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Pros, cons of Malawi’s secondary school fees abolition

By Kisa Paul Kumwenda

Education is widely valued across the world as a central factor in economic, political and social development of any country.

Some scholars have defined it as a catalyst of development. This is why it is vital that we provide education to every learner.

Barely two weeks after releasing a press statement instructing secondary school head teachers not to collect school fees, government finally abolished payment of K3,250 per student in all public secondary schools; that is, MK1,500 tuition fees per year, general purpose fund contribution of MK1,500 and textbook revolving fund pegged at MK250.

It is pertinent to provide a background as to what ignited the government’s thinking.

In 2015, Malawi joined the global 2030 agenda which calls for member states to contribute to the attainment of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which Goal Number 4 centres on education. The goal is specifically about ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

Target 4.1 calls for countries to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

Precisely, this target calls for the provision of 12 years of free, publicly-funded, inclusive, equitable, quality primary and secondary education – of which at least nine years are compulsory, leading to relevant learning outcomes – should be ensured for all, without discrimination.

It is important to note that this is a dream that, we committed to and whether this is attainable within the 15-year time-frame is a question that needs answers.

While we must realise that we do not live as an isolated State, but rather in a global society, there is still need to deeply reflect on these commitments that government makes on our behalf by considering country contexts and citizens’ views before the implementation of the same.

The expansion of free primary school to secondary education is an attempt to increase access to equitable and inclusive education for everyone. While this is a good vision, proper planning needed to be in place before the actualisation of the same.

One thing that needs to be noted is that this is a global plan and needs to be rectified, taking into consideration the context. As a country currently we are in this process of domestication, where some two weeks ago we were developing indicators for the SDG 4.

One tends to wonder as to which instrument they are implementing because this one is not SDG 4 as it is in the process of developing a country strategy, neither is it the National Education Policy nor the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy as, during the consultations in the development of the said strategies nothing of this sort came out.

Until 1994, access to primary education in Malawi was attached to mandatory fees, which meant that to the majority of Malawians, education was expensive.

This implied that there in inequality in the provision of the public good. Lower-income-bracket parents were wary of sending their children to school as tuition fee requirements often hampered access.

The immediate outcome of 1994 policy shift to free primary education was unprecedented increase in enrollment from 1,895,423 the previous year to 2,860, 819 the following year.

Since then, enrollment has continued to increase to 5,073,721 according to Education Management Information System, 2017, challenges in classroom space have worsened from an average of 1: 80 before 1994 to 1:121; teacher pupil ratio has always been high regardless of the government’s efforts to train and recruit more teachers.

Teacher motivation has always been a challenge, with no continuous professional development, unpaid arrears and delayed salaries which demotivate our teachers. These are just a few memories and realities that are still hampering our education sector.

One would think that the reduced burden of MK3,250.00 would increase the enrollment in secondary school but, to the contrary, it will, in the meantime, mean nothing apart from reducing pressure from parents and guardians by the said amount.

In the 2017/18 academic year, 210,323 learners passed their Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLCE) examinations representing 79.39 percent and were eligible for secondary school education.

However, the public schools registered a 38 percent selection rate. This means that, out of the 210,323 learners who passed the PLSCE examinations and were eligible for secondary school education, only 79,779 were given space, living out 130,549 to be either absorbed by 76 private secondary schools or repeat in Standard Eight.

In reality, about 55 percent eligible candidates repeat, not because the fees are high, but mainly because we do not have adequate space for these learners. This questions the intention and motive behind some of these decisions on some school fees.

Another important thing is how the process of announcing the fees abolition was done. At that time, where parents and guardians were ready to pay school fees, they were told not to.

For them, school fees was and still remains the whole amount which they pay to schools which ranges from MK 5,250 in community day secondary schools to MK50,500 in boarding schools. And it took the government two weeks to announce the exact amounts they would be deducting from the fees.

The critical impact of the decision would always be constrained resources, which means that schools will not have adequate teaching and learning materials to aid teachers in the teaching and learning process. In an environment where the schools are already grappling with availability of adequate teaching learning materials, it is illogical to remove the same from the schools.

This is with the background that, since introducing a new curriculum in secondary school in the 2016/17 academic year, there were no provision of the corresponding textbooks to all the schools until the 2018/19 academic year, yet these teachers and learners were assessed using the new syllabus. This shows how grave the challenges are in these schools.

In the context of limited and constrained resources, the decision came when the budget was passed and it did not take into consideration reforms.

Furthermore, the decision of the government based on the conditionality of a donor is what puts to question another important issue of sovereignty.

We have allowed for a long time external factors to determine how our house should be managed without considering our country’s status. Let us assume that a cost-benefit analysis was done on how much they are bringing in and how much we are taking off; was it not proper and wise to consult the citizenry and the strategic stakeholders on the same?

The little that parents and guardians were contributing was significant in rural schools where most of the developments are managed by surrounding communities.

Some of the resources could go towards infrastructure development in these schools.

So essentially, the decision, in whatever context it was made, will further widen the inequalities among learners as those in rural schools will no longer be benefiting from resources procured using the contributions they were making as it is doubtful if the government will optimally cushion the gap that will emanate from its decision.

In conclusion, the government erred in the timing and implementation of this otherwise great reform. More should have been done before the implementation of the same so that people should not think that the ministry is being used to achieve political goals especially as the country gears up for next year’s tripartite elections.

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