfully for a long period, while preserving the fundamental right of every child to have access to a proper education.  Of course, there are concerns about the uniformity of the quality of education one gets from a particular school compared to another, not only due to the operating model but also within each model, even, due to a lot of other reasons such as uneven resource allocation and/or involvements of the CBOs such as parents’ associations or past pupils’ associations.


The projects that have been tried with PPPs in some schools, more often than not, have been limited to a few things in the nature of philanthropy such as sponsoring certain events or providing infrastructure facilities and necessary equipment.

 The types of PPPs we, as a country, are interested in should go beyond just infrastructure development and or one-time sponsorships for school events and have the partners working together in enhancing the teaching-learning process, so that the students completing their school careers would be better prepared to face the challenges in the real world.

Differences in the resources and available infrastructure among government schools make it very difficult to implement a project with a PPP providing equal opportunity to all students across the country. 

It would be easier to try this out in the 15 state universities in the country, not only because those types of differences are minimized but also there is more freedom to introduce new courses, degree programs, research projects and make changes to existing curriculum. 

PPP may have been talked about in their MBA classes, but the universities worldwide were not thinking about entering into one with a partner from the industry until the recent past.

University-Industry collaboration

Reductions of state funding for the education sector, even in the developed countries, due to underperforming economies and or crises such as pandemics, forced universities to look for alternative sources of funding to keep some of their valuable programs afloat. 

Since, for-profit companies usually have very different motivations than universities; PPPs were not considered as possibilities by the academia.  Current studies show that over 80 per cent of the higher education institutions in North America are using PPPs in areas ranging from infrastructure development to cutting-edge research programs.

 Almost all of those are mutually beneficial to the participants even though sometimes the goals of the university were different from those of the private company.  In the higher education sector, PPP is usually referred to as University-Industry Collaboration (UIC).

UICs have been proven as very valuable, especially in the  research and development arena where the industry partner gets an opportunity to make money by introducing new and improved products to the market, while the university gets the opportunity to improve their research profile which in turn will help them to attract more students and scholars.

Universities can and usually do negotiate for profit sharing arrangements too at the contract negotiation stages.  UIC is heavily used by the pharmaceutical industry where they have their own research teams working with universities to find new drugs and vaccines.

 One of the oldest success stories of UIC is the invention of the sports drink ‘Gatorade’ at the University of Florida in 1965, which was then marketed by a company called ‘Stokely-Van Camp’ that underwent a couple of buy-overs leaving Gatorade currently to be a product of  the  Co.

New products

The university’s share of the profit so far has been over $100 million even though there are a lot of other competitors in the market.  The Science and Technology Cell of the Faculty of Science of the University of Colombo too has introduced a couple of new products to the market through UICs. 

The challenge for the employers in the private sector is to actively look for opportunities for UICs, through which they can help improve the state universities and the quality of the graduates coming out of them, instead of complaining about how unprepared our graduates are for the workplace.  We may not have big research and development programs in our companies since there are only a handful of companies who are into new product development in Sri Lanka.  But, there are other ways to achieve the goals of helping the university while benefitting from the collaboration, such as providing internships for undergraduates, sharing entrepreneurial skills with the students, sponsoring innovators and entrepreneurs and even getting students involved in community projects they do as their CSR work.

UICs can help not only the students but also the academics and the administrators by showing them how the industry analyses problems and makes cost effective decisions quickly with a particular target in mind.  Of course, for the UICs to be successful the Government may have to bring new legislation or at least amend the existing ones making it easier to design flexible agreements and do the work.

 The state universities are functioning under the ‘Universities Act of 1978’ which could not have said anything about dealing with artificial intelligence (AI) at that time.  In addition, to UICs, the industry leaders can participate in the decision making of a university by becoming a member of the council of that university. 

Win-win situations

If and when a UIC is proposed, one of the very first things to do is to discuss the type of agreement the two parties would like to have.  Things such as intellectual property rights, profit sharing, infrastructure and other resource sharing, remuneration of people involved in the project, obtaining legislative clearances from relevant authorities and safeguarding industry secrets are some of the key points to be negotiated at the beginning.

 UICs can end up as win-win situations as long as both parties negotiate in good faith giving priority to  transparency and  without having any hidden agenda.  Even more important than making money with these UICs, are the opportunities they provide for each party to experience the best of both worlds without having to really cross the borders. 

The Industry gets to use the knowledge at a lower cost and the university gets to keep its academics and the students happy, while making some money on the side which can be used to provide better services to the students and the staff.  If the industry is to hire academics for their research and development work they would have to pay much bigger salaries than what the state universities pay.

When the industry offers attractive salaries and other benefits, the academics would leave the universities for greener pastures which will certainly make it harder to maintain the standards of the universities.  The Carnegie Mellon University in the USA lost 40 of its researchers to Uber in 2015. 

Therefore, the universities will also have to introduce innovative ways to retain the academics under their roof, which means providing better facilities for them.

Even though it may be easier to implement PPP with state universities and the private sector rather than with state schools, we should not forget that the students in the universities are coming through the school system and therefore, if the quality of the student leaving school is higher, then, the quality of the university student obviously is higher.

 Therefore, it is important that we introduce PPP to state schools also, as soon as possible, so that students start thinking about entrepreneurial qualities, innovations and developing soft skills at an early age while deciding on a suitable career path too.

The writer has served in the  higher education sector as an academic for  over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]