Something jolted me out of my sleep some few days ago. It was the big debate going on over there. Why do politicians like to engage in so much populism? Why do they like talking so much about mundane things? I have been struggling to understand the reasoning behind the so-called free Senior High School (SHS) education policy proposal being pushed around the place.

I have, for nearly two years, restrained myself from commenting on the subject because I never understood all the scenarios pretty well. But it is now time to stick my neck out. I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. So I would speak my mind without caring whose ox is gored.

Why do the majority of our JHS graduates fail to progress to SHS? Is it because they fail their BECE? Is it because despite doing so well in the BECE, these JHS graduates have no space in the SHSs to accommodate them? Or is it because despite obtaining good grades, these students have no finances to push them through SHS? Which of the foregoing reasons is MAINLY responsible for the inability of the majority of our JHS graduates to progress to SHS. I am not aware of any studies implicating “poverty” as the MAJOR REASON for “non-progression” to warrant a wholesale free SHS policy proposal as the means to addressing the problem.

That is not to say there are no pupils who fail to go beyond JHS because of poverty. Indeed, there are such pupils, and who surely need help. But here is the bigger picture. We have been aware of mass failures in the BECE over the last several years. Nationally, BECE pass rates hardly go past 50% these days. So is it that when we make SHS free, the close to 50% who fail the BECE will be allowed automatic access to SHS when they don’t have the required grades needed for progression? Or maybe we will cancel the BECE and then allow all JHS 3 students free passage to SHS in order to make SHS the basic point at which one can terminate his/her education? But more importantly, in the absence of a BECE, by which criteria will pupils have access to the various SHSs? Which pupils get to go to the so-called high grade schools, and which ones go to the low grade ones? Something doesn’t add up here. But I can understand it. Politicians will always say things that will make them come across as “socially conscious people” when in fact they are far removed from the people.

In 2008, I heard one of the most bizarre policy proposals on the campaign trail…..a “one-time health insurance premium”! Was that necessary? Hell no! There was no reason for it then, there is no reason for it now, and there will be no reason for a “one-time health insurance premium” for a very, very long time to come. But obviously, the politicians were only looking at how many votes they were going to obtain by throwing such a “populist policy” into the public domain….The result? After securing the mandate of the people, Government now has the so-called “one-time premium” hanging around its neck like an albatross…she keeps moving the goal-posts on this matter. Now, here we are in another election cycle, and it’s time to throw about more populist proposals that will easily catch the attention of the masses. So we hear one of them: “free SHS policy”.

Lend me your ears. I will go all out to show why this free SHS policy in the wholesale manner it is being proposed is not only populist, but also unrealistic, drawing critical lessons from our recent past. We are told that Ghana is damn rich, her GDP being close to US$80 billion (GDP-PPP), or at least US$40 billion (GDP-Nominal) and so it should be pretty easy to roll out a free SHS programme. We are told that the proposal only requires that we spend 5-6% of our GDP on the programme. No problem. But the fact is, no government in the world “spends GDP”.

Governments only spend “cash”….hot cash….If you don’t have it, you go borrow it. In other words, does it strike you that the US, a nation with a GDP of about US$15 trillion, the largest by far of any country, is reeling under the pressure of a public debt of about US$15 trillion? If indeed we have some US$80 billion sitting somewhere, why are we still sleeping in darkness? Why should implementing a new salary scheme that sends our wage bill to “just” about GHC 6 billion be a huge problem? Why are many parts of our country still without potable water? The late president Mills, in one of his State of the Nation addresses, on the floor of Parliament, said the water situation in Accra had improved. In trying to show us how it happened, he said it was because water was being rationed…Water rationing in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Indeed, several communities in Accra have had no water running through their pipes for decades.

So when people in these communities put up buildings these days and fix pipelines in them, it’s not because they expect water to run through them anyway. If anything at all, it’s only because they want their estates to look modern. Still, for what in the name of God did we come shamelessly so close to procuring a “soft loan” from a hair dressing salon despite Ghana having a multi-billion dollar war chest to wage war on its problems? Why did the government have to go for a loan to build a Presidential Palace when our GDP hovers around US$80 billion? And why is nobody talking about “spending GDP” to solve Accra’s water problems once and for all but find it cheap talking about throwing millions of Ghana Cedis about “free SHS”? Why does Government pride itself so much in its ability to secure a US$3 billion Chinese loan facility just so we can lay basic infrastructure on the ground?

Why do politicians promise what they have no clue about?

THE BIG QUESTION: What is the track record of the politicians promising free SHS as far as marshalling the resources of this nation to undertake development projects is concerned? It came to pass that Ghana won the right to host the 2008 African Cup of Nations. Consequently, we needed to make ready for the event four stadia. But the politicians who now claim they have what it takes to raise several millions of Ghana Cedis each year to sponsor free SHS programme had no clue how to raise money from our resources to put in place the infrastructure required for the 2008 AfCON.

So, a “financial engineer” would be relied upon to try to raise money for some of the projects…the rest is history. You know, quite a lot of things happened between 2005 and 2008. Things were very tough. Government was struggling to balance the budget, at least so we were told. So we had to dispose of our interest, more or less, in the then Ghana Telecom. Consequently, Vodafone became “proud owners” of one of our assets. No problem. Quite a lot of things: Government would issue a US$750 million Eurobond. What for? A great chunk went into paying salaries!

Many more unimaginable things happened. So why would these the politicians who are promising us free SHS education, which will be a recurrent expenditure, when they had no clue, absolutely no clue, about generating resources internally to make one-off payments for projects like a Presidential Palace and Sport Stadia? What happened to the National Identification Project? Why do they now look us in the face and say they have what it takes to deliver free SHS education? What has changed? Hear it again: when you hear the stories about our GDP being big enough to support a free SHS education, know that someone is being economical with the truth. If it’s that easy to “spend GDP”, why are we not spending the recommended GDP on science and technology? Why are our university laboratories still very empty…and yet, ironically, we have on average more professors than many well resourced nations?

At this point, it is worthy to note that even the Capitation Grant Programme that is frequently trumpeted as having made basic education “free” has always, since its inception, been in arrears and is presently in arrears for almost one academic year across many schools in Ghana, and that many times, teachers are compelled to write exam questions on blackboard, otherwise pupils are asked to pay “printing fee”. Why is such a paltry sum never paid up front? Perhaps the only reason those public basic schools have not shut down yet is that there are no “boarding students” who should be fed with a-never-forthcoming-capitation-grant — the pupils return home to their parents at the end of the day. So in the face of all these, is free SHS education really possible right now?

(Keep your eyes on this space for Part II of this series. It will briefly look at some “free education” programmes around the world, and whether Ghana can really achieve free SHS right now)

Author: Israel Deladem Agorsor