Because of my geographic extraction – hailing from the northern sector of Ghana – it is anticipated that I would be among the happiest people at the successful kick off of government’s flagship free Senior High School Policy. Indeed, I am happy about the policy, but I oppose it. In its current scale and magnitude, I sincerely oppose it. Nonetheless, I must congratulate his Excellency the president for such an audacious step in honouring his campaign promise.
I submit that the implementation of the policy for the benefit of all Ghanaians will deepen economic inequality. The scale of the policy to benefit every Ghanaian is an attempt by the government to advance fair distribution of the national cake and promote inclusivity. That is laudable. However, that tends to be counterproductive and will merely result in the elevation of the haves onto higher economic ground without pulling up the have-nots, if not altogether pushing them further down the economic dungeon. I fear that was not a well thought-out decision. The government, however, is not to be blamed; the fault line emanates from our 1992 Constitution which I will point out later in this op-ed.
Consider it this way: Atinga’s parents are both working and are classified in the middle-income bracket. Every month, his parents bag home a joint net salary of GHC2500. Zak’s parents barely make ends meet and live under 2 dollars a day. Both Atinga and Zak qualify to go to high school. The school fee is GHC1000. Atinga’s parents sign off with a cheque and Atinga is off to school. They have GHC1500 which at least can cater for their basic needs till the next pay day. Zak’s parents scratch their heads and ask for his sister’s bride price. They get two cows which they sell off and send Zak to school. They are back to spending less than 2 dollars a day and unsure which sister to “sell-off” for his next school fee. Pathetic! Now, by the current design of the free SHS policy, it means that Atinga’s parents would move at least a step up the economic ladder by keeping their GHC1000. They may be planning to buy their next house. For Zak’s parents, the situation has not changed. They continue to live under 2 dollars a day. Critics and diehard supporters of the policy will tell me that Zak’s parents also have two cows to spare. Here is your answer: even if they have ten cows to spare and they actually decide to sell all of them, it will never take them anywhere close the fringes of the middle-income bracket, for that income is not residual. It is self-limiting. So you see, here is the first reason why I oppose the policy. Educational pundits will tell me that Zak’s education would have a long, enduring and overarching benefit not only to his parents but to his entire community. Wait a minute. So in the meantime, while he still has three years to complete senior high school (under free education) and after which his chances of getting a job is almost close to null, his parents should breathe air; eat grass; medicate with neem leaves and hang on to faith? Indeed, it sounds really right that Atinga’s parents can head for a vacation next summer while their counterparts are inhaling moisture to survive. Everything is wrong with that!
The implementation of the policy marks a landmark shift-away from the seated government’s seeming conservative, more capitalistic or free enterprise orientation towards a leftist and liberal policy. What has changed with the NPP? I’d thought that the government –especially it being the NPP government – would concentrate on inclusive economic empowerment policies (one such example: 1D1F Initiative) that would enable every citizen to afford their economic responsibilities. This policy is misleading. Without rigorous analysis, the policy looks like a pro-poor policy, but I argue that it is not, especially in its current form.
By the way, what would be the best social intervention that would instead of widening the schism of inequality, bridge it? Public health practitioners call it targeted intervention. This is intervention that is tailored to specific and vulnerable groups in a community. In like vein, what would work best to address the problem of access and affordability is the implementation of the programme to benefit specific groups of people. To qualify as a beneficiary, your entire household income is taken into consideration. Those who fall below a certain threshold benefit. What happens to those who fall above? It is simple, the government can compensate them through annual tax reliefs. In this way, both economic groups benefit and the gap between the haves and have-nots actually diminishes.
Now, here is why I don’t fault the government so much even though they have a leeway to circumvent the catastrophe of unsustainability which is the second reason why I am not a full enthusiast of the policy as it currently stands. The problem emanates from the 1992 Constitution. Our Constitution encourages the government to make education progressively free but fails to empower the government to pursue affirmative action policies in the implementation of such a policy. By affirmative action, I mean fair discrimination. This would not be new in our country. Girl child education is receiving affirmative action. The Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme is one such example. In fact, the loud silence of our constitution on affirmative action is the reason why the Constitutional Review Commission in its report to the government recommended that affirmative action measures be implemented to narrow the gender disparity that’s created a wedge in terms of employment and economic status between men and women.
Guys, we need to stop the politicking of this policy and go back to the drawing board now, else this policy may end up with our educational system asphyxiating on a treadmill. The earlier we face the reality, the better for our country.