Can Africa afford free education?

bbcToday, BBC World Service is holding a debate in South Africa around the question ‘Can Africa afford free education?’, which we have been helping them answer.

Inequality in education: poverty as a major factor.

The new agenda calls for 12 years of free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, yet, as of 2010, on average in the region, 20-24 year olds had only attained 6.6 years. A lot of the blame for this unfinished business falls on the persisting inequalities in education, not the least of which is related to poverty. The 2015 GMR underlined this fact, showing that in low and middle income countries, the poorest children are 4 times less likely to go to school than the richest, and are 5 times less likely to complete primary education. The poorest children are also almost 6 times as likely to be unable to read as the richest.

Recently, we reemphasized the point in relation to the bid to achieve 12 years of free education as written into the SDG agenda: we showed that, in Africa, across 44 countries, children from the richest households had completed at least 12 years in only 4 countries. Children from the poorest ones had completed 12 years in none.

Do African countries guarantee free education today?

In committing to make education free, as was done in the 1948 Universal Declaration of human Rights, reiterated in the Dakar Framework for Action, and now in the Sustainable Development agenda adopted last September in New York, countries are recognizing that costs, either direct or indirect, are clearly a barrier to education.

Tgraphhis is why many countries in Africa abolished school fees. Among the 53 countries with data available in the continent, 42 now legally guarantee free education at the primary level.

This has had a positive impact on enrolment as Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda show. In Burundi, for example, primary enrolment rates were 54% in 2004, the year preceding fee abolition; they increased to 74% in the year after fees were abolished, and by 2010 reached 94%.

But, is primary education truly free?
Clearly, as the BBC is also hinting at, once education is made legally free in terms of tuition fees, this is only a small part of the picture.

Various surveys show that school fees continue to be charged despite the legal guarantee of free education, an issue we covered in our latest blog about Tanzania’s latest move to abolish fees at the secondary level. This is the case in 17 countries in Africa including 3 Arab States in the continent (Egypt, Mauritania and Sudan) according to GEM Report analysis.

graph 2The GMR 2015 also showed that even in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa where there are no school fees, much of the actual cost of education is still being covered by the household, rather than the government. Textbooks, as our latest paper showed, can also cost parents significant amounts, making up over half of the amount the poorest households are putting aside to spend on education for instance.

Globally, the poorer a country, the larger the burden on households. In Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Zambia, households are covering more than half of the total cost of education. By contrast, in Austria, Finland and Italy, households account for less than 10% of total education expenditure.

graph 3How expensive is a free education?

If education is to become ‘free’ and cost barriers therefore removed, African governments will not only have to spend more on infrastructure, on teacher salaries and on keeping large cohorts of children in school. They will also have to cover a larger share of the total costs of education. Will the added financial burden on governments be one they can realistically afford to cover?

As part of the GEM Report’s estimates of the finance gap for achieving new education targets by 2030, we calculated that, across all low income countries, the cost per primary student will increase almost three times from 2012 to 2030; the cost per secondary school student will almost double.

Realistically, covering the lion’s share of these costs is something that will require external aid. The finance gap left over even once domestic contributions are scaled up is particularly large in low income countries, where it totals US$21 billion, and constitutes 42% of annual total costs.

To sum up, therefore, can Africa afford make education free?

From analyzing the extent to which education is truly free on the continent, it’s clear that abolishing school fees is only a small part of the movement to guarantee truly free education in Africa. Scaling up education to achieve the SDG agenda is something we have already shown is going to leave a large financing gap every year that external donors are going to have to help fill. Making education free is a large part of that agenda. African governments are not currently providing free education in a real sense at this stage. They will need to devise new ways to cater for the disadvantaged to ensure this core aspect of the target can also be achieved.

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7 Responses to Can Africa afford free education?

  1. jimmyoluoch says:

    Good question. But there is a better question..The question… How Can Africa unite its resources to afford her children the best education? We must focus on the right questions, engage the right gears and shift this poverty mentality…Quality education demands resourcing….human, financial, and moral wealth… Africa has no shortage of the first two…but moral wealth…we need to engage here more…



    African countries particularly lack the political will to square up to provide access to free education to their citizens. The debates have been going on for the last three decades in parliaments and constitutional reviews, with very little change. This is a shame! while the argument has been lack of resources, we see broad day light the primitive stealing of public resources by African leaders and their collaborators. They impoverish their citizens and incapacitate them to the point of perpetual slavery. This state of dehumanisation, has made it impossible for parents access education for their children. But if we to answer the Question honestly, Africa can provide at least Basic Education to its citizens free.

    What is required first and foremost is for the People is get organised and demand from the leaders at all levels, accountability on the use public resources. The developed countries should cease to provide the cover of stolen resources by African leaders. Foreign countries should begin the process of exposing those ‘ Leader thieves’ and help repatriate such resources for the provision of education to our children and the development of Africa!!

    Our leaders should know that indeed, time will catch up with those who believe that drink and wine at the expense of the children of great Africa.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Salim says:

    it is possible to offer free primary education in the sense that stopping school fees par student as par parent. but in terms of free and quality education parent (community) should be involved in funding the education either direct or in direct.
    Direct means parent contributing directly to education programs and projects such as building class rooms and other related facilities so far. In direct funding means establishment of statutory education funds such education levy that can be directly utilized for education programs.
    in other hand the free basic education is possible in Africa if the governments increase the education budget with the minimum of 20% of National Budget. It is very important to be noted that approval of percentage of education budget should go to gather with the fully disbursement.


  4. folasadeadefisayo says:

    I agree with this comment. it is a travesty of justice that politicians steal money that could have gone into the education of our children. I am certain that my country, Nigeria, can afford free education. There is no way the country can advance socially and economically when there is no social mobility.


  5. ah-med sulaimana agbovi says:

    If practical training with the intent of integrating knowledge, skills and disposition in the student will not be considered child labour, then i believe some vocational programs redesigned to within the framework of real fee-free education.


  6. Manish says:

    Education is no doubt the only savior in Africa and most governments do have the means to ensure that its funded.It’s a long term investment just like funding roads and bridges but many leaders are reluctant to address it because they know what empowering people with education means for them.Enlightened voters means more transparency and accountability on their side which most are not ready to do.All they want is to loot public coffers dry at the expense of entire generations. So sad!


  7. Gezali says:

    I want education i am Ethiopians i am refugees i am staying in South Africa.


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