By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The debate on Akufo-Addo’s proposal to implement a policy on free senior high school (SHS) education won’t end soon. Many voices have been heard on the proposal, mostly deriding it as irrelevant and not the answer to Ghana’s development problems. Those in the NPP have stood their grounds that the measure is feasible and that those opposing it are only being mischievous. I disagree with them.
Why does Akufo-Addo think that the lack of “free” education up to the SHS level is the most worrisome of Ghana’s development problems? And who says that practically, free SHS education ever solves any country’s development problems?
Honestly speaking, our main problem in Ghana today is not the lack of education but joblessness. The unemployment problem is acute, which is what one expects our politicians to concentrate on. All in all, though, it is not the responsibility of government to create jobs. Government’s role is simply to provide the incentives and the enabling environment for the private sector to create jobs. That’s not what has been happening, which worsens the unemployment situation. Solving this problem can’t be done through a free SHS education as Akufo-Addo is leading the NPP to bore us with!!
At the SHS level, the students are still being trained to look for career opportunities to develop skills for. They are not mature enough to invest all their resources in productive ventures to boost national development. At this point, they are not even considered ready for the daunting tasks. That is why guidance and counselling are implemented to steer them toward avenues that further education and training will help them fit into. Only then can we tap into their resources to the full.
Merely acquiring SHS education is not an end in itself, being a means to an end that no one may know at the outset. So, why should Akufo-Addo make such a big deal of SHS education as if it is the be-it-all-and-end-it-all for Ghana’s development efforts? There is so much emphasis being placed on this free SHS education that makes me wonder whether someone is not just trying to be politically smart here.
This Akufo-Addo’s proposal entails many contradictions, even for the NPP itself. We know full well that the NPP has always been against “freebies,” touting itself as anti-socialist. So, why now seek to implement a programme that has more to do with socialism than the liberal democracy that it prides itself on?
As a so-called political family built on the political orientation of “liberal democracy” and property-grabbing, the NPP has since its inception not favoured anything with a socialist bent. Fundamentally, any attempt to enunciate or implement a policy of the sort is heavily tipped against the NPP’s own ideology. The NPP is not, has never been, and will not be so “socialist” as to adopt such a policy of investing government with responsibilities that are better left to individuals to carry out. Why this haste now to saddle an NPP government with such responsibilities?
We know how the NPP is deep-rooted in the UP (“Ma te me ho”) tradition, which did all it could to undermine Nkrumah’s CPP government that made no secret of its socialist orientation and introduced “freebies” into Ghanaian national life.
Talk about free education under Nkrumah and why his government established the Ghana Education Trust under which educational institutions sprang up all over the country. Nkrumah’s love for freeing Ghanaians from the burden of financing education resulted in the supply of free textbooks and tuition-free education at the basic level, especially.
At the secondary level too, fees were basically for board and lodging (especially as many secondary schools got established); parents bore minimal responsibilities for their wards’ education. Even at the tertiary level, the responsibility was heavily shouldered by the government. Teacher training colleges catered to the interests and needs of students while the three universities at the time (University of Ghana, Legon; University of Science and Technology; and the University of Cape Coast) provided essential services at affordable rates. Ask any product of those institutions within the period (including this Akufo-Addo) what the “coupon system” meant and you should know how much responsibility government bore in educating the students.
Despite all these measures, Nkrumah was condemned by the UP elements and hounded out of office at their instigation. Even then, education in Ghana did not lose its “free” aspect, especially as still happens in the case of the Northern Scholarship Scheme. All successive governments have retained it. The Rawlings government also introduced the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) to add a new twist to government’s support for education. Tuition may be high at the secondary and tertiary levels, but that is a matter of economic (not political) exigence.
So, what is it that the NPP seeks to do as a way of re-introducing “free education” at the SHS level? And why only the SHS, though?
I’ve asked these questions because the SHS is the middle-level point in this three-tier system of education which will lead the products nowhere unless they can progress to the tertiary level. If their education is not geared toward preparing them for self-employment or absorption into tertiary institutions to be equipped with the requisite skills for employment, they will become liabilities. And we already have such a problem to contend with. Why add more to it? This is where the loopholes in Akufo-Addo’s plan emerge.
Curricula and Teacher Training
So far, the NPP hasn’t said anything about any drastic revamping of the curricula for us to know how that aspect of the problem will be tackled. In other words, there is no reference to the technicalities involved in the provision of the free SHS education apart from the tentative costs. If this policy on free SHS entails only support for the students (in terms of free textbooks and tuition), it will amount to nothing but a dangerous wishful thinking for political purposes only.
Again, there is nothing on what an NPP government will do to improve teacher training. Can we have any improvement in education of our children without any improvement in the quality of teachers? How will value be added to teacher training within the period that Akufo-Addo envisages being in power for the benefits of his free SHS to be realized? How about infrastructure and school supplies?
Forget about the free meals under the Schools Feeding Programme and occasional supply of free uniforms and textbooks. These are not supportable without foreign aid. They are mere erratic, sporadic, and politically motivated.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service are a part of the problems destroying our education system. How will Akufo-Addo retool these institutions for them to shoulder the new responsibilities that his policy entails? Obviously, the bottlenecks at the Ministry of Education and the GES can’t be removed at the stroke of a pen. These institutions that are tasked with implementing government’s policies need overhauling before any innovative policy can be successfully implemented. Yet, Akufo-Addo is mum on them, which is discouraging.
What does a free SHS policy seek to achieve, anyway? Is there any provision for all the products to be absorbed seamlessly into employable sectors of the economy, assuming that the thousands of those to be churned out can’t all qualify for further education? Akufo-Addo is silent on this aspect, meaning that the NPP’s decision on free SHS is not well-thought-out entirely.
We already have a huge population of unemployable SHS (and university/polytechnic) graduates while those who have qualified for higher education can’t move any step forward because of the nonavailability of opportunities. Will all those to be produced under an NPP government be left to a similar fate to flood the system? What, then, will be the benefit of a wholesale free SHS education?
My final thoughts
Even though examples exist in other countries to suggest that education up to the secondary level can be successfully funded by the government, I am highly skeptical at this point about what the NPP is doing politics with. There is no firm guarantee that this measure can help us solve the problems facing our education system—or the country’s under-development, generally.
Any large scale expenditure made on SHS education is a huge gamble that every government must take cognizance of before rushing to invest public funds in it for the sake of political expediency. It must be guided by systemic needs, foolproof measures aimed at its sustainability, and an unshakeable commitment to implement it, regardless of which political party is in power. The United States is noted for implementing such a policy. Are we certain that we in Ghana can do so at this point? I doubt. We can’t even agree on the duration of the JSS level (whether three or four years). Shameful.
There may be talk of availability of funds to support such a policy (as is evident from the claim that funds will be drawn from the oil/petroleum revenue), which has emboldened Akufo-Addo to peg the initial cost at 78 million Ghana Cedis. Even then, won’t the use of oil/petroleum revenue for financing such a policy deprive government of funds needed for supporting other sectors of national life, especially since what will be spent on the free SHS education won’t yield immediate dividends to plug the holes?
The real issues lie elsewhere and the problems entailed by this free SHS education should not be reduced to only the aspect of financing, which seems to motivate the argument supporting the NPP’s proposal. Anybody in the NPP thinking that funding is what bothers Ghanaians must re-think the issue. It is not necessarily so. I am pessimistic that such a measure will be the solution to whatever problems we have identified in our national life.
No one is saying that providing free SHS education is impossible. It is, but it has its own serious implications and limitations that must be factored into the national debate. Generally, I don’t think that Akufo-Addo’s proposal is the solution, whether it is possible to implement or not. The feasibility of such a policy goes beyond the mere churning out of SHS products in their thousands every year.
If we are not careful, we may waste resources producing “educated” people whose education won’t add anything new to our collective efforts at solving our problems of under-development. Such products may become frustrated if they can’t advance any further and end up turning their anger on society through anti-social activities of the kind that we see happening day-in-day-out.
In the final analysis, then, although the NPP’s proposal may be good on paper and be vigorously defended by its proponents, it will not serve any more useful purpose than helping the Akufo-Addo team come across as “people-centred,” which in itself is only a political gimmick. We need to know that the proposal is more politically motivated than warranted by the exigencies of our Ghanaian situation. Of course, we need educated people to help us frame and solve our national problems, but not the kind whose education is short-circuited and can’t be used to move us forward. That education is itself problematic.
The NPP has more explanation to do to persuade Ghanaians before taking umbrage at those of us who are quick to doubt the efficacy of this aspect of its manifesto on free SHS education. I will remain skeptical until proved wrong.
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