Opinions Wed, 22 Feb 2017

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NPP’s Free SHS policy good but initiative needs tweaking

By Theo Acheampong

For most countries where near-universal primary school (primary and junior secondary) enrolment is high, there is the challenge of ensuring these children also get a secondary education as well at the minimum.

This is to ensure social mobility and effective participation in the labour workforce. For example, primary school enrolment in El Salvador stands at almost 90 per cent versus 34 per cent for secondary education. Most countries in Latin America have committed themselves to increasing access to quality secondary schooling to at least 75 per cent of their children.

Ghana’s education facts and figures

Ghana likewise has 95 per cent primary school enrolment, 85 per cent junior high school and 45 per cent gross enrolment in senior secondary education. This implies that five out of every 10 children who start primary school do not get the opportunity to attend senior secondary school. The data from the 2014/15 academic year is summarised below:

This paradigm must change, and my core belief is this: schooling from primary to the secondary level should be free for all regardless of the income or background of one's parents. Personally, I think it will be difficult to apply means testing within this context of education. For example, by what assessment criteria? That is the crux of the debate on free secondary schooling in Ghana.

I think it is better for everyone to get an equal shot - not necessarily equitable, but it suffices as a second best optimal solution given our circumstances.

Any proposal to apply blanket means testing to public education, wherein supposed relatively wealthy families would be required to pay to attend public secondary schools although does appear progressive, is a Trojan horse.

Some numbers

Under the current progressively free model, funding of secondary education is split between the government and parents. The government only provides a subvention of GH¢54 and GH¢58 for day and boarding students respectively that covers exam, library fees, SRC dues, ICT, utilities among others. The government component only amounts to 8.8 per cent of the approved fees for day students and 5.4 per cent of approved fees for boarders – average of about 7 per cent. Parents, on the other hand, have to bear the remaining 93 per cent of the cost component totalling GH¢580 for day students and GH¢1022 for boarders. This covers uniforms, feeding fees, exercise books, PTA and House dues as well as extra-curricular activities.

Scenario 1: Maintaining the status quo

Data from the 2014/15 academic year indicate there were 275,609 students in SH1, 274,609 in SH2 and 256,632 in SH3 making 804,974 students in total. Using the 2015/16 Ghana Education Service approved fees and the total number of students, the maximum upper bound cost to the taxpayer assuming 30:70 split between day and boarding amounts to GH¢467 million or USD116 million (0.34 per cent of 2015 GDP). One caveat: this crude estimate, of course, assumes infrastructure facilities and enrolment rates in the schools are fixed. It nonetheless serves a useful starting point for policymaking. Should the NPP government decide to absorb all the other costs that hitherto were excluded from the progressively free (absorbed fees), then the total incremental cost to the taxpayer would amount to GH¢428 million or 0.31 per cent of 2015 GDP.

Scenario 2: Enrolling all JHS students by 100 per cent government subsidy

Using the same 2014/15 enrolment data but extending the net wider now to include all 1.6 million JHS students, the maximum upper bound cost to the taxpayer assuming the same 30:70 split between day and boarding amounts to GH¢918 million or USD 230 million (0.66 per cent of 2015 GDP). This option entails a more fundamental educational reform to Ghana’s education architecture by scrapping the not fit for purpose BECE. Also, we need to factor in extra infrastructure investment costs, additional teachers, curriculum development among others. This is because the currently available facilities cannot accommodate all the students. This can easily push up the total cost by a factor of about four towards the USD 1 billion mark.

Consolidating both scenarios

I do support means testing direct government benefits such as unemployment, disability and pension allowances but that is where the buck should stop. I do not support such blanket moves in the provision of education services, as it is neither welfare maximising nor provides a social safety net. The above notwithstanding, I do however think the government needs to take a second look at the boarding component of this proposed policy. I am of the firm belief that this cost should be split between parents.

There is no need to provide feeding to both day and boarding students. Day students under the current system already buy their food. The most equitable approach would be for the government to provide all students in secondary schools with the same amount of subsidy and this should be equal to that which a day student would have paid under the current circumstances together with the GH¢54 and GHS58 subsidy government already pays. This translates to about GH¢600 for those entering SHS1 and GH¢74 for SHS2 and SHS3 students. Students who then have an offer to get into the boarding house but whose parents do not have the means to pay for the remaining amount can then apply to a special fund to access the remaining subsidy amount.

At least, this way we can keep the cost down and also ensure some fairness in the distribution of the resource.

Funding proposals

I will caution the government not to touch the Heritage Fund as it is meant to provide for intergenerational equity and permanent income. That is, an annuity intended to smooth consumption over time. The fund had a closing book value of a paltry US$277 million including interest as of December 2016. By contrast, we have allocated over $1.43 billion to the ABFA, $0.60 billion to the Stabilisation Fund and another $0.93 billion to GNPC between 2011 and 2015. Restructuring SSNIT, GETFund, stopping revenue leakages and cancellation of tax exemptions, as well as dedicating portions of the Communications Service Tax that goes to YEA, MASLOC and so forth can fund this. The government needs to be creative.

Columnist: Graphic.com.gh

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