The paradox of the high cost of free education in Ghana

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Students in class. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Ikwuegbu.

Under a new policy initiated by, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), the party currently in power, Ghana decided to make senior high school (SHS) education free. During their political campaign for the 2016 election, when they were the opposition party, the NPP promised to make SHS education free for all students, across the nation. Before that, education had been fee-paying, except in some few cases. Free education was implemented in 1949 in the northern part of the country with the establishment of primary schools and, later, middle schools (called junior high schools today). In 1961, free and compulsory basic education was introduced, and it greatly helped to advance access to education. These were thoughtfully planned (especially the second one) with the necessary policies introduced since education had been non-existent in northern Ghana for a long time. That area, which was far from the coast and where the seat of the colonial government was, was simply a reservoir of labour for the cash crops like cocoa, produced in the middle and southern parts of the country. An injustice was, therefore, being addressed and the leftist inclination of the Nkrumah regime certainly exercised meticulous planning in the introduction of that free education policy.

In the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union, Cuba and other socialist and communist countries), free education and healthcare were the cornerstone of national politics / policy and rigorous studies, planning and implementation controlled them. The education system in Ghana is similar to that of most African countries: nursery, kindergarten, primary school, junior sigh School (JHS) and senior high school (SHS) before tertiary education.

In 2017, the presidential administration of Nana Akufo-Addo established free SHS in Ghana. When his party had made that promise to the people, most Ghanaians rejoiced. They saw in this decision a move that would extend education to the children of the “poor”, who often had to drop out of school due to financial constraints.  Free SHS meant that all financial costs related to SHS education would be borne by the government: tuition, feeding, books, uniforms, accommodation, etc.  Unfortunately, most Ghanaians are currently highly disappointed because the educational initiative that should have been a salvation is failing the nation. The general feeling is that the NPP made a political promise that certainly contributed to their victory in the presidential elections of 2016. But, the free SHS policy had not been well planned, and the negative repercussions include the government’s inability to keep their promises regarding the provision of meals, books and accommodation.

In many schools, it is impossible to provide three square meals for students. In many cases, students are fed with poor meals like “plain” porridge with no sugar or any addition, something that is unimaginable for the average Ghanaian. Lunch is often “one way” as the saying goes. The same meal is often served for a week or more and those dishes are related to the food grown in the various regions. In an area where a lot of cassava is produced, meals are cassava-based, and little thought given to nutrition. Students from “affluent” families have to buy their own food.

Books that had been promised to schools for free are almost non-existent. Teachers and students usually wait for the consignments of books that take very long to arrive, or simply never come. Parents have to purchase textbooks for their wards.  The situation is no different when it comes to accommodation since parents have to rent rooms for their wards because there are never enough rooms for all the students. The general practice is to admit into the dormitories students who hail from other areas, and those who are “natives” of the area in which the school is located are made “day students”.

All students who complete JHS are admitted into senior high schools, but the facilities cannot absorb the numbers (another blatant evidence of lack of planning) and students are therefore put into two groups. One group of students are in school, while the other group goes on holiday for three to four months, to return when the previous group embark on their “forced” holidays. Consequently, private tutors have to be hired so that students keep studying and avoid gaps in learning. Parents often end up paying more than the school fees they aid before the free SHS era.

Another unfortunate development is that during that period that they spend out of school, many female students become pregnant and they, allegedly, either abort or keep the pregnancy and return to school with it. Boys use that period to make money by doing little jobs in the community. Truancy is also common, the less motivated students never spend the normal or required time in school, they engage in other activities and “resurface” after some time, deceiving their parents that they were in school, with their school “group” or “track”. As young as they are, Ghanaian SHS students notice the damage caused by this unfortunate situation and many boys are said to resort to smoking weed (called “wee” in Ghana) in order to “delay reality” and forget these problems. Others are said to smoke wee and drink water so that they do not feel hungry, since there is literally no food on campus.

It is the opinion of many that the fee-paying era was better. Many suggest a selective financial support system that would alleviate the burden for the needy students and their parents, and those who can afford it could continue to fund their children’s education.  The child of the government minister and the ward of the bricklayer who is paid on a daily basis or the farmer whose uncertain harvest depends on the fortuity of the rainfall are all in the free SHS system, a policy that causes a dramatic fall in students’ academic levels and performance. Free SHS is doing more harm than good to Ghanaians; free SHS is not free, in reality.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English in the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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6 Comments

  1. I wish the authorities give a good ear😔, because this is what is happening in the schools.
    It is payably free.

  2. Hmm! This is very serious and a sad truth that we all are grappling with in silence. And this should be because our concerns are not valued under this current administration. One cannot dispute the fact that this policy could have been the best if its challenges do not outweigh the benefits. Thank you very much, Prof🙏

  3. Very unfortunate situation we are caught in. As we have resumed school, only gari has been supplied. No money for ingredients yet. The headmasters called for an extension of the re-opening date but the authority refused, claiming they have released funds yet nothing is there . The situation has really affected the smooth dispensation of education in Ghana lately

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