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The myth of free

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One of the ingredients to Malawi’s development is an educated critical mass. Malawi is in dire need of good doctors, engineers, scientists, geologists, teachers, academics, nurses and public administrators. It is suicidal for this nation to even contemplate a period of idleness where the students do not attend classes and therefore lose out on their lessons.

Timely graduation of the current crop of university graduates is not only a necessity but an obligation. We also need to differentiate between free higher education for all, subsidised university education for all and free higher education for the poor. These are not synonymous concepts. They are fundamentally different. In the current debate, these concepts have been bundled together and arguments for one have been used to support or indeed oppose the other.

The good news from last week is that at least for now Chancellor College of the University of Malawi will open and that fees have been reduced by some amount. I want to congratulate the two sides in this saga (the students and the government) for being reasonable and coming to an agreement. My biggest surprise in this has been the missing parents. While I recognise that there are students who are paying for the fees themselves, I am sure that the majority of these students are not paying from their own pocket as of yet. There are parents (in this case parents include uncles, aunts, and a great many members of the extended family) who are the ones paying these fees for the majority of the students. One then wonders what the opinion of those parents is.

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In fact when I say parents I do not mean only those whose children are at the University. The word parents also mean everyone who pays tax in Malawi. This is because the truth is there is no free lunch anywhere. In economics, the basic principle is that there is a cost to every action taken. In the end someone pays. The only issue is who pays, when and how. Let us take the possibilities in the current case.

There are those who are paying the prescribed fees using their own resources, then there are those who are using the resources of their parents or relative directly, then there are those who are getting loans (even these are paying) since they will have to repay the loans. There are those who are on scholarships, this is money someone is paying. So the education might be free for the individual but someone is paying for the individual.

In other words whatever the government does, even making all universities free, someone will have to pay. This can be in the form of tax payers’ money being taken from other activities to fund the education sector or maybe debt which the students themselves will have to pay at a later date. After all there are salaries to be paid, upgrades to be made, books to be bought and other costs to be met. These activities cost money and someone will have to find that money. In my case, I had free university education, meaning I did not pay the fees myself but someone was paying my fees through their taxes.

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The fact that nothing is for free has been used by supporters of increments in fees to justify why these fees have to go up. Education, they say, cannot be free because nothing is free. Those on the other side argue that there are those who are too poor and yet very intelligent who will be left out of this opportunity due to the increased fees.

I would not be ashamed to confess I was one such students and I know many who today are doing a great service to humanity both in Malawi and abroad. I cannot even imagine where I would have been if it was not for a university education. I, therefore, think it would be a real shame if a poor but academically excellent student is deprived the opportunity that I had. It would be a catastrophe for such a student to miss the chance to move out of the poverty trench together with members of his or her immediate and extended family and indeed the country’s future poverty because they are poor now.

For me as a parent, the issue at hand is how can and should the government intervene to ease the financial burden on students most of whom are poor and do not have parents who can afford the fees. What is easy and morally defensible is free higher education for the very poor, but is that the right answer? Good university education is costly and as such the questions we should all confront include the following: Is free university education a good idea? Is free university education sustainable? Where will the money to run the current universities to world class level and build new ones to cater for an ever increasing population come from? Should tuition fees be differentiated according to ability to pay?

I know that a differentiated fee structure would be complex and politically difficult to implement. Would the concept of equity and not equality be justifiable. In other words, do we think that the rich must pay more for university education? And would the government then commit itself and be held accountable to the principle that no intelligent student from a poor household should be excluded from a tertiary institution because of financial reasons?

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