General News of Tue, 28 Mar 201715

Don’t cover every cost under Free SHS policy - Government urged

A member of the Public Interest and Accountability Committee (PIAC), Dr Steve Manteaw, is urging the government to shift from covering every cost under its Free Senior High School (SHS) policy to limited items, in order not to strain the national budget.

He said the programme, earmarked to take off in September 2017, was expected to cover all costs, including feeding, a pledge some experts believe would be rocked by funding challenges considering the current tight fiscal space in the economy.

Instead, Dr Manteaw believes the government should learn from countries such as Uganda whose free education policy was limited to an annual grant of up to US$52 per student, to cover fees and textbooks, for parents to provide uniform, stationery and meals.

In an interview after a forum to discuss sustainable funding options for the policy on March 22, Dr Manteaw said Ghana’s Free SHS project was an onerous one considering its dynamics.

“You have to look at the resources available, see what cost it can cover, and cover that in year one for every child. As we proceed to year two, you can bring on additional cost, and then by year three or four, we would have covered all cost.

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“To me it is a better strategy than to attempt to cover all cost in year one, and put unnecessary pressure on the budget,” he said.

He said unlike Ghana where there was the inclination to make the transition from Primary to Secondary School automatic, and for that matter an omnibus transition, in Uganda, students who obtain set benchmark grades in each of the four primary school-leaving examinations were automatically allowed to proceed to study free in public schools and participating private schools.

ABFA, a better option

Dr Manteaw said devoting nine per cent of the oil revenues for the Heritage Fund, marked a departure from the practice of treating natural resource revenues as income for consumption and rather for investment.

He said though the current rate of return on the heritage fund was low, it does not warrant dissipating it, rather, the country should be looking for better ways of investing it to guarantee better yield.

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“The 70 per cent Annual Budget Funding Amount (ABFA) provides a bigger scope for financing free SHS, we could devote a bigger percentage of ABFA to education financing and narrow the other spending areas for greater effect,” he said.

Touching on other funding options, he said the mining sector had the capacity to contribute towards funding the Free SHS and there must also be efforts to redirect Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) spending to prioritise contribution to education.

Urgent questions

Dr Manteaw explained that although government’s decision to leave the heritage fund alone was welcome, there were two urgent questions that needed to be answered.

“How does the government intend to harmonise the management of the pool of resources accruing to the GETFund, with other revenue streams intended to fund free SHS?”

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He further asked “in the medium to long term, is the government ready to consider making a paradigm shift towards treating financial resources accruing to the GETFund as investible funds rather than an account, i.e. as VAT, petroleum, cocoa, mining and tax revenues increase and able to meet immediate requirement?”

The forum

The national dialogue was organised by the Public Interest and Accountability Committee (PIAC), in collaboration with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) and Starr FM to look at the policy, opportunities and challenges of relying on petroleum revenues as a sustainable funding option for the Free SHS.

The Chairman of PIAC, Mr Joesph Winful, said the committee was interested in knowing decisions taken with respect to the utilisation of oil revenues, rather than churning out reports after the use of the resources.

He said whereas it was important to fund education with oil revenues, it was important for government to be able to account for it to ensure that it was done in a transparent manner.

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The Deputy Director of NRGI, Mr Emmanuel Kuyole, said the dialogue was to offer suggestions on funding options for the initiative to ensure that the programme takes off with little hiccups and eventually becomes successful.

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