Yesterday the BBC had an interesting “Africa Debate”. The question was: “Can Africa afford free education?”. As the Action Aid participant pointed out this was the wrong question. The question should be: “Can Africa afford NOT to have free education?” And the answer clearly is NO. Africa cannot afford to NOT have free education. And Malawi as an extreme case surely cannot afford it.
We need to look at this with a long term vision. Education pays off after a number of years, as the learners are active in productive positions. And, contrary to Malawian style, politics should have a long term vision. Politics is not solving some current little challenges. That should be done by higher civil servants with a little guidance from the politician. But the real politics should work like this: the politician has a vision what the country should be like ideally in, say, 50 years. This will be guided by the politician’s ideology. In the case of education one would say:
“In 50 years we should have a highly educated population and every child in the country should have the opportunity to develop his/her skills to the limit of his/her ability.”
Every policy decision we take should be guided by the question: “Will this bring me closer to the ideal than I say “Yes.” will it take me further from the ideal than I say: “No.”
Thanks to the ineffective policies of our governments Malawi is the poorest country in the world. This means only a very small part of the population can afford to pay school fees for their children. We want a highly educated population in 50 years. If the large majority parents cannot pay for the education of their children, the state must take over as the only alternative. We will not raise school fees, as that takes us further from the ideal. We will lower the school fees. At the same time the quality of education in Malawi is so low (thanks to the continuous underfunding by successive governments, and to the ineffective and corrupt organization of the ministry of education, think of the scam with school books by Sam Mpasu as only the tip of the iceberg) that we have a very high drop out rate, and those learners who complete their education have low skills. So we need better quality also to achieve our ideal of a highly educated population in 50 years. This means urgent reorganization of the ministry of education combined with heavy investment in education. The country needs it.
Then we have the second goal: “every child in the country should have the opportunity to develop his/her skills to the limit of his/her ability.” Those children who were so unfortunate (through no fault of their own) to be born to low income parents should have the same rights as children who happened to be so fortunate that their parents happened to be rich. That means that school fees should be affordable to all, and in Malawi with its dismally low minimum wage, that means no school fees at all. All talented children should be able to access primary, secondary and tertiary education of high quality. For their own development and for the development of the country.
The conclusion is: no school fees, better quality education through reorganization and heavy investment.
This will cost money. The money can be mobilized in the short term by austerity for the highest levels of politicians and civil servants: lower their perks, do not appoint more paper shufflers, cut back on useless travel and allowances, prosecute the corrupt ones, so they pay back their illegally gotten wealth and are fired, so they draw no more public money.
In the medium term: organize government record keeping so much less money will be lost, and donor money can be accessed again.
It is not Rocket Science, it is common sense.