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September 25, 2017

Free SHS: Who Needs It? Part 1

In the first part of a series of articles, Kwaku Gyamfi outlines his thoughts about the Free SHS Policy.

This September, the government has introduced its flagship project – free Senior High School (SHS) Education. This project has been hailed by almost all Ghanaians. The few who raise objections do not disagree with the project in principle; they disagree with the means.

I disagree with the project in principle. It would be self-deception not to recognize the beauty of the policy. The idea can be very appealing, that a child can attend Senior High School for free. Good intentions are not enough; they must be critically analyzed. It is important to look at the cost and benefits of policies.

Free education seems good in the short term. This is because parents are able to feel its benefits instantly. But we must ask ourselves whether free education is really free. That’s the beginning of sifting through the debris to arrive at clarity. That’s our only way of insulating ourselves against the rhetoric. Everyone in the education value chain will have to be paid. Teachers will have to be paid. Authors of textbooks will have to be paid. School uniforms will have to be paid for. This is to say there is no free lunch, especially at midnight. A few weeks ago when the Information Minister, Mr Mustafa Hamid, was asked how the government will pay for the free SHS, he did not hesitate to say that it would be through taxes. The policy is pretty simple. The government will take taxes from citizens to pay for free SHS. Citizens do not benefit from taxes directly. Projects like free SHS are a way they may benefit from taxes indirectly. That is one reason why free SHS appears to be lauded unanimously. People do not realize that they are the same persons who are going to pay for the policy. If a policy is good and people want it so bad, why shouldn’t they pay for it themselves but have to give the money to the government to pay for them, in addition to paying for a government bureaucracy?

The President of Ghana, Nana Akufo Addo, as he officially launched the policy indicated that it will be paid for, using the country’s natural resources. What resources specifically, he did not say. It appears the government is uncertain about how to fund its free SHS policy. The Information Minister says one thing, and the President says another. What the President said will only be consistent if the President meant taxes on our natural resources. Initially, the Senior Minister had also said that the Heritage Fund, money set aside from our oil revenues for future generations, would be used to finance the project. Upon public backlash, he clarified that it was only a suggestion. The Finance Minister came to confirm that the government would not touch that fund. Till today there is little clarity on how the government will fund that project. The President saying it would be paid for with our natural resources is vague. Don’t we have these same natural resources but continue to have budget deficits? Don’t we keep piling the national debt with these resources in existence?

It is worrying when the President says things like the cost of the supposedly free SHS does not matter because every child needs to be educated. That is a blank-out. They run from the question of cost. Any individual who wants to undertake a project does not close his eyes to cost. It should be the same with government.