Poverty has been one of the primary reasons behind the introduction of Cost-Elimination policies, popularly called fee-free education at various levels of education.
Citizens of the global South, including Ghana, admire the idea of enrolling in school, at least at the high school level.
The recent surge of enrolment figures in Ghana at the high school level after introducing the Free Senior High School policy (Free SHS) in 2017 attests to these facts.
Furthermore, studies using data from across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), a region with the lowest rate of school enrolment at the high school level, show that the introduction of fee-free policies positively impacts enrolment rate relative to the pre-policies era.
However, as time progresses, the impact on enrolment may decline. Using data from across the SSA region, this is illustrated in Figure 1.
Many factors may be responsible for the declining effect of enrolment amid the introduction of fee-free policies in the long run. However, a key variable that has been identified to contribute to the declining effect of the positive gains from fee-free policies on enrolment is, once again, the increase in national (macro) poverty levels.
Poverty dynamics in SSA and its role on school enrolment
According to World Bank data, SSA’s average poverty rate of $3.65 a day was 53.3% in 2018. In Ghana, the Poverty headcount ratio at $3.65 a day (2017 PPP) was 49.9% in 2016 (the latest figures available). These macro-level statistics mean that almost 50% of the population in Ghana lives on less than $3.65 a day at 2017 international prices.
This condition becomes more precarious due to the high rate of inequality levels (Gini index), which stood at 43.5% in 2016, indicating that income distribution (or, in some cases, consumption expenditure) among individuals or households in Ghana deviates from a perfectly equal distribution.
In other words, considering the national wealth, the national income is concentrated within a section of the population. In contrast, about 45% of the population has little gains from this income, reinforcing the deep-rooted poverty among the population.
The foregoing analysis indicates that if the macroeconomic structure is not well addressed to reduce national poverty levels as well as the inequality rate, the gains from Free SHS in Ghana will begin to decline.
This proposition is scientifically proven in a study by Asante (2022), using data from across SSA. He showed that a continuous increase in national poverty levels amid fee-free education would be counterproductive to the gains of the policy. This demonstration is illustrated in Figure 2.
A simple interpretation of Figure 2 is that, in the long run (represented in Figure 2a), the presence of cost elimination has about 6% more positive effect on enrolment than the absence of cost elimination when the rate of poverty is low, that is, about 0-10%. This means the presence of fee-free policies is making a significant impact on enrolment compared to the absence of it. However, as the rate of poverty increases, the impact of cost elimination on the enrolment rate decreases.
The interpretation of this is that you can still have some increase in the enrolment rate with the presence of fee-free policies relative to the absence of it, but this increase will decline with an increase in poverty levels. The situation worsens in the short run (Figure 2b). There can be a decline in the enrolment rate between two different years when the poverty rate is about 40% and above.
For example, if the enrolment rate was 50% in 2021, it can decrease by two percentage points, to 48%, with or without fee-free policies, if poverty levels rise to about 60% and above. The reason assigned to this is that fee-free policies cannot cover all the cost items in school, including indirect costs (For details about the cost of schooling, see https://www.myjoyonline.com/gabriel-asante-a-review-of-the-free-shs-policy-where-can-we-focus/).
Intuitively, students may forgo schooling to cover other cost items due to high poverty levels. Therefore, in pursuing interventions to increase enrolment, poverty alleviation is an essential dimension in achieving this aim, as a high poverty rate constrains the ability to afford the indirect costs as well as some direct costs of education.
Recently, there have been calls for the review of the current Free SHS amid the apparent economic crises Ghana is facing. Given the above analysis, I suggest that if a review of the Free SHS could contribute (which I believe so) to sustaining the country’s economic recovery, then it must be pursued.
This is because maintaining Free SHS as it is now and having a bad economy with an increasing poverty rate will, in the long run, leads to a decline in the enrolment rate currently recorded. However, caution must be exercised so that the review pursued does not hurt the poor who cannot afford the immediate direct cost of schooling, such as registration/admission fees and other enrolment-related fees.
I acknowledge that it is practically difficult to use individual economic incomes to determine who can pay for the cost of senior high school in Ghana. However, we can utilize some innovative measures that can reduce the recurrent expenditure on the government as a contribution to the economic recovery while sustaining the policy and protecting the poor. This includes measures such as encouraging students to patronize day school facilities by choosing schools closer to their communities for an easy day-to-day commute. Then, the government can invite consumers of boarding facilities to pay some proportion of boarding and feeding fees. To protect the poor living in remote areas without easy access to senior high school facilities, the government can make boarding facilities in Grade C and D schools free for everyone who chooses to attend those schools.
Social policies such as Free SHS cannot be divorced from economic policies because widening the resource base through economic diversification is a critical component in ensuring sustainable social policy financing. The analysis presented in this article shows that bad economic conditions, such as high poverty levels, even in the presence of fee-free policies, will make these policies not have any significant impact envisaged.
Therefore, if reviewing the financing regulation of Free SHS will contribute to economic recovery, I believe it is in the right order. However, any form of review of Free SHS should focus on protecting the poor because access to education has always been against the poor. The innovative ways suggested in this article can be adopted in reviewing the policy to achieve two main things: policy sustainability and protecting the poor.
Asante, G. (2022). The effects of cost elimination on secondary school enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Educational Review, Epub(Ahead of print). https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2022.2028732
World Bank. (2021). World Development Indicators | DataBank. Retrieved 29 January 2023, from World Development Indicators website: https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators#
About the author
Ph.D. Candidate, Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary
Mobile: +36302290653 Gabriel Asante is a social scientist researching fee-free policies in Sub-Saharan Africa to assess their utility to social and human development, the policy processes and their drivers and alternative means to improve these policies.
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