Free SHS Education: Should the Debate only be about Feasibility? – (1)
4/7/2012 7:52:00 PM -
The opposition NPP has signalled its intention to introduce free SHS education in its first term in office. Whilst they have not as yet given details the debate has already begun in earnest. The little bit we know can be found in the NPP's 2008 manifesto and the speech delivered by Nana Akufo-Addo at the Liberty Lectures in August 2011, where he said:
'I am committed to making post-JSS education free and making the secondary school level the first point of exit, both within the four years of an Akufo-Addo presidency.'
This means that when the policy is introduced, it would first make SHS education free, and subsequently after this, legislation would be sent to Parliament to make the Senior High School level the first terminal point of education. It is this second commitment that would make SHS education and its equivalents universal. To achieve this ultimate goal, Nana Addo hinted that the SHS would have to be remodelled as community day schools where there would eventually be no need for boarding facilities. He envisaged the government's role then to be the provision of classroom blocks, trained teachers, a library, laboratories and workshops and a cafeteria.
Following Nana Addo's unwillingness to disclose the cost of the policy during his BBC interview and the subsequent release of initial figures by the NPP, the debate has really been joined. The NDC sought to make political capital by accusing the NPP of dealing in deception. However, unless the NDC is itself also engaged in deception, one is tempted to ask why they think it would be feasible to provide one-time NHIS premium to 24 million Ghanaians (it's policy priority) but that it would not be feasible to shift the same resources to provide free SHS education to 1.2 million Ghanaian children (the NPP's policy priority).
There have been substantive contributions, though, from Imani Ghana and a group calling itself Centre for National Affairs (CNA). The two of them deserve commendation for bringing intellectual application to bear on policy matters. This is a welcome departure from the shallow presentations we often receive from uninformed and inexperienced political party operatives. Perhaps this will mark the start of an era where party manifesto pledges would be fully costed with sources of funding identified. It is hoped that, in time, the introduction of a one-time premium for the NHIS would be costed so that those who are inclined to pursue such a policy would be called upon to defend it.
Returning to the substance of the contributions by Imani and the CNA, it appears both ignored the implementation phases and the transitioning arrangements that Nana Akufo-Addo hinted at the Liberty Lectures; they rather jumped straight to argue about the ultimate goal. They used figures from different sources to arrive at opposing conclusions. Imani, on their part questioned whether the preliminary figures released by the NPP add up. They illustrated their query with an estimated student population (extrapolated from data from the UN Population Division) and average household spending per SHS student (from GLSS 4). The CNA, on the other hand, used 'actual' population of likely student beneficiaries (obtained from the Ministry of Education) and average spending per SHS student from GLSS 5. Imani thought such a policy could only be funded from additional tax take from the extra wages of senior high school graduates over junior high school graduates. They did not take into account the boost an educated workforce could give to the Ghanaian economy and the fact that some could go on to graduate at university level. Hence they cast doubt on the feasibility of the policy. The NCA, however, sees the policy as feasible. They pointed to the capacity of the economy to fund the policy by adopting the 6% of GDP limit recommended by UNESCO and using the government's own projected 2014 GDP figure.
Despite the doubt cast by Imani, the NPP does not appear shaken in their resolve to pursue this policy. Through a number of the party's spokespersons, they have asked the nation to trust them to prove the 'doubting Thomases' wrong. Nana Addo himself said on his BBC 'Hardtalk' appearance that funding for the policy would come from three sources: revenue from newly found resources; better management of the economy; and economic growth. He said further that pursuit of this policy was not for political expediency but rather it should be seen as a necessity for Ghana to develop its human capital. If one casts aside the NDC's mischief making, they do not appear to have dismissed the merits of such a policy. They, however, appear to subscribe to the view that the timing is not right and that attention should rather be focused on improving the current system. Consequently, they have announced their intention to build two hundred community day schools to be completed by 2014. According to the Vice-President, this would be at a total cost of two hundred million dollars. The government is yet to indicate the source of funding since there is no provision in the 2012 budget for this level of education spending.
Summing up the debate so far, there are three inter-related strands to it: necessity, timing and feasibility. It appears the feasibility strand is dwarfing the other two in the debate; hence the question at the head of the article. We should be asking ourselves whether it is a necessity for Ghana to introduce free universal SHS education. If we think it is, when is the right time to introduce it? Should it be when the size of the economy can sustain the expenditure commitment and would the economy even grow to such a size without developing our human capital? We have to address all these questions at the same time if the debate is to be meaningful.
On 19th March this year, the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wrote a glowing article in The Times of London about recent achievements in Africa. In the article titled 'Get wise to the good news coming from Africa', he lauded the progress made in the last two decades and called for a radical shift in the way Africa is viewed by the developed world - from the outdated images of poverty and corruption to that of booming economies underpinned by democratisation. Mr. Blair wrote of the vision he has of one day opening up a newspaper in the West to read about African entrepreneurs creating jobs and African researchers developing new technologies. Mr. Justin Forsyth, Chief Executive of 'Save the Children', agreed with Mr Blair's observation. He, however, thought that the answer to making further strides does not only lie in investment and good governance, but also in education and saving the lives of children. He was quoted in The Times as saying: 'A healthy and educated Africa is critical to its future success'.
There can be no arguments with Mr. Forsyth's statement - African economies would not continue to grow unless we fully develop our human capital. Studies conducted by the World Bank in 2005 indicated that secondary school enrolment in African countries averaged only about 30%, compared with 65% in developing countries and nearly 100% in East Asia. This shows the gap that African countries, including Ghana, would have to bridge. Annually large numbers of children fail the BECE. Of those who pass, only around 50% goes on to senior high school mainly due to parents' inability to afford tuition as well as other formal and informal costs. The structure of the senior high school system, with predominantly boarding schools, favours the children of the urban rich to the disadvantage of the children of the rural poor. If this situation is not checked, it would eventually lead to a breakdown in social order. We are already experiencing this in the rising number of violent crimes and the increasing lawlessness in the country. Enhancing equity in opportunities for senior high school education would help us to maintain social cohesion and lock in the gains of our fledgling democracy by growing and strengthening our governance institutions.
The global economy has become technology-driven requiring complex skills and knowledge. To be able to engage successfully and be competitive in the global market, Ghana needs an educated workforce. Besides, we require a certain threshold stock of educated people with the right mix of skills and knowledge to sustain the continuous growth the Ghanaian economy has been undergoing since 2000. We are currently far from that threshold.
We often lament the fact that Ghana has been outstripped by South Korea even though we were probably at par at independence. The difference can partially be attributed to the difference in education transition rates. At 1960 the distribution of highest qualification for people aged over 15 in South Korea was: 80% primary education; 17% secondary education; and 3% tertiary education. By the year 2000, these figures have improved to: 18% primary education; 55% secondary education; and 26% tertiary. In the case of Ghana, corresponding figures at 1960 were: 98% primary education; 2% secondary education; and 1% tertiary education. Forty years later, these figures have only improved to: 73% primary education; 26% secondary education; and 1% tertiary education. This is the stark reality that we face. That is why it is a necessity to adopt a bold radical approach to enhance access to secondary education.
The questions of timing and feasibility would be addressed in the second part to this article. Please read on.
Dr Yaw Ohemeng