Free SHS: Who Needs It? Part 2

In the second part of a series of articles, Kwaku Gyamfi outlines his thoughts about the Free SHS Policy.

Free Senior High School (SHS) was not an issue Ghanaians discussed until 2012 when the current President, Nana Akufo-Addo, proposed it in that electioneering year. It was the highlight of the election.

It is important that we know what free SHS entails. Free SHS is for only public schools. Aside from free tuition which the government already pays, the government will also shoulder fees like library fees, examination fees, cost of uniforms, and other fees that have been borne by parents in the past.

Free SHS as I said earlier was not a topical issue until it was introduced during the 2012 elections. I believe the reason why it was proposed was to win elections. It is common for politicians to herald policies in which everyone appears to benefit. Free SHS is a typical example of this. If Free SHS is to be implemented because children from poor homes find it difficult to pay their fees, why not create a scholarship program and invite people who feel they cannot afford fees to apply? Personally, I think what the government should do if it is concerned about helping the poor is to provide student loans to poor students who say they cannot pay their fees. In Ghana, we have a fund that can carry out this project- the Student Loan Trust Fund (which is mainly for university students); all that would be required is to extend the fund to Senior High Schools. But this is what the government will not do. Why? Because such an initiative will not appear to benefit everyone. The government wants to introduce a tangible policy for all to feel its impact. If they do not do that, how will they be able to mention it as something they were able to achieve when the next election cycle arrives?

It is interesting to note that basic education in public schools in Ghana is virtually free. Students are even provided free meals in some schools (I say this without considering the quality of the food); they also have more qualified teachers. Yet, some parents will take their wards to private schools. Ever wonder why? It is not just because parents can afford to take their wards to private schools. Rather, it is because private schools, among other things, perform better at the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). It is upon passing the BECE that students gain admission into Senior High Schools. The standard of our public education keeps coming down under the so-called free initiatives. The Education Sector Performance Report 2015 published by the Ministry of Education shows a high positive correlation between increasing private schools as a percentage of total schools in each region and percentage of students who score higher than average in the BECE those regions. This simply means that the greater the proportion of private schools in a region the better the performance of that region in the BECE. The correlation may be influenced by other factors like the level of training of teachers and the role of parents in their children’s schooling. Still, I think this statistic is worth noting.

Studies show that the education expenditure by governments in developing countries disproportionately benefit the rich the higher the climb on the academic ladder. One such study is by Gaddah M., Munro A. and Quartey P., (2015) titled “The rich or the poor: who gains from public education spending in Ghana?” According to the authors, “Senior high (including TVET) is progressive in terms of household expenditures with the poorest quintile receiving 15.5 percent of the benefits of this level compared to 26.3 percent for the richest quintile. Post-secondary (universities, polytechnics, and teacher education) education is regressive in absolute terms …with the richest quintile appropriating 50.3 percent of the benefits… School enrolment statistics show that people are terminating schooling after primary school, and largely after junior high. This partly explains the less progressivity of post-basic benefits.” This study shows that expenditure on Senior High Education benefits the rich than the poor. Will this trend change under free SHS? It is possible it will change because zero fees will increase the demand for Senior High Education. Also, demand for schooling is generally more elastic for the poor. This means that the poor take changes in fees more seriously than the rich, in the sense that it can make them change their minds on the usefulness of education for their children. This makes sense since the rich have more money to spend on other things aside from necessaries. But we must also think of the fact that students from poor families who leave school do so when they are in either primary or JHS. Therefore, if resources of the state are directed to the basic level the poor will benefit most; given that the intention of such policies is to benefit the poor.

It is important that sometimes we stop talking about good intentions and deal with reality. Does government in education give us value for money? If you see local politicians fighting over who will run the government’s school feeding program you need to ask yourself what the objective of the program is. Is it to provide food for children or provide jobs for party sympathizers? In the period this program has been introduced what has been its net effect on enrollment? Won’t free SHS give the government power to continue with such practices? Won’t free SHS make Ghanaian schools less competitive? How does free education affect quality?

Anyone who knows a little economics knows there is nothing like free education. The objective of free education and other such policies has always been one of income redistribution. Income redistribution has come to mean taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Why should the income of the rich be transferred to the poor? This is a question worth asking. We are given this premise as a given- the poor must be helped. But at whose expense? Who should decide what an individual should give another if not the individual himself? What is the morality of a government compelling individuals to pay for the sustenance of others without their consent? Isn’t income redistribution a punishment for ability? Or is it a way for busybody politicians to feel good about themselves? I think these are the fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves before we accept such social policies. Today, it might be your money or someone else’s money the government is asking for; tomorrow it might be your life.  

WRITER: Kwaku Gyamfi

IMAGE: Google 

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