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Opinions of Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Columnist: Frederick S. Ahiabor & Eli K. Avickson

Financing a sustainable Free Senior High School Education in Ghana

The Free Senior High School (SHS) education policy introduced in the 2017/18 academic year represented a significant milestone in Ghana's socio-economic development.

This policy means the government will absorb all approved fees currently charged to students in SHS and technical and vocational institutions (TVET).

Approximately, 353,053 first-year students have benefitted so far with projected beneficiaries hitting the over one million students by 2019/20 academic year.

The benefits of the policy are enormous. First, it fulfils an essential
constitutional mandate, that is, Article 25 of the 1992 Constitution which provide for the rights to educational opportunities for all. Second, the policy will increase access to education by removing any financial impediment. The current estimate of students who fail to progress to SHS is 100,000 for the last four years.

By implementing this policy, the government has taken steps to resolve this permanently. Thirdly, the policy is expected to boost the human capital base of the country, which in turn, will increase economic growth and prospect of the
country.

The financial conundrum

In the first year of the programme, the government spent approximately GHS198 million ($45m) and had committed GHS453 million ($103m) to the programme for 2018.

By the next academic year (2019), when all three-year groups are enrolled on the policy, the total cost is likely to be circa GHS750 million ($170 million). This means that from 2019 onwards, the government has to make provisions for GHS750 million per annum. This cost represents a substantial financial burden and call for thorough non-partisan discussion on the way
forward.

The President, Nana Addo Dankwah Akufo-Addo, in a recent statement admitted to the enormous financial challenges his government has to shoulder in implementing Free SHS.

He however gave assurance on his resolve to a successful implementation of the policy.

This assurance has however not stopped public debate among social commentators, the media and the civil society on the how to sustainably finance the Free SHS policy. An emerging idea is for the government to establish a voluntary fund for well-to-do citizens to contribute towards the noble policy.

However, the voluntary nature of this proposition, coupled with
Ghana’s economic profile make it unsustainable into the foreseeable future.

People will not necessarily contribute to this fund unless there are incentives in place. It will be difficult to rely on such funds, in times of economic hardship or recessions.

Another strong proposition is the incorporation of a means-testing criteria for beneficiaries where people who can afford are made to pay, so that scarce resources can be expended on deprived students.

However, the challenge with this idea is how to define affordability, especially in a country where there are no reliable data on income. How do we perform means testing when majority of the population are in the informal sector, and there is no system in place to track earnings? Another vital issue is the equitability with means-testing (discriminatory Free SHS).

The fact that Mr Akoto can pay for his child’s school fees, while Mr Baah cannot, does not mean that former is not entitled to Free SHS. It is possible that Mr Akoto pay more tax relative to Mr Baah and thus should have more entitlement to Free SHS.

We believe that this view informed the government's decision to roll out Free SHS to cover all SHS students. Thus, any alternative provided to the current format of the Free SHS must address the potential discrimination, so as to create a society that does not overburdens the few formal workers, in other to achieve development.

Quasi-loan scheme: A substitute?

As an alternative, we proposed a quasi-loan scheme to replace the current free-orientation ofthe policy.

The quasi-loan scheme in its purest form requires all beneficiaries (students) to payback, at a future date, all fees and grants received through the Free SHS policy.

In other words, beneficiaries of free-SHS should be contracted (bonded) to repay any amount paid by the government on towards their SHS education. The quasi-loan scheme is similar to the fee-grant offered to nurse and teacher trainees. However, the payback component is identical to the SSNIT student loan offered to students at various universities and tertiary institutions in
Ghana.

The main advantage of the quasi-loan scheme is that students who do not have the financial resources are not excluded. These students can directly apply to be enrolled on the Free SHS program for which they have to sign an undertaken to pay back the grant at a future date.

It will also serve as a disincentive to those who can afford to pay fees. Parents or students with the means to pay their fees are likely to opt for outright payment as opposed to a loan scheme.

We believe this is the main benefit of the loan scheme and in some way act as a means test. Thus, by introducing a payback or loan characteristics into the Free SHS policy, parents with the means to pay are likely to opt for outright payment. This can save the nation at least 30% of the current cost being expended on the free SHS.

The quasi-loan scheme also solves the inequality problem with a discriminatory option. By incorporating a payback option, the family paying fees today knows that s/he is not being robbed to pay others in the economy.

If implemented well, the quasi-loan scheme can make the implementation of Free SHS sustainable in 15 to 20 years. This is because once the first beneficiaries start paying back their loan, a pool of funds is created through subsequent payment to fund new recipients.

However, the implementation of such a policy will not be without challenges. First, is the issue of delinquencies in repayment and enforcement. To reduce the incidence of non-payment, we advocate for the on-going National Identification registration to ensure beneficiaries are tracked to ensure that repayment.

The national ID should be able to hold details of these loans or access to a nationwide database.

We also propose the use of tax incentives for parents/ students who opt to pay immediately.

For those in formal employment, these can be a form of reduced income tax or deductions, while those in the informal sector have tax holidays devised for them. These will go a long way to encourage acceptance and willingness to support the scheme.

The financial woes of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) should remind us all on why we need to get the Free SHS right. Free SHS is an opportunity to create a generational legacy. Let us cease the moment to deliver a financially robust education policy that will last for generations.