Free SHS: The costly facts & figures by IMANI Ghana
Q. Why is IMANI against Free Education? How can this be a bad idea? The PPP, NPP and the CPP have all made clear pledges to provide free SHS, and the PNC is sure to follow. There is a clear political consensus building, and only fringe groups like IMANI are against this noble idea.
A. Well, since no politician has the means to offer free education in Ghana what you have is nothing more than a false bandwagon. The *free* in the phrase is confusing people. What the political parties are proposing to do is to use OUR taxes to fund boarding and facility-use costs at second-cycle (secondary) school level.
Q. What do you mean?
A. It means that: a) “it” won't be free, all of us will be paying for it through transfers from our pocket to the government that will be used to fund it and: b) the money will be used to pay for things that parents have always been proud to provide for their wards.
Q. What do you mean by “pay for things parents have always been proud to pay for...”
A. We mean exactly that. Tuition is ALREADY FREE in secondary schools across the country. In fact, essentially, education is free in public schools at SHS level in a lot of the SAME WAYS it is free in public basic school (primary and JHS). But there are peculiar characteristics of our secondary education. Many students, by some estimates more than 65% of the entire SHS population, are in boarding school. This means that costs like feeding, extra classes, extracurricular activities etc. that parents ALREADY BEAR in primary and JHS are transferred to the schools, quite unnaturally one may add.
Q. But if that is the case, then isn't part of the solution more “community schools” and fewer boarding schools. After all, without the costs associated with the boarding system, the proposal becomes more feasible.
A. You are jumping the gun. Today, parents can ALREADY choose to send their children to day school and feed them at home; and provide extra-curricular offerings at their own cost, just as is the case in JHS and primary school. Nothing in the current system stops them from doing so. All the evidence suggest, however, that when parents can afford the NON-TUITION costs, they opt to send their wards to boarding schools because of a belief that the environment is conducive to learning and the acquisition of social and even leadership skills. There is no sound justification to rob parents of this preference in pursuit of some illusive notion of fee-free education, or to dismantle and rebuild such an elaborate system within the standard 4-year electoral mandate.
Q. So why did IMANI appear to put all the emphasis on cost?
A. We were simply saying that the costs government wants to absorb (i.e. spend our collective money on) are “unnatural”, as they are parental responsibilities, but to show that it wasn't just a weird idea we also wanted to show that it could be a very expensive mistake.
Q. If you are saying government will simply be taking money from parents in the form of taxes to pay back to the school, then maybe it is a waste of time, but how is it also more expensive?
A. It is more expensive for two reasons: a. there would be massive administration costs – the government isn't a frictionless machine, it is made up of human beings who need to be paid, and land-cruisers that need to be fuelled. Think of it this way. You buy groceries from the market. Why don't you pay more taxes so a government agency can do your shopping for you? Same thing. If parents can pay directly to the school to cover fees that ordinarily they would pay themselves in the form of direct spending on their wards anyway, why give the money to a clunky, leaking, government bureaucracy to do it on their behalf?
Q. You said two reasons.....and the second?
B. The second point is that because taxes appear "invisible", people DO in fact *react* to the free word. So, any policy that discriminates against day students (by absorbing the costs of boarding, facility-use and extracurricular fees paid by boarders) would immediately lead to more parents opting for boarding. The sum effect is that more costs will be transferred to government, which can only pay from a public purse funded by taxes.
Q. But even IMANI cannot deny that there would also be fresh enrolment? In fact, your quantitative analysis did not disaggregate fresh enrolment from those switching between day and boarding....
A. No doubt about that; a policy that takes costs off the back of parents, regardless of their financial situation, will certainly lead to more enrolment. Some parents who would otherwise not send their children to school at all would be encouraged to do so, not always because of the education they can get but sometimes because of the responsibility they can evade.
Q. You yourself admit that rather than about 800,000 students being in school by 2016 thereabouts (all things being equal), we will have more than 1.2 million under the proposed policy. Isn't that a good thing.
A. Well, today we have about 630,000 or more. Just 5 years ago we had about 450,000. So growth is inevitable. Remember though that 25 years ago we did something similar to what we are proposing today, and at that time we said if you gave a student 9 years of free education, that person can fill certain critical areas in the economy, like carpentry, masonry etc. We also pushed distant education and adult education to kill the notion that we must turn schools into camps. Have we achieved moderate success with those reforms?
Q. But do you disagree that we should make it a point to provide 12 years of basic education to EVERY Ghanaian of the relevant age?
A. Education is not like vaccination. It is not something you “give” to people. You create the right environment for people to acquire education. These arbitrary end-points are meaningless. Our national literacy rate is at an all-time high, meaning more people are acquiring more years of education, but we also know that standards are said to be falling not rising. Education is based on a curriculum. People either master the minimum level in the curriculum or they don't. You can't just decree that people acquire the necessary proficiency.
Furthermore, the number of students we can keep in secondary school is pegged to our overall level of development, somewhat captured by our GDP. So long as some families earn abysmally low incomes, there shall always be an opportunity cost to education. That is to say, some 16-year olds will be required to help on family farms or earn income by other means to supplement the household income. Unless you pay parents for lost, potential, income, even taking away the feeding and nurturing responsibilities from parents will not be sufficient to get the most vulnerable households to send their children to school. The way out of some of these sad situations created by poverty is wealth creation and economic growth.
Q. So we should let these children fall through the cracks?
A. It is like asking whether we should allow people to sleep on the streets or attend to nature's call in the open. Of course we don't want to, but it is a matter of strategy. But to answer your question directly: it depends on what you mean by: “falling through the cracks”. By age 16, a student should already have some proficiency to pursue the SHS curriculum. It is important you keep in mind that formal education is about curriculum not about number of years, necessarily. That is why some years back, we used to “repeat” and “jump” some students. Age 16 is not the time to start imparting basic proficiency. All too often, students get to JHS3 unable to write and spell, or do sums. They are already through the cracks. Those pupils who don't even manage to get to JHS1 (about 36% at last count) are already through the cracks. You should be putting the question above to the politicians. Why are so many students falling through the cracks, DESPITE “free” education in basic schools? Why are so many SHS graduates already unemployable? What is the point of producing more SHS graduates when the country is already saddled with SHS graduates that are unemployable? We have a growing number of university graduates that are unemployable. Who is keeping count of those students falling through the cracks? Shouldn't the politicians address these terrible failures before they move on to their next pipe dream?
Q. Are you proposing scholarships for those proficient enough to continue?
A. We are proposing a wholesale reform of the Scholarship Secretariat to meet national goals of promoting academic excellence whilst ensuring that NO proficient student is left out because of need. Not when ALREADY tuition fees are free, and all parties are committed to creating more school places to absorb increased enrolment.
Q. Are the scholarships going to be need-based or based on academic ability?
A. What we are saying is that every proficient, but needy, student should qualify for a need-based scholarship to attend at least a good day school. However, this also means creating more places at SHS. This is the issue with fresh enrolment. If we are going to bring more students into the system then we need to create the infrastructure to support them. We need to increase the number of teachers (at a time when it is felt that there are already too many public workers, and the single spine pay scheme for public workers like teachers is stretching the budget to breaking point). We need to spend our money creating spaces for such students and improving the infrastructure, NOT HANDING OUT FREE MONEY to students whose chop-boxes are already overflowing with cornflakes. We also need what someone in government has described as “public-private partnerships”. That is to say, we should encourage more private schools in order to free up places in public schools for lower income families, while at the same time enhancing quality in these public schools and absorbing more talent into the teaching profession without completely breaking the government wage budget. We need to see more cross-subsidisation.
A. You see, the folks campaigning for non-tuition fees to be scrapped at secondary level don't recognise one fact: in Ghana, the academically elite secondary schools ARE public schools. Most people today prefer those schools for their wards rather than private schools. Those schools can actually charge more money (non-tuition) from well-to-do parents in order to raise the overall quality of the school experience and offer this enhanced education free of charge to MORE proficient students who cannot afford to pay. Instead of looking at such possibilities, we are proposing reforms that will create a race to the bottom. The sad thing is that, this is what happened to public schools at the basic level. Public basic schools have become so bad that by some estimates 80% of places at top public secondary schools go to students schooled in private basic schools, and 80% of places at top public universities go to students taught in top secondary schools. We are already being forced to implement affirmative action in our universities since otherwise virtually none of the students being churned out by the low-tier secondary schools would qualify for a place at university.
Q. That may help the top schools but what about the bottom schools?
A. Here is where it gets more creative. The more money the top schools raise with their brands, the less the government has to give them and the more money thus becomes available for the “bottom schools”. In fact, there are schools in Ghana that can attract foreign students in order to free themselves from government subvention. Because the problem we have is a shortage of resources, the big challenge that should occupy politicians is how to inject more resources without destroying the existing capacity or at least potential of some successful schools to attract more resources.....
Q. Implementing a scholarship scheme in a country with no income data?
A. We will come to that. First let's go back to our point about looking more closely at the nation's second-cycle educational system. It is a tiered system: elite, well-endowed, schools all the way to fourth-grade schools, where students study under leaking roofs. The NON-TUITION FEES vary at different tiers because the facilities in schools differ. Prices of inputs for running a boarding school differ from district to district and from school to school. Are the parties seriously promising to absorb higher fees on behalf of parents whose wards attend top tier schools opposed to bottom-tier schools? What conceivable mechanism are they proposing to equitably absorb parents' current, wildly disparate, non-tuition fees?
Q. Why can't they use the current capitation grant system?
A. Well, look closely at the segments of education where that model prevails. At basic level, the distinction in endowment and facilities is between private and public schools. At secondary level, it is between different public schools.
Q. Please, we already have capitation grants for northern secondary schools.
A. Only because the North was not saddled with the legacy of mission schools in the same way as the south, leading to less severe imbalances across the schools there. What has happened to secondary schools in the North however resembles more a race to the bottom rather than a utopian egalitarian paradise. On top of that, the schools are always in debt. The capitation system in the North is the clearest warning against absorbing non-tuition fees.
Q. Come to think of it, didn't Dr. Kwame Nkrumah provide free secondary education to Ghanaians? If we have done it before, can't we do it again?
A. That is another piece of disinformation making the rounds. The CPP NEVER introduced free post-middle education. What was implemented was free basic education. In fact the current system satisfies the promise of the CPP in those years to EVENTUALLY absorb secondary school tuition fees, something they did not get around to doing, but which we have finally done as a nation.
Q. Some argue that providing free secondary education is a constitutional mandate.
A. And one that has been met. The constitution requires free and compulsory basic education. That has been achieved. It requires that secondary education be made generally available by the “progressive introduction of free education”. That has also been done through government absorption of tuition fees. What we are now proposing is to exceed that mandate at secondary level and to take up responsibilities parents bear at the free basic level, by offering free food, textbooks, and free housing and utilities that their parents ALREADY pay for day students. No legal requirement, whether in our own constitution, or in international covenants to which we are a signatory, requires this sweeping reform which will lead to less money available to cater to the really vulnerable and to increase quality.
Q. You make it sound that this whole “free education” thing is actually some kind of red herring.
A. Those are your words.
Q. Is IMANI opposed to bold visions because you are conservative?
A. We are not. Far from that. Most of us here are, per our politics, radical progressives.
Q. Shouldn't we be aiming to follow the lead of countries like China and Singapore and Korea etc.? Shouldn't we imitate the best? Even if we haven't done this before and are not required by law, shouldn't we be visionary?
A. Not if being “visionary” would pose more harm. Firstly, no country in the world has a blanket policy to absorb parental responsibility. In Singapore, for instance, the educational system is highly stratified with fees being paid at different levels and to different degrees. China has actually since 1985 moved away from blanket tax-funded national educational programs for higher education and resorted more and more to student loans, scholarships and other creative forms of financial aid. Korea and Malaysia offer free tuition at secondary level, but, as has been said several times before, SO DOES GHANA. In fact the Korea Institute for Health & Social Affairs estimates that the average parent spends more than $11,000 per year on a ward in middle or high school (this is about half the per capita income in Korea). Even the super-high GDP countries in Scandinavia, Northern Europe and the United States do not purport to take away parental responsibility by providing a right to boarding school. Furthermore, education in most of these countries are highly devolved with financing decisions made more at the local rather than the national level, so the waste of centralisation is somewhat reduced. In fact, in the UK and parts of Europe, it is called the “postcode lottery”, meaning the quality and character of education a child gets depends on where that child's parents stay. In some American states parents have faced the wrath of bureaucrats for trying to school their children outside their place of residence. Let us not compare apples to oranges.
Q. What about Cuba?
The per capita income in Cuba is four times what prevails in Ghana and yet a Ghanaian earns a minimum monthly wage that is three times what the average Cuban receives. How is this paradox feasible? Because everybody is employed by the government, which owns all the country's wealth. In that context it is actually more efficient for the government to hold on to money meant for schools and pay the schools directly. Unless Ghana is ready to embrace such a system, it is apples and oranges once again.
Q. Given the gaps, how do you plan to implement a scholarship program?
A. Recall that the purpose of the scholarship program is not to artificially inflate enrolment. It accepts proficiency as a necessary condition for further education, because formal education is curricular-driven. A JHS 3 student who cannot spell because 9 years of basic education has failed her cannot succeed with 3 years of zero-fee education, because the difficulty of the curriculum goes up rather than down. In that light, a scholarship program, coupled with all the other suggestions we have already made, can never be as wasteful as tax-funded zero-fee education. Even if it turns out that 60% of qualified JHS graduates require help, and 20% of those who don't are inclined to cheat and take the money anyway, we shall still save 20% of any amount of money any government votes to ensure access. If we want to be visionary, we should be visionary in doing things that improve the situation.
Q. But what about the practical challenges of a scholarship system?
A. Incidentally, notwithstanding our address and income data deficiencies, we have still implemented a tiered tariff structure for the NHIS, in which people pay graduated fees according to ability and receive according to need. It is funny to say that we should be bold and visionary when handing over an additional $1.4 billion per annum of our money to politicians to experiment with in the name of “free SHS education”, but when you mention any creative policymaking process, folks quickly lose their courage and daring and say: “it will be hard to do”. Of course it will be hard to do! Why else do we pay a group of people called politicians so they can dedicate themselves to this stuff? Why do we crave the welfare programs of the West, and yet are unwilling to put in the work to create the underlying infrastructure that these countries have put in place to support the welfare state? Things like “means-testing”, which enables the state to determine who really needs help and who doesn't?
Q. Some will argue that taxation is similar to the cross-subsidisation you mentioned earlier. Rich people pay more taxes.
A. In absolute terms, yes. But they still keep a lot more of their income, relatively speaking. Meanwhile, everyone pays tax because of things like VAT. The truth is that unless you impose a system where everyone works for the government, it is hard to cross-subsidise efficiently when it comes to taxation, because people's incentives are not aligned with the government when it comes to tax. People's incentives are aligned with their schools when it comes to their children's education. Even more important, government bureaucracy is immensely wasteful, as we have seen with judgment debts and payroll fraud in this country. It is funny to say that it is this same bureaucracy that is expected to outperform parents when it comes to directing money into the school system.
Q. So it is not fundamentally about the high costs of the policy but WASTE? Then what if we reduce waste through cleaner, leaner, government?
A. The waste is inherent in the very model. It is not a side effect. So this debate is definitely about cost too. We already spend a quarter of our money on education. If this "free SHS" idea is pursued with zeal, we can easily top 40%, and a 20% budget deficit. The costs will lead to severe dislocation, and it will IN FACT affect the focus on quality because we have a FINITE budget whatever people may want to believe. Worse of all, even with the momentous figure above, we are still only talking about an expanded system AT THE CURRENT LEVEL OF QUALITY. Note also that you need to implement reforms to eliminate waste. In the medium-term, it takes time and more money. The next government will have 4 years, it is not possible to do everything at once. It is not "education" that is on trial here. Everyone accepts education should be a national priority. Based on money spent alone, it already is. What we are scrutinising is a SPECIFIC POLICY targeted at one level of the educational system.
Q. What about oil money?
A. We earn roughly $400 million per year from oil, much of which we are earmarking for infrastructure loans. Any additional oil money must come from increased production, which in turn can only come from specific investments that must be made 4 years in advance. That means we can with relative accuracy predict that additional, non-committed, oil income by the end of the 5-year medium-term horizon will probably not exceed $500 million per annum (realistic models suggest the zero-fee policy will cost a minimum of $1.4 billion per year from the 2016/2017 academic year onwards, increasing steadily each new year). But all this is beside the point. Why spend money on a bad policy just because you HAVE money? Some have also said the transformation of the economy means more wealth, so cost constraints should not feature in this debate. The point however is simple, in a wealthier country, EVEN FEWER people need government to absorb clear parental responsibilities. And at any rate, no matter how much money you have, there is no point THROWING MONEY at people who don't need it when you can target your intervention using scholarships, for example.
Q. Will the politicians listen?
A. Time will tell.