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No such thing as free education

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Free Primary Education (FPE) was touted as a step forward in the attainment of universal education in Malawi when it was introduced in the early 1990s.

It brought relief to many families that could not afford to pay tuition fees their children to start a journey of knowledge, a key that unlocks doors of opportunities in the modern world.

Additionally, FPE was in tandem with article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (UN) which promotes education for all.

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President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, in his address to 77th Session of UN General Assembly, stated that ‘education is the best equaliser’.

Regardless of their socio-economic background, any person that has worked hard through academic corridors has same chance of pursuing and accessing diverse opportunities of life.

Education has a direct impact on improvement of livelihoods in nutrition, health, employment and successful participation in economic activities.

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Again, John F Kennedy of the United States observed that the progress of any nation in development has been no furtherer than its progress in education and that human mind is fundamental capital.

FPE was therefore a right policy position to precipitate change by eliminating economic impediments and availing knowledge to all manner of people right from the bottom of the formal education pyramid.

It further signified that Malawi was setting a solid foundation for development of all sectors of society as many scholars proceeding to secondary and tertiary levels would be a pool of knowledgeable and skilled human capital for the labour market to tap from.

Economics has a popular saying that ‘There is nothing like a free lunch’, which entails that FPE is not necessarily free but that some unknown ordinarily foots the costs.

Paradoxically, the unknown may be the general public that thinks primary education is free. In fact, the cost is two-fold; firstly, the cost of current activities required to execute FPE policy and secondly the cost of failure to provide resources to sustain required standards of education.

The introduction of FPE essentially meant an increase in enrolment, which brought resource challenges as the impromptu policy shift did not accommodate an equivalent speed in allocation of matching academic resources.

The teacher-learner ratio moved up, thereby piling up class management pressure on teachers and consequently demotivating them.

Classroom-learner ratio was a total mismatch leading to some learners learning under trees or thatches where weather conditions are a detriment to learning.

Distances between schools were also a thorn in the fresh of learners. Inadequate learning resources such as textbooks, boards, chalk and accompanying finances for general administration also rocked the system.

The pressure and dwindling standards in public education compelled those with financial resources to take out their children to private schools.

This defeated the very essence of FPE as equal and equitable access to education was qualified by economic standing over the scale of acceptable standards.

FPE was hence a petty signpost of policy standing at crossroads of general expectation but lacking in the essential spirit of velocity to move and deliver anticipated destination.

In 2016, the United States Agency for International Development reported that 83 percent of learners in Standard One could not read a single syllable and that 92 percent could not read a single word in Chichewa.

It further reported that 84 percent could not proceed beyond primary education whose quality was already a flop. Additionally, 50 percent of those living under the poverty line were school dropouts.

In real terms, therefore, education as a human right which is a passport to human development and bedrock for equality and inclusion, became a restricting factor minimising freedoms and closing doors of opportunities for the poor or underprivileged.

Failure of education at primary level has an extreme negative knockdown effect on all aspirations of a nation beyond personal wishes.

Without stage one, there can never be subsequent levels of education that can deliver human development change.

Of what essence are rights to the dead or a dead system to the living? A dead system of rights and policies cannot deliver good health and life to the living.

It is unwise and incomprehensible to have citizens pay an equivalent of K5,000 for month-long cultural initiation ceremonies and restrict the same from paying for formal education.

Again, there are religious denominations flourishing everywhere in Malawi where poor families pledge and sustain such establishments. We just need bold leadership that influences payment of tuition in schools if education is to regain its meaning.

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