FREE SHS DEBATE – MY TAKE

free_shs_now!

You cannot be in Ghana and be oblivious of the raging debate on education; free Senior High School (SHS) education to be exact.  Following this trend, made popular, largely by the flag-bearer of the largest opposition party, the New Patriotic Party (N.P.P) Nana Addo Dankwah Akufo-Addo, I am drawn in.  The discourse has been further fueled by the positions of the ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (N.D.C).

The concept by itself isn’t novel.  It is an ideal foreseen by the 1992 Ghanaian constitution.  In that sovereign document, it was expected that by 2002 and 2004, Ghanaian citizens in the country should have education free as far as fees are concerned at the Basic level of education. The Basic level is defined from Kindergarten to Junior Secondary (High) School.  From this point, it was anticipated that the Secondary level (or Senior High as we have chosen to rechristen it) becomes increasingly free.  Thereafter, the constitution looks into the possibility of including tertiary education on the free wagon.

That said, it is clear to Ghanaians that the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) of the constitution is yet to see its full realization – it’s been twenty (20) years since!

Fast forward to the 2008 elections, and Mr. Akufo-Addo makes it a cardinal position of his campaign.  Then candidate of the Conventions People’s Party, Dr. Papa Kwesi Ndoum made a strong case in that direction.  Recent emerging evidence, as recent as Tuesday December 4, 2012, captures the then running mate of President Mills and the current President and Presidential candidate of the NDC, President John Mahama, on a tape suggesting they hoped to make both the Basic and Secondary education free.  Here is a transcribed excerpt of the interview granted to ASTA FM in 2008 by then Vice Presidential Candidate John Mahama:

“In the program that we are introducing, Professor Mills says that when we say free compulsory basic education, it means absolutely free.  Do you understand? It means you would not pay anything. If you look the capitation grant, it is insufficient for the schools… We would increase it and ensure that parents would pay nothing. This is at the basic level…

At the secondary level we have a free education policy for them as well. Let me explain. Free education policy at the secondary level is about community day secondary schools.  At the secondary level we have a free education policy for them as well. … The government will pay for all secondary schools. So when you go to the school and come back home, without sleeping at the school, you would pay no fees.”

Following from these, I wonder if there really is a debate about the nobility or necessity of Free Education in Ghana.  The constitution enjoins us, and the political heads assent to the concept at different points.   So, the contention isn’t whether it is good or not.  If this was true in practice, I would have ended my piece here, and would have at best provided a bit of antecedence.  But no, there are contradictions, emerging angles and a host of interesting standpoints.  It is on this score, I write and take a position.

With Hon. Nana Akufo-Addo revisiting the idea and making it his centrepiece campaign promise in 2012, and doing such an effective job of marketing it, one cannot but stop to probe.  For this, I must congratulate Nana Addo and the NPP for helping shift the agenda from personality politicking and ethnocentrism to the core issues of governance.

What are the misgivings?  I have heard a few, namely: Affordability; Can Ghana afford it?  Timing; Can/Should it be done now or later?  Quality Assurance; Would quality not be compromised?  Sustainability; Can/should this venture be perpetuated as part of our national policy?  Relevance; Would/Does this policy solve our educational problem?  These five concerns have been voiced out on several platforms I have had the occasion to listen to, debate on or read from.  I have my take on each… after all, this is my space!

I begin with a premise, that “Free” is defined.  Salvation for Christians is free, but we have to come take it.  Christians did not pay to be saved, but had to believe and must “work out” their salvation with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12-13).  Taxes of Ghanaians and all people relating with the nation would be used for the venture, not the monies of the candidate.  To this extent, it is free in that you do not have to pay for this service again as would have been the case if there wasn’t such a policy of FREE SHS.

RELEVANCE

So, to relevance: Would/Does this policy of FREE SHS solve our educational problem?  Naturally, the question to ask is, What is/are our educational problem(s)?  I cannot boast of knowing all of it.  It is multifaceted including: misplaced priorities, inadequate resourcing, insufficient teaching and learning aids, curricula content insufficiency, lack of or inadequate teacher motivation just to mention a few.  Hence it is obvious FREE SHS would not answer to all these needs.  So what is the role of the policy?

From my point of view, I see this policy doing an immediate job of at least saving the nation from the scourge of unemployable kids out on the streets trying to make a living.  In Ghana, on the average, a kid leaves the current Basic level at the age of fifteen (15).  In few cases it is an average of seventeen (17) – and this is rare.

At any of these ages, employing the person isn’t morally or legally right.  They are under aged.  Besides the age factor, they have limited knowledge and employable skills.  So keeping them in school for another three (3) or four (4) years first deals with the chronological barrier and hopefully addresses the issue of skills and knowledge.  And in this knowledge-economy, as run in the 21st century, any country still toying with the human resource does so at its own peril.  Such a nation would remain subservient to those with the might of a superior mind-economy.

Besides, implementing this program helps us to rein in a certain energetic and boisterous segment of society – the youths.  The UN report on HIV/AIDS prevalence puts this category of people as the most vulnerable.  Crime statistics also show that this group are the most influenced and involved.  Some time ago, the Bureau for National Investigation (BNI) stepped into the unemployment debate because it identified the subject a matter of interest to National Security.  They were right to an extent.  No country is safe that has a horde of its young people either unemployed or unemployable.  Soon this group will become a threat to the middle and elite class.  And you don’t want to experience a class war!

In this light, I believe keeping these fourteen (14) to seventeen (17) year olds in school another three (3) or four (4) years in school first of all makes them chronologically employable, and then skill-wise  ensures that they are better skilled or mentally stimulated to either find employment or become entrepreneurial.  Education, however poor, has an inherent ability in making the recipient stimulated enough to be creative.  Besides, it ensures a more orderly society of disciplined and critical-minded citizens who are nut easily deceived.

While this policy of FREE SHS addresses the knowledge and middle to high level employment needs, we must all begin to tackle the other issues also aforementioned.  Ghana would be the better for this concerted effort.

AFFORDABILITY

This is a natural question for such an audacious project.  We are talking of tens or hundreds of thousands of Ghanaian children between the ages of fourteen (14) and say twenty-one (21).

The NPP has provided some figures, and so has the Think-Tank IMANI Ghana.  The NPP projects to spend, in 2013 “… an estimated total amount of GH¢754.6 million (i.e. GH¢78m on recurrent expenditure plus GH¢ 676.8m on additional infrastructures and teachers) to provide free SHS.  In 2014, the cost will be GH¢965 million as enrolment shoots up, going up further to GH¢1.19 billion in 2015, and GH¢1.45 billion (1.3% of GDP) in 2016.”  IMANI’s calculations however indicates the figures are underestimated.   IMANI’s calculation and position notwithstanding, the flag-bearer of the NPP has consistently argued that where there is a will, there’d always be a way.  At the IEA Evening Encounters, Nana Addo said with respect to FREE SHS:

“I know this will be expensive. But, as the Ewe saying has it, “you cook important foods in important pots.” The cost of providing free secondary school education will be cheaper than the cost of the current alternative of a largely uneducated and unskilled workforce that retards our development. Leadership is about choices – I will choose to invest in the future of our youth and of our country.”

He reiterated this point in an interview I chanced on the BBC’s documentary Focus on Africa.

Nana Addo and the NPP have consistently juxtaposed their arguments with the perceived dubious Judgement Debts doled out to persons directly or remotely connected with the ruling government.  For example, the classical case of businessman Alfred Agbesi Woyome tells me we can afford it.  He is alleged to have benefited from as much as 51 million Ghana Cedis (nearly GHC 52m) Judgement Debt for no job done, and no contract, as established by his own admission on Accra-based radio stations including Peace FM with host Kwame Sefa Kayi.  Upon the removal of this sum, Ghana’s coffers did not suffer immediate noticeable damage.  By implication, we had at least more than GHC 52m, indeed way above that.

Doing a simple math of this blows the mind.  On the average, a fresh SHS student this academic year in a school I shall leave unnamed, paid an approximate of 900 GHC, totalling 2,700 GHC for a year.  Dividing Woyome’s dole-out by this amount (2,700 GHC) means we would have taken care of at least 18, 888 Ghanaian Senior High School students.

Now that is a wild calculation, because on the average students pay between 200 and 350 GHC as fees ( for those in boarding schools).  Taking the higher limit, this translates to 1,050 GHC for the whole year.  Doing the division, 51, 000, 000 GHC by 1, 050 GHC shows we would have catered for at least 48, 571 Ghanaian children fit for Senior High School.  On this score alone, I am convinced we can fund the first year at least.

In a conversation with an Economist and colleague, he argued that although he saw the good in the FREE SHS proposal, he thought that the slant of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the deficit nature of our budget makes it impracticable now.  In his opinion, Dr, Ndoum’s approach of job creation better answers this problem since it would create more instant wealth and thus form a basis for the implementation of such a capital intensive venture.  I saw it as a chicken (or hen) and egg situation and thus hold a different opinion.

For one, I concede that the GDP isn’t wholly government owned, as such we cannot be entirely right to calculate our spending based on a GDP whose components are shared with an economy led by the services industry largely private owned.  I also concede Ghana has since attaining nationhood depended on foreign donor support to prop up our yearly budgets.  All these notwithstanding, I disagree we cannot fund FREE SHS because, America with all its wealth is one of the world’s largest debtors to financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Yet with this, the US manages to provide some level of FREE EDUCATION to its school-going population (for a nation that boasts of an over 300 million national population).

Besides, wasn’t it the same Ghana, with the same budget deficit and even smaller resources that in the sixties managed to construct the Akosombo Dam – the largest man-made lake on earth till date – for the purposes of power generation and irrigation not to mention aquaculture and tourism?  We did some borrowing and nobody can deny its profitability.   Even our neighbours, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire remain eternally grateful for the courage of the great Osagyefo in doing this.  I hear though the project was one of those rivalry things heads of states did in order to outdo themselves and win bragging rights.  But whatever the motive, it has proven beneficial regardless of the state of the economy and the fact that it wasn’t done on a budget surplus.

The NPP proposes to use proceeds from crude oil revenues and the tax bit given to the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund).  I have a problem with the first consideration.  I think Nana Addo and his team, if ever they get the mandate of the Ghanaian people, must look elsewhere in the interest of all of us.  My position is based on the fact that the world’s largest consumers of crude oil are beginning to act differently.  America for instance provided for 80% of its own oil needs this year and hopes to top the charts by 2020 following discovery of large quantities of the resource on its own land.  To further compound the problems of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), China has at least 20 companies already prospecting for an alternative energy source called Shale Gas.

With commercial production billed for soon, and the fact that our neighbours on the West Cost are beginning make progress in oil exploration, we’d be hanging unto straw steadying on oil.  It is a surmountable challenge.   If less endowed nations, in terms of natural resources, are able to make the same FREE EDUCATION at some levels work, why can’t we?  Others have huge population sizes, and could have been good reason to call it quits on free comfort.  China for example, commanding one-seventh the world’s population, that is, over one billion manages to have free and compulsory 9-year basic educational program for her populace beginning anytime from six to seven years.

If we make it a priority, if we stop clogging this fine wheel of national progress, and all think up innovative ways to make it work, we can do it.  Like the National Health Insurance Policy and the Housing Project spearheaded by the group STX, the FREE SHS policy is a worthy policy needing our collective buy-in.  IMANI Ghana for example thinks that it isn’t really an equitable way of sharing our resources to do a BLANKET FREE SHS in a nation with a sizable middle class who can pay.  They opine we could rather increase our scholarship and bursary schemes to cater for brilliant but needy students while others pay because they can.  This for me is also good input to the discourse.

QUALITY ASSURANCE

Having dealt with relevance and affordability, it is just human and logical to suspect the quality of the venture seeing that human nature has a way of tending to inferiority with every increase and perceived scarce resources.

My take on this is simple.  It isn’t necessarily so.  Quality doesn’t have to be sacrificed.  We have air for free doesn’t make it inferior.  We may have it polluted every here and there, but that is indeed another argument, not as a result of its value to the recipient form the giver.  Again I go back to Scriptures, my most-read text.  Salvation is free and for ALL, it has never diminished its value.

To the one that beats me, the living examples of those beneficiaries of the same policy in the past.  I have a short list below.  These men are all beneficiaries of the policies, as recent as some 20 to 40 years ago.  By the way, the policy as instituted by the great Osagyefo Dr. Nkrumah still runs and is supposed to benefit all Northern Ghanaians WHEREVER they find themselves in the territory. Below are names of a few beneficiaries of Free Secondary Education:

  1. Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia             – Running Mate to Mr. Akufo-Addo (NPP Flag bearer)
  2. Hon. Cletus Avoka                         – Majority Leader in Parliament
  3. Hon. Benjamin Kumbour             – Current Attorney General and Minister of Justice
  4. Hon. Alban Gbagbin     – Minister of Health and former Majority Leader in Parliament
  5. Dr. Abu Sakara Foster            – Flag bearer of the Convention People’s Party (CPP), 2012
  6. Hon. Martin Amidu                – Immediate past Attorney General and Minister of Justice
  7. Hon. Haruna Iddrisu  – Minister of Communication and Chairman of the 2009 Conference of the International Telecommunication Union and
  8. His Excellency John Dramani Mahama, President of the Republic of Ghana and flag bearer of the ruling party.

Trust me, there is a taller list.  And no one can debate the quality these men possess.  We would be erring to suggest that their eminence is attributable SOLELY or ONLY to FREE SHS.  But it is undeniable that if the free education they received was of no quality, because it was free, they wouldn’t have come this far in all probability.

Akufo-Addo’s insistence on putting the teacher first, motivating them and making education a priority assures me – at least for now – that we wouldn’t be sacrificing quality.

TIMING

The question of timing has come up strongest.  The President, at the Institute of Economic Affairs’ (IEA) first Presidential debate, suggested he was for FREE SHS, but noted that it would amount to turning the whole process on its head if the kindergarten to Junior High School level isn’t attended to first.  Mr. President is by this, suggesting that logically, we move from one to two and not start counting from two.

A member of his party’s communication team, Felix Kwakye Ofosu wonders why Mr. Akufo-Addo would not include FREE TERTIARY education.   As for Felix’s point, I think it is a non-starter because Tertiary education isn’t the subject matter now.  It is just a red herring he managed to introduce into the discourse on (Samson Ladi Ayenini  hosted) Cross Fire on Joy 99.7 FM.

I find the President’s argument logical and tenable to an extent.  My only problem is the shifting position of the President.  From the IEA debate until the NDC’s final rally at the Trade Fair Complex, La, yesterday, I see a sharp deviation.  Mr. President is quoted on myjoyonline.com as saying he wouldn’t make SHS FREE even if the resources were available.  I find this contradictory.  Mr. President makes me dizzy with his ever-rotating, swirling position on the matter – almost like playing with a yo-yo.

But as far as I am concerned, we had better start NOW.  This conviction is further stirred by the fact that we could find money to pay Mr. Woyome and other such suspicious judgement debts and out of court settlements at a time when the nation battles with erratic power supply and deficiencies in nearly every utility provider.

What is more?  Imagine Ghana between 1951 and 1953 when it was a contest between the UGCC’s (United Gold Coast Convention) “Independence in the shortest possible time” and Kwame Nkrumah’s “Independence Now” mantra?  What side of the debate would have won?  The same scenario is playing out here mind you.

The NDC and all who think of FREE SHS in progressive terms cite current economic downturn and infrastructural deficits as reasons for postponing the venture.  Both are untenable in my opinion.  The former is an indictment on the economic imprudence of the administration and the latter a misrepresentation of the facts, and a show of misplaced priorities.  I dare say this because they find money to do many other things other than improve on our only inexhaustible and most valued natural resource – our people, young people.

We cannot always finish all our fundamentals before moving on.  It is logical and traditional, in fact a good thing to do, but not in a world that is so fast-paced that technology becomes obsolete every turn of the clock.  We use smart phones without even understanding the workings of Graham Bell’s telephony.  And that is good because we needed to catch up fast!

When the proponents of the by-and-by speak, one thing I do not hear them say is when this future would begin.  Minister of Education, Lee Ocran says if this venture of FREE SHS is ever possible, we must wait another twenty (20) years.  I wonder on what basis he came about that?  Or was it just a ‘political talk’?  He gives us no scientific reason for the assertion, except to say that Nkruamh’s inability to make it country-wide meant it was beyond all Ghanaians for all time.  I just hate to think a minister of this republic could say that!

In my very humble opinion, FREE SHS should begin NOW.  It should be set in motion so we can identify in good time what the shortfalls are, and correct them as we go.  So far, the thought and planning processes are commendable, subject to fine-tuning.

SUSTAINABILITY

Is this proposal of FREE SHS sustainable?  This is a million-cedi question.  This question bothers on resource availability, prioritization, and national policy.

If the purpose of the FREE SHS, and in fact FREE EDUCATION becomes a subject of referendum, then we have a situation where as a nation we must be agreed to doing whatever it takes to keep the project funded.  However, if we aren’t innovative in resource generation, we risk failure midway through the enterprise.

At present, our known natural resources, tax incomes, duties and excise as against our recurrent, statutory expenditures and other cash outflows shows that we must be extremely innovative in increasing income flows and particularly careful on our expenditures.  For until leakages are blocked, corruption checked, tax evasion adequately tackled and spending priorities properly ordered, we wouldn’t be able to keep funding this project.

On the other hand, I’d like to take the view point of the Think-Tank, IMANI Ghana – partially.  They hold that rather than make this a blanket free-for-all thing, suspiciously politically motivated, the FREE SHS agenda should be targeted at the most vulnerable in society in the form of scholarships, studentships and bursaries.  In their opinion, this is an equitable way of sharing the national resource gains in say oil.  This opinion is founded, in part, by the understanding that there are those in society that can afford to pay the fees of their wards, and should be allowed to do so, in order that the possible majority who cannot are better served with the limited resource.  I am inclined to agree with them totally, except that I wonder how best and how quickly we can do that data sorting of the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-nots’.  Besides, would it be really fair to leave out anybody on the basis of personal income when the wealth of the nation is to be for the good of all?  And what about rich countries like the US and China where per capita is reasonably high and the average earning capacity of the population is reasonably high but still enjoy free education across board?

My take therefore is that this venture is sustainable, premised on national consensus on the matter of national priority, innovative wealth generation, fiscal discipline, a frontal and brutal attack on corruption and finally a focused devotion to a flawless execution of the project.

CHALLENGES I FORESEE

Like every other venture, FREE SHS – the NPP way – if it ever receives oxygen to breath post December 7 elections would face formidable challenges.  I share Honourable Papa Owusu Ankomah’s sentiments (Former Minister of Education, and MP for the Sekondi Constituency and member of the Nana Akufo-Addo Education Team).  Here are a few forthcoming challenges I foresee:

  1. There would be Bureaucratic challenges.  Whatever the composition of parliament, the policy would be hotly debated on the floor.  The prolonged nature of the debate would be due largely to political considerations. This would be so because passing the associated bill and letting the project take off would be a plus to the NPP, a fulfillment of their campaign promise, and as such would be given quite a hell of a debate.  This would be especially so if the NPP does not get an overwhelming majority – which is doubtful, even in the event that Nana Addo becomes President.

  2. There would be Infrastructural challenges.  Immediately, the government would have to put up a number of structures like classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, assembly halls, expand existing ones and in some cases build the schools from the scratch
  3. There would be Financial challenges.  This would be very related to parliamentary approvals, competing needs and the increased enrollments.  If the calculations are too far off what the actual is, then the NPP would have a hard time convincing parliament to approve of funds from the national coffers.  And this would likely show up in the 2013/2014 Budget Statement and Parliamentary Debate.
  4. adult_shsFinally, I see Attitudinal challenges.  Human beings are by nature wont to abuse privileges and worse so with rights.  I imagine some, maybe many, parents and guardians turning over the responsibility of childcare to the state in its entirety because someone says he’s providing ‘FREE SHS’.  I imagine these caregivers just push their wards to schools with nothing save their bodies.  And as Hon. Owusu Ankomah said, it might become difficult to even call on parents to make legitimate contribution(s).

Closely related to this, and the bureaucratic bottlenecks in parliament, would be the impatience of the populace in seeing the promise come to fruition.  I expect all kinds of misunderstandings, abuses and allegations of corruption in the execution of the project. The Ministry of Education and indeed other ministries such as Finance , Water Resources, works and Housing would be very busy in the next four years, especially if FREE SHS comes on board.

CONCLUSION

Like every other proposal, people would take differing positions.  I am for this one.  If it influences or determines the voting pattern in any way, then the outcome of the votes, especially in the Presidential polls says a lot about the Ghanaian voter – barring any flaws in communication and marketing the idea.

It is going to be a contest between ‘I Can’ and ‘You Cannot’; or ‘Possible’ versus ‘Impossible’ or between ‘Free SHS Now’ against ‘Free SHS later’.   Or if you like, it would be ‘Yes We Can’ versus ‘No We/You Can’t’.  Thus, if the latter wins, it means Ghanaians are a very daring people, else a very cautious people.  This would be a reasonable litmus test.

I have my reservations in spite of my pro-Free SHS stance.

For example, I do not think that the proposal, if it becomes a project, should be run ad infinitum.  I would rather that upfront we should be told that FREE SHS is designed to meet so-and-so need for such-and-such period of time.  Now, that isn’t politically prudent or helpful I know, but it helps to put things into proper perspective.

In my opinion, it should run for say between twelve (12) and twenty (20) years to cure the malady of unemployable youths, early school dropout, streetism and youthful moral delinquency.

If we are told upfront, we all can prepare for either a more subsidized education or more robust scholarship scheme.

I do not want it for all time, at least for now; until we can get our tax data right, and show a capacity to constantly, consistently, courageously and creatively generate wealth.

Hence the summary of my position on the matter of FREE SHS is as I have laid out in this treatise.

In a Facebook post prior to the elections I titled “MY ELECTION CREED…”, I summarize my position on the debate on FREE SHS thus:

“Speaking strictly based on Scriptures, there are a few things that are IMPOSSIBLE:

  • It is IMPOSSIBLE for men to obtain salvation by and of themselves – Matt. 19:26
  • “It is IMPOSSIBLE that scandals should not come” – Luke 17:1 [Doauy-Rheims Bible]
  • It is IMPOSSIBLE for apostates to be restored to faith – Heb. 6:4-8
  • It is IMPOSSIBLE for God to lie – Heb. 6:18
  • It is IMPOSSIBLE to please God without faith – Heb. 11:6

I have heard the arguments on EDUCATION in this year’s campaign. To be precise, the one on FREE SHS. Clearly, it is POSSIBILITY against IMPOSSIBILITY.

So, having exhausted the list of IMPOSSIBILITIES in the Word of God, I am inclined to give my Election Creed thus:

I believe that Education at the Senior High School level can be made FREE

I believe that FREE SHS can be done NOW!

I believe that FREE SHS can and will be of QUALITY

I believe that with good leadership FREE SHS would solve some educational needs

I believe that Nana Addo Dankwah Akufo-Addo is well intentioned about FREE SHS

I believe that others would have believed it if it came from them first

I believe that this policy is reasonably thought through and would face its own challenges as would any new thing like the biometric verification exercise on such a large scale due for tomorrow

I believe that we would have a peaceful elections tomorrow

I believe that FREE QUALITY SHS is POSSIBLE NOW!!

Mark 9:23_ Jesus replied, “Why do you say ‘if you can’? Anything is possible for someone who has faith!” [Contemporary English Version]

Mark 9:23_ “…Everything is possible for the person who has faith.” [Good News Bible]

Mark 9:23_ – Jesus said to him, “As far as possibilities go, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE FOR THE PERSON WHO BELIEVES.” [GOD’S WORD]”

I hold this position regardless of the outcome of the elections still ongoing.

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About Danso W.

Because He is Who He is...I will be what I should be...
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