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Sunday, 29 May 2011

External Costs of Free Education

Among the popular calls for government intervention is free secondary education free. But as this recent IPS article demonstrates, free education without a corresponding increase in capacity can have external costs that undermines the provision of free education. An "external cost" is a cost not borne by the producer or consumer of a good or service. In this context the student gets the "free education", but in the process of doing so they impose further costs on society.  The excerpt below demonstrates :
An absence of boarding facilities for high school pupils in Zambia's northern province of Luapula is forcing children to share lodgings with their peers - unsupervised by adults - leading to teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS infections.

Many children live a long way from school and prefer to rent accommodation nearby. Grade 12 pupil Dorcas, 17, stopped attending the Mabumba High day school, about 20km east of provincial capital Mansa, after becoming pregnant. "We were staying the three of us [girls], then we started sharing the house with three guys and that is how we paired ourselves. We just wanted some form of emotional support; life is really tough out there. So, the whole of last year we were living together with the guys and would have [unprotected] sex almost every night but everything was OK.....When I missed [my periods] early this year, I decided to go to Mansa General Hospital for a [pregnancy] test and the results were positive... I left school because everyone was laughing at me. They were saying 'this one is a married woman' after they knew [of my pregnancy]."

Mabumba High School enrols some of its 690 pupils from as far away as the capital Lusaka and about 500 of the children are responsible for their own accommodation arrangements... Wamunyima Chingumbe, a Health Ministry director in Mansa District, said the absence of boarding facilities at day schools had led to teenage pregnancies and made pupils vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). After malaria, STIs were the most common ailments recorded at makeshift boarding high schools......

Government investment in universal primary education has not been matched in the high school sector, and the 2008 scrapping of qualifying examinations for Grade 10 has put more pressure on school facilities, with more and more pupils continuing their education. The province has 23 high schools, six of which are day schools.
The article picks out at least three external costs that have surfaced from this poorly implemented policy - more HIV / AIDs infections for our young people as they live in crowded accommodation; more active under-age sexual abuses; and, impact on the justice system since some of the abuses are prosecuted.  In addition to these externalities we also have other perverse consequences not mentioned in the article e.g. poor quality of learning and teaching. All of these could have been avoided if the education policy was developed properly. These are important dimensions to keep in mind as parties debate education policy in the next election. 

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