Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

The Debate on free education in Africa

16.03.2020
Article from AFRIC Editorial
Free public education enables easy access to education for children and young people. However, this policy, which is aimed at improving the literacy rate in Africa, has become a strategic political instrument for most African leaders. They have taken the vulnerability of poor countries as a bait to serve them these projects under the banner of a political campaign project. This is the case of Burundi, where the "elimination of school fees has become a powerful electoral strategy", as explained by Afrique Renouveau. This has also been the case with Malawi. These countries have suddenly put in place an ambitious policy of free education, which has been met with a public outburst, but which does not take into account the criticisms surrounding the bad financing policy. A handful of African countries took the free education route, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique.

The precarious and inaccessible nature of education in Africa has been exploited by some politicians with the sole aim of captivating the electorate, yet more than 5 million children are illiterate, despite the efforts made since independence.

In fact, the cost of education remains one of the major obstacles in the poorest countries in Africa. Many families are unable to bear the costs of sponsoring their children through school, even just at the basic level. Also, the quantitative and qualitative insufficiency, not to mention the delays in acquiring the minimum support package (consisting of teaching supplies, pharmaceutical products, cleaning products, school furniture, didactic material used by teachers for the preparation and presentation of lessons) have had a negative impact on the quality of learning.

The lack of public funds has unintentionally forced school head teachers and principals to open the doors to the favoured populations at the expense of the poorest. The efforts made by the public sector have not been enough to stop the market orchestrated by the private sector, which has turned education into a lucrative business. As a result, the fight against the rate of non-enrollment, which was the objective, has taken the back seat. In all this turmoil, sub-Saharan Africa is paying the heaviest price. More than half of the world’s out-of-school children live in sub-Saharan Africa, says the daily Jeune Afrique. In the face of these difficulties, all hopes are not lost. Free education could become a reality if incentives, interventions and broader social policies are used to alleviate the indirect opportunity costs of schooling,” said the Dakar framework in 2000.

Governance and the illusion of gratuity

According to Transparency International, stronger governance is needed to achieve educational goals. For this NGO, poor governance hinders the management of funds allocated to raise education in some African countries. According to Africa Education Watch: Lessons of Good Governance for Primary Education, despite a decade of efforts to increase enrollment through the Education for All initiative and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), weak or non-existent governing systems and practices have limited progress in education in Africa. This is why Stéphane Stassen; Senior Program Coordinator at TI believes that “Increasing school enrollment is not enough. Monitoring and accountability must be improved to ensure the appropriate use of available resources.

In assessing primary education management structures in Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Niger, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Uganda, UNESCO says it has never had so many primary school-age children in Africa. However, TI’s observations reveal that less well-off parents have to pay school fees despite announcements and slogans about free schooling. In contrast to those in the mentioned countries, 44% had to pay fees for their offspring. This confusion has made it possible to tear-down fictitious funding and almost non-existent inspections. As for the accounting systems, those in Niger and Madagascar are erroneous, which rhymes with the lack of training in financial management in the schools of these countries under study.

The irresponsibility of the guarantors of decentralization and the recruitment of unqualified teachers has made the educational environment conducive for corruption. Moreover, the report commissioned by the South African Ministry of Education sufficiently demonstrates this. It reveals a vast network of corruption that over time could bring the education system to its knees, if the posts of teachers and leaders continue to be commercialized. The same goes for Cameroon, where this gangrene has extended its tentacles to the purchase of places in renowned schools and the trafficking of grades. According to a 2016 report by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (CONAC), the management of the expenses of the Parents’ and Teachers’ Association (PTA) in Cameroon is in full swing with 110 cases listed.

However, the private sector has a weak capacity to mobilize funds, the results of decentralization are unconvincing and the volume of official development assistance is declining. This adequately explains the small increase in aid to education during the 1990s, despite the commitments made by donors during the various international summits.

Progress towards free primary education

After Zimbabwe, Malawi joined the globalization trend in September 1994. It was one of the first countries in Africa to adopt free and compulsory primary education for all classes. Kenya and Lesotho followed suit. Indeed, the EFA 2014 Report shows that free education has experienced a slight increase in poor countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, fifteen countries have passed a law aimed at eradicating school fees. Those resistant to change such as Botswana, Guinea, South Africa and Tanzania, only to mention a few, continue to quietly demand school fees from families.

Education in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is also free for all. According to France info, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa announced the abolition of all school fees in public schools, as of the next school year on September 2nd. This measure should be implemented to allow those who are not in school to finally take the path to knowledge. According to estimates by the Global Education Partnership (GEP), nearly 3.5 million children in the country are illiterate. This is one of the highest rates in the world. According to UN 2010 publication, school fees abolition must be accompanied by strong public and political support, sound planning and reform, and increased financing.

Nevertheless, certain performances were observed, such as the increase of public financing of primary education. This enabled 70% of pupils to complete their primary education in 2014, unlike in 2002, when there were only 22%, according to the SME report. However, “the measure announced by Félix Tshisekédi, does not correspond to the reality of the country’s schools,” Georges Mawiné, youth president of the Ensemble pour le Changement” party, told Dw Tv. According to to the German television, the 7 million allocated to education would not have taken into account the free schooling from September to December 2019.

In view of all these obstacles, the reinforcement of the central core of the structure should therefore be improved in order to improve access to qualitative and sustainable education. Moreover, the Africa Education Watch has strongly recommended to African Ministers of Education to establish more reliable and more effective rules for school bookkeeping, combined with more regular inspections, for sustainability and compliance with standards. Together with civil society, teachers and parents must invest in budget management training, in addition to awareness-raising campaigns to inform parents about their rights.

In the same perspective, governments must ensure, among other things, that both girls and boys have free and compulsory primary education to address the marginalization of poor households. Also, they should recognize that education is a universal civil right and make it a concrete political priority. All school-age children should have the opportunity to have access to good quality primary education. However, it would be better to rely more on cost containment than on further cost cutting to release additional resources.

Indeed, education contributes to reducing disparities in the society. This free education should be reflected through lower rates of late school admissions and fewer recurrent dropouts among girls and children in the hinterland. The proof is that, where this method has been applied, primary and secondary school enrollment has increased sufficiently. It is in line with this change that the World Bank has announced the allocation of $100 million for primary education in the DRC by 2021.

The renewed goals of universal primary education have inevitably led to the challenge of the costs and financing of education. The recommended guidelines state that a far-reaching change in basic education is under way. These changes could thus lead to considerable evaluation work, which is still in Africa’s hands. However, it must be stressed that major efforts are still expected to ensure free education for all by 2030 in the framework of the MDGs, while placing great emphasis on the quality of education and not simply on the fact of having access to it.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

Photo Credit: google image/illustration

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