Free education

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Last week I was privy to an argument among some friends regarding two news stories, firstly, Kayode Fayemi had abolished tuition fees in Ekiti, then, George Weah had declared tuition-free university education in Liberia.

Because I work in a field where data is everything, I had to examine the free education thing, and my conclusion is that in our part of the world at least, it is not yet feasible.

Johns Hopkins, the top spending on research expenditure in the U.S., spends $2.3 billion a year. That’s 10 per cent of Nigeria’s annual budget. They raise this money by fees, and by investing their endowment.

A random sampling of all countries in the world by expenditure on R&D (2016 rankings) reveals Egypt is the highest African country (#30), and South Africa is number 2 (#33). Morocco (#49 – $1.5 billion) is the only other country on our continent that spends more than $1 billion a year on research. Of all the countries that spend more than $50 million a year on research the continent of Africa has only the above mentioned three, then Ethiopia, Tunisia, Uganda, Sudan, Algeria, and Botswana. There is no country from West Africa on the list.

If a university is an institution which awards academic degrees for research, what is the point of having a university if it has negligible research output? What is the point of having a university if you cannot fund it to do research?Some weeks ago, SBM Intelligence, wrote a client note about ASUU’s rejection of a plan to raise tuition fees. I’ll paraphrase it.

“ASUU’s position is flawed. You only have to look at the results to come to this conclusion – the best universities in Nigeria, mainly private institutions, are those funded by fees. There is an urgent need for the government to focus on primary and secondary education with the resources ASUU currently gobbles up. Given the number of out- of -school children, that level is far more important to Nigeria’s development than a plethora of half-baked university graduates who never even had the basics to start with.

“University education under ordinary circumstances is expensive. If the government cannot fund it, which it simply cannot, then it is time for Nigeria to let go. “Many Nigerians like to compare the country with Germany that offers free tuition, but Germany’s tax rate starts at 25% and increases the more you earn. Germany has an unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent. “If Nigerians want the government to continue funding universities, many things have to be put in place. Someone has to pay, and as things stand, the government cannot.”

Over the past few years in Nigeria, private sector employers have increasingly looked to private universities for employable graduates. Private universities pay high fees. You cannot expect quality education at such a high level, and yet expect it to be free. The argument can be made that there are some exceptionally gifted students from poorer backgrounds who need to get through the system. That is what scholarships are for. There is an experiment being made in the United States right now, by the different approaches of Bowdoin College (cheaper tuition) and Vassar College (costlier tuition) as to which works. At the moment, it appears that Vassar has the upper hand.

In Nigeria, for instance, from 1952 to 1966, Nigeria’s Western region had a policy of free basic education, to which it devoted up to 40% of its budget. Awolowo promised free education in 1947, presented the proposals in 1952 and started in 1955. There were eight years of preparation. Eight years to review everything from all sides and get the financing right, such that even when he and Akintola fell out, it continued, until 1966. What is also not readily discussed is that the free education scheme also had some adverse consequences such as high wastage, falling standards (due to inadequate teachers, and unduly large classes), and rising unemployment. Then there was the effect on the region’s finances…

Though for the sake of clarity, basic education should be free, higher education is costly. Even to fund free basic education means taxes have to be raised. Concerning the Liberia argument, World Bank and IMF data show that Liberia’s GDP is $2.14 billion per year, 2.8% of that GDP is spent on education. This translates to just under $60 million for the entire education sector.

Liberia has a population of 4.9 million, and youths below age 15 account for 44% of the population. This implies that their education budget is sufficient to provide $28 per person per year. These are cold hard facts. It does not take a genius to see that this free university education stuff in the country does not add up. We cannot develop our continent if we keep building on wishes and dreams. We need to, as a people, learn to look at cold, hard data, then make decisions based on what the data tells us.

In this article:
George WeahKayode Fayemi
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