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Saturday, 17 March 2007

Looking beyond mwabanomics

Education has risen to prominence this week as MPs have been calling for much freer education, backed by the Zambian National Union of Teachers (ZNUT). ZNUT General Secretary Roy Mwaba is reported to have said....

"the move [extending free education to Grade 12] was encouraging in that it would propel the country to greater economic did not make sense to have children get free education up to Grade 9 and fail to get to Grade 10 as a result of economic constraints on the part of their parents".

No one doubts the desirability of extending free education up to Grade 12 ; the real question is whether it would necessarily lead to greater enrolment and retention of secondary school students, and of course whether it will lead to the greater economic heights Mr Mwaba hopes for. That question of course being part of a larger issue on the extent to which financial costs of schooling is the dominant factor that prevents children in our rural areas accessing secondary school education. Mr Mwaba clearly believes that the answer is 'yes'. Financial costs clearly do play a role, but there are other things that make it difficult for secondary school pupils in our rural areas accessing education, and until these are addressed by MPs, Mr Mwaba's aspirations will remain too aspirational.

One of those barriers is transport. Bad roads and inadequate or expensive transport plays a significant role in preventing pupils in rural areas from attending primary or secondary school regularly. One thing that struck me when I was in Luapula over Xmas was the isolated nature of our villages. Students literally have to walk great distances to attend secondary schools. This coupled with poor road infrastructure leads to poor school attendance, which forces kids to eventually leave secondary school even if the financial cost of education is very little. This problem is especially magnified for secondary school girls, who are so crucial for our development as previously argued in "more than a woman". No matter how free education is, it is pointless unless you can access it.

Its not just secondary school pupils who are affected, teachers also face the same constraints. Teachers are often reluctant to take up positions in more remote village secondary schools because poor transport options will isolate them from regular interaction with colleagues and other people of similar social status. Such villages may be without adequate teachers for long periods; teachers posted to these locations may take regular unofficial absences. There are a number of villages in Zambia where teachers are just unwilling to go there because it is too isolated.

Investment in transport is not cheap, therefore what is needed are Government supported “imaginative solutions” to address the link between poor attendance and transport access. This might be two fold: First, promoting wider availability of bicycles (as the recent Shova Kalula National Bicycle Programme has done in South Africa by providing subsidised bicycles), bicycle repair courses for girls and boys in school, girls-only buses, or distance learning. Secondly, using public sector transport to achieve educational goals, including running mobile libraries with information and communication technologies, travel allowances for teachers, organising school transport and so on.

We need our educational policy to be more creative and much broader than just calling for free education. Its pointless to offer something for free, if people won't be able to access it!


  1. Thanks Cho,
    Say hypothetically, this initiative serendipitously manages to overcome the impediments you validly raise and works to augment the completion rate as Mwaba envisages. The glitch in this serving of mwabanomics then becomes its failure to address the inevitable upshot of such an increase- viz- the aggravation of what is already a pressing concern: the inaccessibility to higher education for the majority of secondary school leavers. Our two accredited national universities are already bursting at the seams--untenably and unsustainably so. Increasing the completion rate is a short term band aid solution. It may also be myopic. What is being done to ensure that an acceptable percentage of the school leavers we currently produce have access to some form of tertiary instruction post sec? To be sure: It does not have to be either or (and ideally it should not be.) But given the basic economic problem of scarcity, it seems to me that a dear price will have to be paid for an imprudent pick among ostensibly comparable alternatives.

  2. Kate,

    Thanks! You raise a very valid point. There’s an implicit assumption within Mwabanomics that the only incentive needed to bring people back to school is the reduction in the enrolment fee! You are quite right to point out that at the micro level students and parents are having to make rational choices on whether to invest in education or not, conditional on the probability of a getting a post secondary job or indeed going to the two accredited universities. If the probability of doing so is low then indeed as you say, any reduction in the cost of access to education either through mwabanomics or the removal of the supply side constraints I have advocating may not be enough.Because the expected benefits would be little or non-existant.

    There are a number of policy implications I see flowing from that:

    1. The education system must focus on job creation rather than simple completion rates. They must look at the syllabus of all the schools and ensure that what is being taught is something that will make people stand up on their own. We need to revisit the issue of the quality of education. Its point less for people to go and complete Grade 12 and even study degrees and then go abroad because there's no jobs for them. Even worse as you say, they may never go to school altogether. We need to teach people to get education that is of practical use and will enable them to create employment for themselves and others. Infact having such a syllabus on the table is an incentive in itself to the individual because the probability of post secondary school income would be higher!

    2. We must try and encourage the private sector to play a greater role. The level of private sector investment needs to rise. And one way of doing that is to encourage local investors in different sectors to contribute to the funding of local schools. I have previously suggested that all types of local investment should have a “social dimension”, along the line of the UK S106 system. See
    Increae in private sector investment raises the quality of education, by tailoring the courses to what is expected in the "real world".

    Intereted to hear your thoughts.

  3. I agree that there is an urgent need to revise the school curriculum in order to align it with the economic and commercial realities prevailing in the market, and perhaps even include a practical component that provides a technical skill set for those not fortunate enough to proceed to further study. I also looked at your thread on social investment and see the potential in such an approach, (though I am skeptical as to how far such an approach could go in eliminating the obstacles you raised --given the paltry levels of investments currently attaining.) My main concern though is for the state of higher education in the country, even though as you rightly pointed out, as far as available options after tertiary education go--its slim pickings thereon after. That in itself merits a new thread. We are now at an unfortunate stage in our national chronicle where some of the brightest students are failing to secure a university or college seat. These students end up enrolling in unaccredited academies (so many have mushroomed, especially around Lusaka) and the end result is palpable. It’s a conundrum because on the one hand, it seems almost fraudulent that these schools cash in--in exchange for an education that they know will almost certainly not result in employment or any legitimate credentialing for that matter. But then on the other hand, what is the viable alternative? Should these students stay home twiddling their thumbs and whiling away time in solidarity of more robust quality control? Of course, any discussion of education, necessarily leads to a discussion of job creation! You can’t win can you?

  4. When I was in Lusaka over Xmas my brother told me a story of chap who had established a small education institution under the guise of offering “united nations studies”. A number of students got attracted to the institution because they thought it was the real thing, until later the UN requested that it had to be shut down because it was misleading people that this was a UN accredited university. I am sure there are similar stories around. Sometimes people only find out after they fail to move up the ladder.

    Education is a huge and complex issue!! And that is even before you begin assessing the implications of our current predicament for democracy (if you believe Glaeser at Harvard).

    Of course the real issue here, as far as higher education is concerned, is simply two fold:

    First, it is a simple case of demand outstripping supply - it is quite clear that “scarcity” of places is the issue as you pointed out in your first post. Most students do see the benefits of investing in education, and are prepared to do all they can to get there, but places are limited.

    Naturally you expect the market to respond to this excess demand, and it is responding, but as you say this is the case in which the invisible hand perhaps needs a little direction. A good start would be a clearly defined framework in which Government regulates some of these institutions better to ensure there’s a minimum level of good education being provided.

    The other issue of course is pace. With the universities virtually full, better regulation of these new institutions must come with perhaps a push to provincial universities. However, money is always the issue for the Government and I am not sure whether a Government which struggles to maintain UNZA and CBU can possibly maintain 7 more universities – possibly not. Unless of course these were private sector initiatives like Getrude has done - see my blog http://zambian

    Perhaps we should be asking, whether the Government is doing enough to encourage private sector participation in higher education? I suspect not. When I look at Ghana, I see constant progress in this area with Asheshi university being the newer one - one man’s vision! I see no reason why the same can’t be true in Zambia if the "conditions" where right. Its these "conditions" that need to be clearly spelt out in policy discussions at the higher level of Government.

    Incidentally, there’s an interesting link to the Zambian “diaspora” question here both in terms of investment in education and raising the quality of teaching at our universities. At the moment Zambia is doing very little in tapping into the expertise abroad, which prompted me to write
    If we are going to encourage private sector investment in higher education we must also think seriously on how we can tap into Zambian expertise abroad, especially within the context of possible new universities.

    The second problem of course is corruption! I was surprised when I did a stroll poll among friends, on what they felt was the most corrupt ministry in Zambia. Ministry of Education can top just ahead of Home Affairs. This could just be perceptions, but there’s a view that whether you get to UNZA or CBU depends not on your ability always but on who you know and how much “side payments” you willing to make. This undoubtedly does mean that these institutions are not necessarily getting the brightest minds. In a world in which university capacity is constrained the last thing you want is a corrupt and inefficient system of allocating places!

    So we are left with four huge problems:
    1. constrained capacity
    2. weak regulatory framework,
    3. minimal private sector involvement
    4. and corruption.

    Where do you start? Where should be our PRIORITY?

  5. You raise a good point about remote schools. Even cashing your pay checks is a problem if you live far away from a bank.

    On the other hand, making high school education free of charge is a good thing. There are people who struggle to pay the fees.


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