The realization of Education as a basic human right has conventionally been associated with a free endorsement and provision of primary education, solely financed by the state. While policies are socially attractive and popular, they are ineffective in creating universal enrollment and attendance of children as intended and anticipated.
The emphasis on the right to basic education dates back to 1948, when education was declared a human right, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration asserted the need for making primary education compulsory and free of cost. This has been reiterated on various international platforms to date and is a very integral component of the Sustainable Development Goals. Consequently, countries across the world, particularly the developing world, have firmly established policies targeting free and compulsory primary education as a top priority as it is perceived to be the impetus to social and economic development of individuals and states. What remains less clear, however, is a comprehensive understanding of the entire spectrum of education related expenditures actually incurred by the school going children and their families in the context of a fee free policy and how it subsequently impacts enrollment and attendance.
In order to mitigate absence from school on the grounds of a lack of finances, many countries have consequently abolished school fees in an attempt to break material and structural barriers to education. While this is a vital prerequisite for universal enrollment and completion, it is insufficient. The governments tends to provide schools with budgets to cover the cost of education provision, like the Tuition Fee Free policy in New Papua Guinea and similar programs in Tanzania and Rwanda, yet multiple issues are associated with the time and the way in which they are delivered. One popular mechanism of delivery of such finances is a decentralized approach; but such disbursements of funds tend to make them vulnerable to political and bureaucratic capture. On the other hand, direct delivery of funds to schools, tend to lack efficiency in the way they are used. Mostly, due to the lack of proper monitoring and evaluation, corruption and mishandling of funds is very prominent. While the government provides schools with the necessary funds for construction, improvements in curriculum, books and teaching materials, the management uses the money for personal gains and not for the intended purpose. Some public schools are provided with the computers and projectors to use in classrooms; parents send their children in hopes for them to benefit from the use of modern technology, but mostly, the instructors are not trained to use it properly and instead of proving beneficial to the children, it just adds to the cost for the government and for families of the students. Not only do they pay for the use of such technology, they yield little benefit from it.
From the school’s perspective, effective delivery of adequate and quality education requires an ample amount of finances. Budgets in developing countries tend to be highly volatile due to debt servicing pressures, leaving lesser proportion available to be distributed to social sectors, particularly education. Provisions to schools, if made, hence suffer from a lack of sustainability and timely availability . As such, schools are forced into generating money from alternate sources, which are concentrated towards parents of the enrolled students; they take the form of examination fee, electricity charges, compulsory purchase of uniforms and books each year or provision of lunch, making education far from being free. Parents are, consequently, discouraged from sending their children to school, particularly because they perceive degrading education standards of their children due to inadequate quality of schools and teachers.
By virtue of a policy, fee free education policy is perceived as a means to gain popularity among voters and is initiated blindly, without taking into account ground realities and local contexts. Hence, in most cases, the government is perceived to be ineffective for not achieving the desired outcomes of the fee free education. In some countries, there is a lack of sound infrastructure, which renders funds for education useless. In others, introduction of a fee free education encouraged parents to send their children to schools, which were then overburdened with increasing numbers of students and higher teacher to student ratios and also by declining room and facilities accommodate students effectively . In Kenya, the government provided free primary education, but paid little attention to the presence of school buildings, libraries and necessary materials. Hence, leaving this respective responsibility in the hands of well-wishers, volunteers and parents. By exclusively making education free while not improving or providing necessary complementary capacity building capability to schools, policymakers are forcing parents to prefer private schools over public schools.
A study in Kenya and Tanzania, both low income and mainly agrarian economies, highlight a significant perspective into the choice between free public school and a low cost private school. In the non-formal urban area of Kenya, parents tend to keep education of their children a vital aspect of their sustainable livelihood strategies, which is why they are more cautious of quality education and have a willingness to pay for it. They were more interested in sending their children to a low cost private school, the cost of which entailed both direct and all indirect costs, than a public school which was marketed as free but entailed hidden costs. This asserts that an education policy must be perceived relative to local context and like any other policy even the education policy needs to follow a detailed need assessment.
The fact that parents cannot afford to send their children to private schools and are hesitant to send them to the public schools because they can’t compromise on quality, depicts the inability of the government in achieving the goal of education for all. Even when parents send their children to school after being charmed by the slogan of fee free education, most of the time children remain constricted to primary school; as in the case of Sweden, the children belonging to the poor backgrounds went only to the primary schools and could not afford to continue their education, while the children from the upper classes attended secondary schools. Such a system of education was the cause of rising inequality as it failed to provide opportunities in preparing the talented children from the less privileged backgrounds to work in productive occupations.
Privatization may seem to be an attractive alternative, but it is not a viable one. In a welfare state like Sweden, introduction of privatized free schools was perceived to emancipate social inequalities. The privatization of education stems from existing inequalities in the society, where the rich can afford better quality expensive education and the poor are constricted to lower quality academics, and breeds further inequality. Instead, privatization can only be a viable option, if and only the government is able to build the public sector parallel to the private sector. A proposed strategy is a strategic laddered mechanism. A need assessment needs to be carried out to understand the ground realities and local perceptions. People must be made aware of the importance of education for breaking through inter-generational poverty traps to allow them to choose education over child labor. This needs to be followed by building infrastructure; but more importantly enhancing teacher and curriculum quality. Children must be encouraged to build on their skills rather than being forced by the examination system to pass by memorizing what they are taught. Eventually the only difference that should prevail between the public and the private sector should be on the basis of whether they offer international or domestic exams, not on the quality of students. Consequently, the public and private sector would share the responsibility of provision of quality education. While the private sector can cater for those who have a higher ability to pay, the government can cater for that segment of the society which is relatively poor.
In the case of Pakistan, the literacy rate is 58% and 24% people are living below the poverty line. People of rural areas of Pakistan, which suffer majorly from poverty and lack of education, are not willing to spend money on education of their children and would rather use them as immediate sources of family income. Their willingness to send their children to schools is expected to increase if they are appropriately incentivized in a manner which reduces the opportunity cost of sending their children to school. One such way is if education is free of cost. But the situation in Pakistan is not much different than Tanzania and Kenya. There are public schools but they lack quality. Books are free but notebooks, uniform, exam fee, board registration fee and other charges de-motivates parents to send their children to school. Inappropriate policies, staff and curriculum, lack of accountability, budget and financial resources and corruption are some of the problems that public schools are facing. The effectiveness and positive outcomes are not assured because of lack of subsequent government’s interest in the education sector.
In effect, the banner of fee free education has historically entailed costs. If these costs are instead formalized and education is subsidized, the education sector may be able to gather the necessary funds it requires to operate efficiently and sustainably. Education plays a vital role in lessening of poverty and contributes to sustainable growth in developing nations. It is imperative to realize that this link can only be made by an evolution and not a revolution. The successful implementation of fee free education requires a thorough situation analysis to get an idea of the human resource, infrastructure and if the policy is suitable in the context of the local schools. Involvement and more importantly utmost commitment of major stakeholders such as the government, teachers and parents in the decision making process is imperative; clarity of roles for each stakeholder are also crucial to ensure the success of the policy. In an attempt as such, parents can be involved in a manner that creates a sense of ownership. In backward areas, the education system lacks infrastructure and trained teachers. The local people can be involved in the construction of schools and their children can subsequently be enrolled in these respective schools. Parents can be made accountable to oversee finances that come into the schools and the ways in which they are used, by installing them into a committee central to the school’s administration. Local people endorse a great deal of passion and vigor to build their community. From within the community, locals can be chosen and trained to provide education in their respective localities.
Ms. Zara Saeed Iqbal