The Utopia of Free Education
One of the jobs I have been carrying out in the past six years is improvement of education in the public and community schools at the primary and secondary school levels. A month ago, I was privileged to attend a meeting of stakeholders on the matter in my state which was called at the instance of the Honourable Minister of State on Education. She was on an advocacy visit regarding girl child education.
The minister asked the participants to openly tell the reasons why many people do not want to send their daughters to schools in the North. The first contributor, a seasoned and retired educationist, observed that the major problem impeding education, including that of the girl child, is poverty. The solution to the problem, he concluded, is that government should make education free. His comment, of course, received the unanimous approval of the audience. Who would not like to get the most precious article on earth – education – free?
After the session, I went to greet the person who made the above comment and who was our supervisory headmaster while I was in the primary school. He expressed his disapproval of charging maintenance levy on pupils of some model public schools. I gently said if anyone parent is poor to afford the levy, government will waive it for him.
Earlier, one of the parents, a university lecturer and political activist, has petitioned my boss challenging the authority of the Board I am heading to charge the levy parents. The core of his argument was that the UBE Act has clearly stated that education in public primary and junior secondary schools must be free. To support his position, the petitioner cited the section of the UBE Act, 2004, including the section stating the penalty for whoever charges any fees in any public school. One fact that links this petitioner and that contributor at the stakeholders’ meeting is that both are ‘victims’ of this ‘terrible’ policy that requires them to pay maintenance levy.
We have been living under the utopia of free education in public schools for almost a century now. During the colonial days, education was free because it was a product that had to be sold and, like a promotion, it had to be given free, especially in the northern part of the country where its acceptance met with stiff resistance. We do not need to go into details on this.
During the First Republic, the Premier of the Western region, Chief Awolowo, championed the cause of free education. With ‘abundance’ as the central objective of his manifesto, he pursued with an impressive commitment his vision of a West that is rich in human resources that has unquestionably yielded dividends today.
To be fair to the Premiers of the other two or three regions, they differed from Awolowo only in emphasis. They did not commercialise public schools in any case. Whatever fees were paid in public schools under their domain were not to offset cost; they were rather seen as the contribution of parents to development. Besides, there was a lot of aid coming in from UNESCO in form of school materials.
In the North again, education remained more or less free during the Gowon era, though one can still remember that fees were charged. Harry used to pay N12.00 (the equivalent of, say, N6,000.00 today) in 1973 in the public boarding secondary school he attended in the defunct Northeastern State. The irony was that the government used to pay him N10.00 as ‘journey money’ back to his village at the end of every term! This is not to mention the free accommodation, books, meals, etc which he enjoyed in the same school. Why charging the fees in the first place, if Harry might ask?
Obasanjo might have asked the same question as Harry and without any convincing answer, he launched the Universal Primary Education program in 1977. As a beneficiary of the concept in the Southwest three decades earlier, the Head of State in his own wisdom thought it was time to revive the dream and allow it cover the entire country. So let nothing be paid, and in return, every Nigerian child will be educated. Educationists have criticised the UPE approach and lamented its woeful failure but they have never stopped singing its song of free education. And parents are giving them a loud applause.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the return of Obasanjo in 1999 saw the reintroduction of the UPE project, now called Universal Basic Education to include the three years of junior secondary school. And still, educationists are singing the song of free education and the parents continue to give them the loudest applause. This is the context, I think, of the objection in some quarters to the maintenance levy in some six schools in my state.
The legitimacy of any action is judged by the dictates of the law regarding it. The primary law currently in force on basic education is The Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Law, 2004, henceforth called UBE Act 2004 in this article. The sections in the Act that deal with free education are given below:
“2. (1) Every Government in Nigeria shall provide free, compulsory and universal basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age.
(2) Every parent shall ensure that his child or ward attends and completes his (a) primary education (b) junior secondary school education by endeavouring to send the child to primary and junior secondary schools.
(3) The stakeholders in education in a Local Government Area, shall ensure that every parent or person who has the care and custody of a child performs the duty imposed on him under section 2(2) of this Act.
3. (1) The services provided in public primary and junior secondary schools shall be free of charge.
(2) A person who receives or obtains any fee contrary to the provisions of subsection (1) of this section commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N10,000.00 of 3 months or to both.
4. (1). Every parent must ensure that his child receives full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude by regular attendance at school.”
Any layman reading the above sections of the law will not help but conclude that he is a victim of unjust policy if he is asked to pay any levy in a school. And educationist, not being lawyers, can be forgiven if they read the above quoted sections of the law and continue singing the hymn of free education at every opportunity. Lawyers, in any case, will think differently.
What the lawyer would do is to look at the interpretation given to the key elements in construction of Section 3 (1) of the UBE Act which says: “The services provided in public primary and junior secondary schools shall be free of charge.” By the time he is done with the interpretation, he will conclude that both the educationists and the parents were only judging a book by its cover.
The essential questions to ask here are two: what does the law mean by “public school”? And what does it mean by “services”? Section 15 of the Act gives a detailed explanation: “Public School, Public Primary School, or Junior Secondary School means a school, primary or junior secondary school, as the case may be, which is assisted out of funds provided by the Federal or State Government or a local education authority or a local government or is maintained by a local education authority or a local government. On the other hand, the section says, “Services that should be provided free of charge are books, instructional materials, classrooms, furniture and free lunch.” Period.
The lawyer will immediately understand that since books, instructional materials, classrooms, furniture and free lunch are not the only requirements of a good school, other aspects of education not enlisted in the interpretation may not be free, according to the Act. It is obvious that transporting a child to a school cannot be free; hence, the school bus may not be free either. Even examinations could not be free; hence, we find the federal government charging for the National Common Entrance Examination and ministries too charge ‘administrative charges’ annually. I can even say keeping the school environment clean or maintaining its structural facilities other than classrooms may not be free. And so on. The government here is wise.
Another point to note is that these services can be free only where they exist and provided by government. Where government builds a school but does not provide it with books, instructional materials or free lunch, parents then could be charged for these services whenever alternative arrangements are made to secure them. The law understands the impossibility of providing them to every Nigerian child. However, where they are provided by government in a public school or in another school where the government assisted in the provision of such services, the law maintains that the services should be free.
Governments have to a large part abided by the above regulations. In fact it is difficult to recall where the law is flouted by any public school or government agency. The question that an intelligent person should ask here is the type of free education is government providing? Is it the type of education that our educationists are happy with and does it meet the expectation of parents? Is the education which government gives in majority of our public schools the one envisaged by our national policy on education and the UBE Act?
History seems to be repeating itself here. Before the introduction of UPE in the 1977, regions and state governments had the independence of controlling the growth of their education sub-sector. They established schools, i.e. building them, employing teachers, providing working materials and maintaining them commensurate with their income and the thrust of their policies. When in its wisdom the then military government decided to ram the concept of universal free education down their throat, the issue of planning was abandoned. Schools were opened recklessly without sufficient trained teachers, with only few teaching materials and a large payroll which in subsequent years was difficult to maintain. In the subsequent civilian regime, many state governments could not pay teachers’ salaries for a whole year. This necessitated the central control of primary schools through NPEC with the federal government sending salaries of teachers directly in the allocations of local governments. This helped to guarantee salaries but the payroll has grown so big that to date it has monopolised the expenditure of education in all states.
Next are building structures and furniture, which where supplied is guaranteed to last only a year or so. Teaching materials, which include books, stationeries, consumables, and instructional materials are hardly supplied. As a result, even in the few cases where classrooms exist and teachers are paid salaries, no learning is taking place due to lack of teaching materials, inadequate supervision, and terribly poor management of the little resources available. This explains why children are asked to buy chalk, carry desks to school, supply their answer sheets, etc. Therefore, there is obviously no magic in the falling standard of education. And if parents are happy with this, education can remain free for ever.
Parents are of course not happy with the situation. They hate seeing the ugly situation where majority of pupils in public schools finish their school without knowing how to read a single sentence. To construct a bad one, they need to be in the university. Parents justifiably want qualitative education for their children. But if they want it free, they need to look at the statistics.
Briefly, according to Statistical Information on Basic Education in Nigeria 2003, a publication of Universal Basic Education Commission, Nigerian parents have as at 2003 a total 37,661,396 children who are between the age of 5 and 15, the boundaries covered under the UPE Act and who the government has promised good standard of education. The National Policy on Education has limited the number of pupils per class to 30. To meet the demand of classroom structures alone the nation requires N1,255,379,866,666.67 or N1.26 trillion at the moderate contract rate of N3million per classroom block of three classes. More than this amount will be required to provide other services: furniture, toilets, laboratories, sporting facilities, workshops, offices, staff housing, salaries and allowances, books, class and field equipment, instructional materials, etc.
The sad thing is that these buildings will hardly last five years without the need to renovate them or build them afresh if a good school environment is required. The equipment, books and other supplies may hardly last two years, if they reach the school at all, while salaries and allowances are recurrent. More saddening is the fact that these supplies will disappear not in the government houses but between the ministries of education and schools where our educationists who want free education are fully responsible.
There is little room left for the prudent who is interested in educating the pupils under him but to turn to parents for contribution given the following reasons: One, the ever fast-growing population which is exacerbated by over-utilisation of the cultural licence and untamed libido that allows a pensioner at 65 to marry a “fresh growth”, thus leaving behind at his death a crowd of children for the country to cater for; two, the above statistics covers only basic education and that there is an equal expenditure required for senior secondary and tertiary institutions; three, government has competing demands on its income and education is notoriously viewed as a black hole especially in a democracy; four, that we are the second or third most corrupt country in the world, such that even if trillions are voted for education, and mind you they do not exist, only a little will trickle down to the child in the village or town neighbourhoods; five, the incontestable history of the failure of UPE before leaves little reason for us to invest any hope in the success of the present UBE; and six, the poor standard of education in our public schools due to lack of funding and poor management.
The truth is that government may promise but it hardly fulfils its promise due to so many obstacles. I have, for example, counted over twenty-one promises which government made under the National Policy on Education at the debut of UPE. After thirty years, not a single promise is sufficiently fulfilled in our public schools. Everything has ended in a dream. A prudent parent will not wait for a Father Christmas that may never turn up, or when he does, it will be around February, too late to be of any benefit to the Christmas celebration of his child. The parent will instead go to the market, with the little he has, and shop for the child. A smile from his effort which comes on time is better than a laughter that may come later when the generous Father Christmas turns up in February.
While government has impressively maintained the payments of salaries in the last few years, schools must find means of providing other services in order to deliver the good education envisaged by the UBE Act. Charging levies for any extra-government effort in our public schools, therefore, has become necessary and does not contravene the law in any way. In this vein, Federal Government charges a myriad of levies in every Federal Government College, including pupils in the junior classes.
The alternative is for educationist to continue to live under the utopia of free education, parents responding to their songs with wide smiles, and their children wallowing in ignorance forever. A very poor parent can have the levy waived, for it will be brutal to send his child away. He will pay back the society later through his service when he grows. But those who can pay, and they are over 80% in such schools, should be patriotic enough to do so.
Before I conclude the article, I will like to appeal to Nigerians to please open their eyes and see the light of reality. Some have already done so for decades now. They have not failed to commit every kobo they earn to the sound education of their children. Northerners, particularly the so called Hausa-Fulani, must wake up, set up private and community schools and spend all that is necessary for the sound education of their children, as do parents from other ethnic groups. Yesterday, in Jos, I was shown a Birom woman who carries out petty trading at New Market through which she supports her four undergraduate sons and daughter. If it were not a cultural taboo, I would have given her a big hug publicly.
In conclusion, any public servant or parent that will choose the preponderance of our poor standard of education in quest for the utopia of free education is irresponsible and grossly ignorant of the law. And if, despite reading this article, he will continue to question me on the levies that have become necessary to guarantee the high standard of education of his children in some of our public schools, I will not hesitate to adopt the el-Rufai option: Silence is the best answer.