Why Malawi must consider offering free secondary education

Remarks made recently by 2014 presidential aspirant Atupele Muluzi on the United Democratic Front’s plans to explore the possibility of providing free secondary school education when elected stirred a hornet’s nest. The remarks were reported in The Daily Times of Wednesday 6th March.

Whether one is supportive of the idea or opposed to it, this is a debate whose time has come. There are substantive propositions being made on either side of the issue. I will address the merits of both sides, and conclude by pointing out why the country needs to stop being shackled by mistakes of the past and think about long term plans for how to grow Malawi’s human capital.

Why no

There are very good reasons why Malawi cannot, at this juncture, afford free secondary school education. Foremost on the list is the free primary education experience. We know what that did to the quality of education in Malawi. Nobody knows when or whether the country will ever recover from that. It is only those Malawians who cannot do otherwise, albeit being the majority, who send their children to government schools. The rest of us send our children to private schools, whose quality is as varied as the alphabet.

Then there is the curse of free things. The farm input subsidy programme is a prime example here. Eight years down the road, not only is the country unable to graduate into sustainable food security, the organization of the programme itself keeps becoming more wasteful and less efficient.

Then there are other reasons such as the heavy dependency on donors for the national budget, and the sobering fact that the country simply does not have enough money to afford free secondary school education. We are better off investing in areas of national development that have a better chance of creating more wealth for the country in a shorter period of time. Agriculture and mining would be better investments before secondary school education, or so goes the argument.

Why yes

On the other hand, there are also good reasons why we need to have the discussion on whether we can attempt free secondary school education or not. The mistakes that accompanied free primary education at its onset in 1994 need not enslave us into immobilization and arrested development. Knowing where things went wrong ought to mean knowing how to do things differently next time.

And while it is indeed true that “free” things encourage laziness, lack of responsibility and lack of imagination, the provision of education is an investment whose rates of return have a direct impact on the economic productivity of individuals as well as of a country as a whole.

A 2009 study by Professor Ephraim Chirwa and Mirriam Matita, both of the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College found that for Malawians, a secondary school education improved one’s earning potential by 15.4 percent, compared to 5.1 percent for primary school education.

The study, described in a paper titled The Rate of Return on Education in Malawi, found that university education in Malawi improved one’s earning potential by a whopping 66 percent. The importance of this finding is that one’s earning potential translates into a “ripple effect” whose impact extends to the economic potential of the nation as a whole, a point argued by Chirwa and Matita.

There are certain provisions only a government can make for its people. Because some of these are funded through taxes, there is an impression created that these provisions are “free.” The police service is one such provision, as are most hospitals in Malawi. Although everyone agrees that the quality of primary education in government schools is an abomination, it is still a free service, in that sense, to the majority of Malawians who cannot afford private school.

Tertiary education is also free, particularly in government teacher training colleges and nursing schools. Government-sponsored students in Malawi’s public universities are given allowances of K40,000 every month of the academic year, against their contribution of K55,000 for the whole year. This not only makes higher education in Malawi’s public universities free, government-sponsored students are actually paid to go to university. I am yet to hear of any other country in the world where that is the case.

The bigger picture

Meanwhile, the majority of Malawians have never received a secondary school education. In its Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010, the National Statistics Office found that only 17 percent of Malawian men aged 18 years and above had completed secondary school. The percentage for women was 11 percent.

Secondary school girls performing
Secondary school girls performing

What this means is that more than 70 percent of Malawians aged 18 or older have never completed secondary school. Given the education rates of return from the Chirwa and Matita study, it does not need much explaining to understand some of the underlying reasons why Malawi’s economic productivity is one of the lowest in the world.

There are various reasons why the majority of Malawians are unable to attain a secondary school education. School fees is one of them. In January this year a community day secondary in my home district of Ntcheu was forced to reduce school fees per term from K7,000 to K4,000 because the majority of the students were unable to pay the fees.

This is reflective of much of the country. At the UN women’s conference in New York last week Malawi’s Minister of Health Hon. Catherine wa Gotani Hara told the BBC that many Malawian teenage girls ended up getting married as a direct result of being unable to pay secondary school fees.

The issue of whether or not Malawi should start considering the feasibility of providing free secondary school education is one of whether or Malawi should consider strengthening its human capital. The reactions to the idea have revealed deeply entrenched cynicism and a disturbing fear of big, bold and progressive ideas.
Writing on the teachers’ forum Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, Malawian education activist Limbani Nsapato expresses the opinion that in the 21st century, a primary school education no longer suffices. He argues that “skills pupils are getting from primary schools are not adequate for them to be creative and think critically as

21st century citizens in a world of economic crisis and rising unemployment.”

Learning from the FPE fiasco

While paying heed to arguments about how free primary education ruined Malawian education, we need to learn from those mistakes, rather than turning them into an excuse for deciding not to move the country forward. This will entail establishing estimates as to how many more students could potentially enroll in secondary schools, and how many teachers would need to be trained.

We would need to establish how many schools and classroom blocks, labs, libraries, and hostels we would need to construct. We would also need to calculate how much the education budget would need to increase by, and to determine where the money would come from, among other considerations.

If properly and efficiently done, the benefits of a free secondary school education for the majority of Malawians could potentially transform the country. We do not have to start with a full scale, universal implementation; we can do it in a targeted way.

There are many who are able to afford the fees. Graduating from secondary schools with the essential skills, these students could bring new ideas and new energies into their communities. This would energise economic activity, and lift up the country’s gross domestic productivity.

We would also need to come up with programmes for the many youths who are beyond secondary school age, but do not have any secondary school education. The existing Complementary Basic Education programmes need to be expanded beyond the 9-14 years age cohort to include young adults who are in their twenties and thirties. These need to be offered a complementary or alternative secondary school education, heavy on practical, technical and vocational skills.

As pointed out by Roy Hauya also on Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, one significant consequence of this expansion would be new pressure on our higher education system, already failing to cope with current demand. Chirwa and Matita have pointed out that one failure of the FPE reform was the neglect of the secondary school and university system, which were never expanded to accommodate the new numbers. Repeating this oversight would be a gross mistake. It would be better not to even make the attempt.

Disregarding the role education can play in Malawi’s march toward prosperity is the worst mistake the country can ever make. Limbani Nsapato pointed this out when he remarked, as soon as it was released, that the much-touted Economic Recovery Plan never mentions education as a priority.

It took the visit of the strategy firm Boston Global Consulting to point out at a Sanjika workshop that education, in all its levels, needed to be at the centre of the whole economic recovery effort. There is no way the economy can grow when more than 70 percent of Malawians are deprived of the relevant skills and knowledge.

Wealth is never stagnant. It grows exponentially in response to the ingenuity and creativity of the people. It is this idea that must guide us as we debate how to deal with Malawi’s intractable problems of poverty and inequality.

This article first appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday 16th March, 2013, under a different title.

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