Free secondary education in African countries is on the rise – but is it the best policy? What the evidence says

When President Salva Kiir announced the abolition of secondary school fees in South Sudan in February 2023, he was following several fellow African leaders.

Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Zambia have all announced free secondary education policies in the last five years. Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa were early trendsetters in this regard.

Despite its popularity with policymakers, parents and other stakeholders, the abolition of secondary school fees in resource-constrained contexts is still a subject of debate.

The African Union, global NGOs like Human Rights Watch and various United Nations agencies are in favour.

Others are sceptical. They highlight financial sustainability and equity implications, especially at the upper secondary level.

A report by the Malala Fund, a global education NGO, argued that free upper secondary education “would be regressive in nature” and might not be affordable for low-income countries.

We conducted a systematic review to take stock of the evidence. We conclude that free secondary education can be costly and inequitable in the short run, especially if it diverts resources from primary education.

Based on these findings, we recommend a policy of “progressive universalism”: free education should be introduced gradually, starting with the lowest levels.

Setting the scene

Many African countries abolished primary school fees in the 1990s and early 2000s. This led to a major rise in enrolment.

But secondary school enrolment rates still lag far behind those in other world regions. Less than half of children in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary education, compared to around 80% in South Asia and Latin America. High fees and related costs are a major impediment, particularly for children from low-income backgrounds.

The number of sub-Saharan Africa countries with free secondary education policies in place has increased rapidly over the last two decades.

Almost half of all African countries now offer fee-free education at the lower secondary level. Almost one in three does so at the upper secondary level.

The aim of the recent wave of free secondary education policies is to raise overall education levels – and, ultimately, countries’ broader prosperity and social conditions.

Abolishing school fees is also popular with voters. This may have been on the minds of politicians seeking to win or maintain power.

The cost of free education

There are two major problems with secondary school fee abolition in resource-constrained states.

The first is that, in most African countries, the majority of children from poor households would be ineligible for free secondary education. In Somalia, Niger and Mozambique, less than one in five of the poorest children complete primary school.

Rob Gruijters is an Associate Professor in Education & International Development, University of Cambridge

Source: The Conversation

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