Upon winning the next term, President Museveni has, among others, listed free primary and secondary education as one of his key priorities.
This is an indirect admission that there is no free education in Uganda. The Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE) programs were meant to provide free primary and secondary education respectively, whereas not.
The parents/guardians are being required to contribute non–tuition fees such as development, library, laboratory, school bus and examinations fees. These are significant contributions that could amount to school fees.
I am skeptical about this promise of free education because of the many promises that the president has made without fulfilling. During the 2016 general elections, while in Lango, he promised free pads, mathematical sets and exercise books to learners in upper classes in UPE schools.
This is yet to be fulfilled. With very little hope, I will give him the benefit of doubt for this additional promise of free education. My only concern is that the president who has ruled the country for 35 years is simply promising free education, and not free quality education.
The key word here is ‘quality’, but this will be a discussion for another day. Although UPE and USE programs have increased access to education and gender parity, the education in these schools focuses on quantity rather than quality.
The president is right, school fees is eroding the gains so far achieved under the UPE and USE programs. The Uganda National Household Survey 2016/17 reports that 67.6 per cent of boys and 64.6 per cent girls who leave school attribute it to education being expensive and unaffordable and lack of funding to keep them in school.
The fees issue is largely being perpetuated by two factors. First, the contradiction within the Education Act, which outlawed the charging of schools fees in UPE and USE schools but permitted collection of utility and administrative expenditure for schools in urban areas and non–tuition fees from parents provided they meet and agree.
It is this contradiction that is being manipulated usually by foundation bodies through School Management Committees and Board of Governors to set non–tuition fees structures in UPE and USE schools. The second and arguably the most important factor is the limited political will to finance the education sector adequately.
This assertion can easily be dismissed by the political leadership since education is usually among the first top four sectors with the largest share of the national budget. However, the biggest chunk of the sector resources go into payment of salaries. This is notwithstanding the fact that UPE schools are operating with a staffing gap of over 22,000 teachers.
The limited political will is demonstrated by the UPE capitation grant allocations. In FY2019/20, the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) committed to increase the capitation grants from Shs 10,000 to Shs 14,000 per pupil for three terms.
However, during the 27th Education and Sports Sector Review last year, Alex Kakooza, the permanent secretary, MoES, reported the actual allocation of Shs 12,467 per pupil annually. The total annual allocation was Shs 106.27bn for 7.47 million pupils.
This is in comparison with the Shs 389.18bn allocated for recurrent expenditure and salaries for State House – President’s residence. This is not inclusive of the supplementary expenditures that State House usually receives. The school administrators have perennially complained of the UPE and USE capitation grants being insufficient.
There has never been an explanation from the authorities on how they arrived at the capitation grant figures they allocate to school heads to run the USE and UPE schools. The realisation of access to free quality education is, therefore, not simply a matter of abolishing schools fees.
A number of reforms are necessary. For example, there is no rationale for the government to continue financing the high–end religious-founded schools that declined to take on the UPE and USE programs.
The establishment of a unit cost required to educate a learner in primary and secondary is necessary so as to guide the allocation of the minimum required funding. The MoES also needs to finalize the arrangement of registering and providing all learners both in private or government schools with an identification number.
This will address cases of inflation of enrollment figures in UPE and USE schools, track enrolment, completion and dropouts rates.
The Education Act needs to be amended; first to explicitly outlaw the charging of school fees of whichever nature. Secondly, to reduce foundation bodies’ influence in schools and balance it with the Parents and Teachers Associations.
In totality, the delivery of free quality education is achievable provided there is political will and commitment to make legal, fiscal and administrative reforms in the implementation of UPE and USE programs.
The author is a program officer - Initiative for Social & Economic Rights (ISER).