Debate over free secondary school education (SHS) has remained on the national agenda five years after implementation of the policy, despite its huge relief for parents and its impact on the youth of Ghana. Statistics from the Ghana Education Service indicate that so far 1.6 million youth have benefitted from the Free SHS policy.
Even with this increased enrollment in secondary school, Ghana’s education enrollment as a percentage of the population of school-going children (21%) is comparatively very low. An increase of 40% is anticipated in the next few years. The surest way to improve school enrollment is policy-targeting, such as the Free SHS policy.
On 12th September 2017, when President Akufo-Addo launched the Free SHS policy at the West African Senior High School (WASS) premises, he stated: “Because I know that knowledge and talent are not for the rich and privileged alone, and that free education widens the gates of opportunity to every child – especially those whose talents are arrested because of poverty…we lift the financial burden off our parents, and the heartrending anxiety that accompanies the beginning of every school term”. It was obvious from the president’s pledge that this laudable policy was aimed at the poor and poorest, to bridge the education-gap.
The recent debate on the cost benefit analysis of free SHS was sparked by a statement of the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II – that though beneficial to the nation, Free SHS has implications for the public purse as well as a need to create employment opportunities for the millions of youth beneficiaries. The Asantehene made the comment as a special Guest of Honour at the Memphis International Day. Ghana was picked as the honoured country in 2020, but the pandemic derailed the city’s signature festival and events.
In fact, organisers of the Memphis May International Day couldn’t have made a better choice, considering the rich cultural heritage of the Asante kingdom, with the occupant of the Golden Stool as the epitome of Asante culture. Undoubtedly, the Asantehene is not only an emblem for the Ashantis, but also a symbol for tourism in Ghana.
The Asantehene’s speech, titled ‘Contemporary Challenges in United States and Africa Relations’, highlighted the importance of education in nation-building. King Osei Tutu II alluded to his educational foundation, launched two decades ago to provide educational support for poor needy children… even to the highest level. He said some beneficiaries of his initiative have risen to various positions and are contributing to national development. “We established the foundation to support the education of children from poor backgrounds,” the king stressed. “It has so far become the largest private intervention in education in the country, and has provided for students who would have otherwise been deprived of a basic education.”
He also linked the vision and mission of his educational foundation to the current government’s Free SHS policy, describing the policy as the boldest policy for the nation. But such a policy, he said, comes with constraints on the national purse and raises further challenges regarding creation of jobs for the increasing number of graduates. Otumfuo however indicated that Ghana is on the right path with its democratic experiment.
The Asantehene’s forecasts of future unemployment challenges are based on facts. The first batch of Free SHS are currently at level 200 in various tertiary institutions; and truly, as the Asantehene noted, if all of them graduate in 2024 they will constitute a huge pool of graduates ready for the job market. This huge pool of graduates should be of serious concern to well-meaning Ghanaians, including the Asantehene, as he noted “Because of our recognition that creating understanding in the youth is the surest way to ensure the future of the world”. This calls for innovative policy interventions to create jobs for the youth. In his speech, Otumfuo Osei Tutu mooted the idea of entrepreneurial skills development through collaboration between Memphis University and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi.
As if on cue, the National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT) has waded into the Asantehene’s honest comments on the constraints of Free SHS on the public purse, and the attendant lack of jobs for beneficiaries. It is surprising that NAGRAT, like the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) party, remains among the staunchest pressure groups against the Free SHS policy. In a statement, NAGRAT’s president, Angel Cabonu, is predicting that the policy will face funding challenges in future – implying that the Asantehene’s comments carried the same weight as their opposition to the policy. I wonder why a teacher’s group is so much against a policy that has turned out to be the boldest policy for the nation, as the Asantehene indicated.
In fact, a careful analysis of the Asantehene’s speech suggests that NAGRAT has taken it out of context. The Asantehene’s assertion that the policy is putting strain on the national budget and raises further challenges of job creation in no way suggests that the policy is bad and will fail, as NAGRAT is indicating. The Asantehene was only stating the obvious, considering the amount of money government is expending on Free SHS – of course, at the expense of other policies. As is the case everywhere, policy implementations come with several challenges, especially as governments are compelled to apply opportunity costs in funding priority policies.
Cost benefit analysis
Naturally, Nagrat’s spin on the Asantehene’s comments has attracted the right public response. The sum of all the responses to NAGRAT and like-minded critics of Free SHS is that the cost of not investing in youth education is more dangerous than investing in them. Prof. Agyeman Dua reminds critics of Free SHS that: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”. Commenting on the issue on radio, Lawyer Moses Foh Amoaning emphasised that education is not a cost; rather, it is an investment. According to him, critics of Free SHS are only interested in the present financial cost – without considering the long-term economic benefit of free SHS to the country. In short, the consequences of not educating the youth are dire for individuals, families and the economy.
As an investment, the benefits of education are futuristic – so those keeping a close eye on the financial cost of Free SHS are failing to understand the positive impact of human resources development in a country’s development. In fact, no amount of money is too much to promote basic education, since a well-equipped workforce yields the greatest benefit to the economy. In this regard, government’s policy of investing in Technical and Vocational Educational Training (TVET) and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a step in the right direction. Experts predict that in the next 20 years, 40 percent of jobs based on the current system of education (literal education) will be lost to TVET, STEM, home economics and visual arts-related jobs.
There is no doubt that Free SHS is a social policy, and a critical analysis of every social policy must consider both its financial and economic implications. While finance critically looks at the funding, economics consider the policy’s possible impact on economic growth. Thus far, critics of Free SHS are only trumpeting the financial implications on the public purse while turning a blind eye to the economic benefits over time. As one analyst said, it is unfair to use only financial costs to judge the success of a social policy.
Realistically, the benefits of making Free SHS available to 1.6 million youth far outweigh the financial costs critics are trumpeting. Of course, the benefits will only show when the beneficiaries of Free SHS begin contributing to economic productivity. I have said time and again that basic education, together with water and sanitation – and primary healthcare, are public goods which require public provisioning. In the same vein, public provisioning is partly derived from public action – which derives from a combination of public and private initiative. It is in the collective interest of Ghana that every child and youth has the opportunity of basic and technical education.