To absorb or not to absorb university fees


Last week, a heated debate on the issue of waiving tertiary education fees for the 2020/2021 academic fees gained national attention. The Minority National Democratic Congress (NDC) tabled a motion in Parliament for debate on government absorbing the fees of students in public tertiary universities. Though Parliament rejected the motion, the debate might continue for the rest of the year, viewed against the backdrop of devastating effects from COVID-19 on jobs ad livelihoods, and the economy in general.

Debate on funding tertiary education dates back to the 1980s when Ghana went under the Structural Adjustment and the Economic Recovery Programme, with the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF) demanding government backing completely out of funding tertiary education. Instead, government was compelled to   introduce cost-sharing. Prior to cost-sharing, tertiary education was fully financed by the state in order to promote equity in university education.

The neoliberal policies implemented by government at the time wiped away the generous scholarships and subsidies, shifting the burden of funding university education to students and their families. The reforms were based on recommendations of the University Rationalisation Committee (URC) that worked between 1986 and 1988.

In the ensuing years, university education has been subjected to budget cuts -leaving universities to make up for the shortfall in funding through various internal income generating activities.  Universities filled the funding gap through cost-sharing and cost-recovery measures targetted at parents and students.  Students and their families paid various fees and charges for academic-user facilities, residential facilities etc. which hitherto were paid by government.

NDC position

As stated above, more recently funding tertiary education captured the national agenda when the National Democratic Congress (NDC) stated in its manifesto that it would provide full funding for all students in public universities in the 2020/21 academic year as part of the COVID-19 Relief Package. While the National Democratic Congress (NDC) promised to absorb full fees for new entrants and 50% of fees for continuing students, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) promised to expand the decentralised scholarship scheme and work on providing scholarships for 60,000 new entrants.

The NDC’s call is a departure from the cost-sharing era when parents bore part of the cost of their children’s education. Academic facility user fees and residential fees were introduced, which authorities estimated to be 40% of the cost of educating a student.

Undoubtedly, the current demands on government to waive fees for university students have become necessary due to economic impacts of the pandemic on parents. The impacts range from job losses, delay in salaries, lower sales for traders due to lower demand for goods and services, among others. Truly, COVID-19 has devastated economies around the world, including Ghana’s, and students, and parents will welcome the proposed waiver of fees if approved. The reality is that the source of government financing for the institutions remains worrying and contentious, and any policy on the public funding of tertiary education has implications for the future.

In a brilliant analysis of funding tertiary education, Dr. Amin Anta argued that the proposed fee-waiver for tertiary education needs to be matched against the necessity for formulating sustainable financing options for tertiary institutions. In his view, similar circumstances may arise during national emergencies in the future.


In consonance with the Directive Principles of State Policy, the state is enjoined to promote equity in access to university education for all Ghanaians – irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity, geographic location and physical disabilities. The 1992 Constitution enshrines not only the right to basic education but also university education for all Ghanaians: Article 25, section 1 (c) states that higher education is also to be made “equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means; and in particular by progressive introduction of free education”.

Over the last four decades, the number of public universities in Ghana has been increasing.  Between 2010 and 2020, government established six additional universities. Government also upgraded all ten public polytechnics in the country to technical universities, after enacting the Technical Universities Act 922, 2016.  Currently, the total number of public universities – including the ten upgraded technical universities, has increased from eight in 2010 to 26 by 2020.

The current number of private universities is estimated at 91.  The increase in number of public and private universities was due to increasing demand for tertiary education, in tandem with the national policy of ‘leaving no one behind’ in Ghana by 2030.  Data indicate that in the late 1990s, when cost-sharing was introduced, the number of tertiary students was a mere 30,000. The current figure is around 472,323 students and still rising, given the success of the Free Senior High School policy.

According to Amin Anta, due to economic challenges government faced in the 80s, the provision of free textbooks and meals was revoked and a loan scheme introduced to address students’ concerns. This was followed by introduction of cost-sharing by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). Also, in the mid-1990s, cost-sharing started debates for sustainable funding of tertiary education; and in the ensuing debate, the Ghana Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) protested cost-sharing. This resulted in establishment of the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GetFund) in 2000, which partially addressed some concerns on sustainable financing of tertiary education. But the fundamental issue of equity and affordability remained, as many potential students were denied access because their parents could not afford the fees. The key challenge of making tertiary education affordable is funding and infrastructure expansion.

Financial implications

There are two schools of thought on the funding debate ongoing: The first option is the waiver of fees and funding other expenses by government to sustain the institutions. This option undoubtedly has budget and cost implications for government. Per the approved 2019 budget, government would have to generate the equivalent of about GH¢1.5billion – which the tertiary institutions are expected to collect from fees for their operations.

The alternative argument is that since government has demonstrated good faith in providing electricity and water relief to the general public and commercial entities, it can demonstrate equal good faith by absorbing university fees. But the financial implications are dire for an economy already reeling from COVI9 19. Ghana is categorised as a lower middle-income country, with economic growth averaging 5-6% over the last four years – except for 2020 due to effects of COVID-19. What’s worse, the country’s Tax-to-GDP ratio at 13% remains lower than the middle-income average.

These have raised several questions on the rationale for the campaign for government to absorb fees of tertiary students. Is it populist politics, or genuine concern by our politicians?  Is anyone considering the long-term sustainability of the funding strategy? Admittedly, if the economy can afford to provide free tertiary education, that should be encouraged; but with a tax-to-GDP ratio of 13%, the economy could cave-in under financial pressure.  The only way forward is an increase in revenue collection. But the potential to collect more revenue depends on the effectiveness of revenue agencies, and the willingness of average Ghanaians to pay more revenue.

Minority position

A critical review of the minority’s position on the waiver of university fees for the 200/2021 academic year exposes some inconsistencies. The minority was not clear on which fees government should absorb- is it admission fees, tuition fees, hostel fees or SRC and JCR fees. Though the minority statement specifically targeted  students of public universities, students of private universities also deserve similar support as Ghanaians. Despite education being a public good, the sheer numbers of both continuing and fresh university students each year suggests that public funding of tertiary education is not feasible for now.  At least we can only encourage cost sharing between government and parents.  For now the government should concentrate on expanding infrastructure at the universities to ensure more students gain admission.  Hopefully, with the policy to use the Ghana card as a guarantee for loans in place, no student should be left behind.   In my view free basic education is the priority for the government, in as much as it is the foundation for university education and an equalizing factor.

That said, what exactly did the NDC hope to achieve by pushing the waiver of university? Perhaps’ it was a clever way of putting pressure on the government to implement its manifesto promise. What is unclear is whether the NDC would have had the courage and political will to implement the waiver of fees if it won the executive power in 2020?

As Dr. Amin noted, while Ghanaians continue the debate  to address the temporary effects of Covid-19 on students’ cost of education, stakeholders must give equal attention to the need for a long-term sustainable financing strategy , even if it has to be provided for free; including the necessity for appropriate buffers against national emergencies.

Moving forward, a future policy on financing university education has become more pressing than ever. Also, whereas the  state has the responsibility to fund our educational institutions, a bipartisan consensus on the type and size of state intervention is necessary to avoid the extreme  “politicization”  or ‘trivalisation’ of funding  university education.


Adam, MA.2021.  Tertiary education in Ghana and the politics of “sustainable” financing. Available (

Ayelazuno, JA & Aziaba, MA . 2021.  Leaving No One Behind in Ghana Through University Education: Interrogating Spatial, Gender and Class Inequalities. University of Development studies.

Nantwi, WK  & Boateng, B . 2020. Covid-19 and education in Ghana: a tale of chaos and calm. Journal of Emerging Issues.

(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organization(s). (Email: [email protected]. Mobile: 0202642504/0243327586

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