Unintended consequences of free education?

From Guy Grossman and Evan Lieberman, this Ugandan New Vision article:

The day Government started paying tuition for all school going children, was the day parents ‘declared’ a holiday from taking care about their children’s education. What a shame.

Almost all school management committee became dull. Government stood at a distance and barked, but did not care to bite. Years down the road, the rot seems to be perforating its way through free education’s foundation in the country.

A decade down the road, Government is gradually realising that the parents stealthily put so much weight on its back, and this is gradually eating down the country’s quality of education.

And Evan’s two cents:

I’ve heard much the same thing from various head teachers in Kenya, absolutely lamenting the detrimental effects of free primary education (FPE)! The simple argument is that when parents don’t have to pay, they feel no stake in the school, no obligation to participate in management, and they simply delegate education to government. And because poor people in poor areas are not paying any kind of direct income tax, given low or non-existent incomes, they are not engaged in any type of fiscal contract. It’s pretty painful to think that in trying to provide universal primary education (and beyond) in these East African countries that the plan itself might actually be causing harm to the quality of learning.

The introduction of free education in Africa (or social security in Latin America) presents a short-lived opportunity to see the effect of government provision of education and other forms of welfare–relevant to US and European policy debates in this era of small government resurgence.

The laments of head teachers alone don’t convince me, but I would not be surprised if it were true. I pity that there are not (to my knowledge) studies taking advantage of the changes for a more rigorous answer.

Or are there? Reader suggestions welcome.

65 thoughts on “Unintended consequences of free education?

  1. QUOTE: “The day Government started paying tuition for all school going children, was the day parents ‘declared’ a holiday from taking care about their children’s education. What a shame.”

    These are VERY BOLD and GROSS statements from a researcher. Like you, I am social research….and strongly against generalization! and half-truths.

    1) You should have made it clear that you are talking about “Public formal Education in Uganda”, and that there are other options for education, both private and informal.

    2) Uganda parents will NEVER take a break from educating their kids. Matter of fact, Uganda parents are increasingly paying A LOT more for their children’s formal education than in the past, finding all the possible options to ensure that their children excel, Afterschool programs, coaching, private schools, international education…The general talk is, they want their children to be at par with the international system and comfortably compete in the global intellectual and employment markets.

    What happened when Government of Uganda (GoU) introduces UPE -Universal Primary Education -was, like all other external aid funded programs, this government does not feel obliged to invest extra funds but uses such platforms for political score.

    So, more children sent into schools without proportional increase in school facilities, teachers, school staff welfare, put a lot of pressure on the system. The Parents-Teachers Associations (PTAs) that were actively engaged in co-management of schools [even historical public schools] weakened, due to mixed messages from the government. Just because government was paying pupil’s tuition fees, did not follow that parents did not have to provide school uniforms, scholastic material, and lunch for their kids. But the parents did not see it that way. So, they felt, the school admin was not honest. For parents of low economic earning, these school requirements were a strain on their livelihoods, in fact in many incidences, a lot more financially demanding than the tuition the government paid.

    Some parents felt it was useless to take kids to schools where: a) they had to study under a tree; b) on an empty stomach; c) with hundreds of other children in the classroom; d) their time at school is repeatedly interrupted when they are sent back home without school requirements

    Other parents, including from the working class and lower middle class felt it wiser to spend their entire earnings on a ‘better’ education for their children, by deciding to take their kids to private school. More money paid, more time spent on homework, more energies on engaging with their children’s education.

    So, while it is true that the public education system in Uganda has suffered since the introduction of UPE, it ABSOLUTELY WRONG to say that Ugandan parents “… ‘declared’ a holiday from taking care about their children’s education”.

  2. ‘It’s pretty painful to think that in trying to provide universal primary education (and beyond) in these East African countries that the plan itself might actually be causing harm to the quality of learning.’

    There are a few points to make here:
    1. ‘Free’ education is a somewhat misleading definition on the whole, given that there are always costs involved in providing this education (both for parents and schools/government).
    2. It is perhaps not surprising that such initiatives may be providing more harm than good when we look at what is – often – the driving force behind them: global education targets e.g. EFA, or to lesser extent, the MDGs. It almost becomes a tick-box approach, and once there are enough bums on seats then we are said to have ‘succeeded’ with the goal. The ins and outs of what is actually happening in the classroom tend to become overlooked until later down the line when it turns out that those students didn’t actually learn all that much. I.e. They may have been schooled, but it is unlikely that they were educated…

    I don’t think FPE is necessarily all bad. However, if the quality of that which is provided is an afterthought then I’m pretty sure it cannot be assumed to be a good thing. Without consideration of instruction methods, teacher development, accountable management, and reformed curricula (in cases where it is needed), it seems FPE is likely to be the same – if not worse than – as no education at all.

  3. Meh. A side issue. In real terms education is a lot freer in New Zealand, or Sweden than it is in SSA, and the results are much better. I’d say that either, parental involvement doesn’t matter that much, or Anne and S above have it correct.

  4. Trashing the idea of free primary education because it lowers parents’ stake in schooling is like trashing women’s right to vote because them ladies they get all uppity and forget their place… what about how the STUDENTS lives benefit, rather than how the parents/teachers/gov’ts benefit?

  5. Wonder if this discussion is of any relevance for health. Free care and treatment certainly increases access. Sick/injured people shouldn’t have to suffer because they can’t afford to pay fees. But does free care undermine the value of health itself? Or the effort peole will make to encourage it?

  6. Scenario is presented well. But when anything new starts it has teething problems, surely this a new concept. Even if it is 10 or 100 year old. Our mindset in general is to get everything against something. Barter to currency it is same. Now the Implementation authority onwards to the linking resources do not have enough will and how can they dent when they have no teeth. Teething problem will arrive when at least there are teeth. They have gums only. And we are feeding milk. If you find the correct list of beneficeries you will get the right picture. Quality of the teachers, Heads, or any linked officials is it upto the standards of other well managed schools? find the difference, Nothing more is required.

  7. I would like to second S’s comment, and also note that the New Vision is government-run and censored; this op-ed does not jive with my conversations with rural Ugandans. And I’m not sure it’s appropriate to think about the marginal increase here- this is a discrete change. Therefore a comparison of total levels, and total benefits, may be more accurate.

  8. At the heart of this issue is the distinction between universal education (i.e. all kids in schools) vs. universal learning (i.e. all kids, or more of them, actually learning something in those schools). Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beatty have an interesting paper (http://hvrd.me/Q1CLkv) on the negative consequences of overambitious curricula in developing countries, where it’s not uncommon for teachers to cram two years’ worth of already ambitious curricula into a year’s time. Additionally, last year Brookings released a “Global Compact on Learning” (http://bit.ly/NWHV2T) that provides a thorough, if broad, treatment of the issue.

    Abigail Barr, Frederick Mugisha, Pieter Serneels, and Andrew Zeitlin have a paper (http://bit.ly/SRkzwD) on school management committees in Uganda, in which a participatory variation of community-based monitoring showed substantial impacts on pupil test scores as well as pupil and teacher absenteeism, while the standard community-based monitoring treatment demonstrated small and insignificant eff ects. The study doesn’t take advantage of UPE / USE per se, at least not in the way you cite, but it’s interesting to see how community engagement can be increased given increases in enrollment and changing demographics of student and parent populations (i.e. intuitively, if school is cheaper you’re likely to see some of the less engaged parents also sending their kids to school).

  9. I work for an organization that provides need-based scholarships to families in Honduras. Families must complete a specified number of points each month to maintain their scholarship. Not the perfect system, but the program has very much built a culture of ownership among the parents.

  10. Certainly there must be other ways of inciting parental involvement beyond asking them to pay fees. The ‘parent-as-service-buyer’ concept of incentives would only truly produce better outcomes if parents were in a position (ie, among other things be themselves sufficiently educated) to actually assess child performance and if they had reason to believe that education is in the long term interest of their child. If those conditions are not ensured, asking parents to pay fees will probably only lead to lower enrollment. The ‘bolsa familia’ approach of rewarding families that keep kids in school (as long as kids succeed) might be a better approach. It is probably more costly, however.

  11. As an economist i have to say that education is not a public good and if the government provides it is because the market failures. I think that Parents should get involve in the education process so they can realize the importance of have educated children and most important to consider it as a long term investment. Also, they fact that they could decide the school they want them for their kids should be their responsibility and that could be a good way to improve quality of schools, by competition. But what concerns me the most is not if parents are getting involved but the quality of education. Is not a secret that private schools do better than public, but what if the government start giving teachers better incentives so public education have the best teachers in the country and so improve the quality?

  12. This study is not necessarily linked to parents’ attitudes towards free basic education, but it is revealing: http://twaweza.org/go/dar-parents-know-little-about-their-childrens-education

    In the above study, 429 randomly selected households were surveyed in Dar es Salaam:

    – 97% of respondents did not know the capitation grant amount that the government is to provide for each student in school.
    – Just under 40% were uninformed about teachers’ absence or presence in school
    – Less than 20% knew the pass rate of the Primary School Leaving Examination at the school their children attend.

  13. S is correct. But the cost of schooling nonetheless dropped significantly (since they incurred those costs before). changes on the margin is what we are measuring.

  14. but parents in uganda pay “school fees” all the time, thanks to corruption in the education sector. and paying for uniforms, books, and school supplies are no small cost for poor families, either. and sending your kids to school instead of having them stay home to work on the farm is a major cost for families as well. to say that they’re sending their kids to school for free is simply inaccurate.

  15. More likely what the headmasters are noticing is a change in the composition of people who send their kids to school. Parents who couldn’t afford school are likely to be less involved, and have worse performing kids. It is almost inevitable that universal primary education will result in a decline in mean student performance.

    It’s like taking the dumbest student at Harvard and enrolling them at Yale – the average ability goes up at both schools.

  16. From years ago watching my father navigate as head of the board of education for our school district, parents got really involved when there was a bond issue to house the boomer generation and/or tax increase. Of course, that participation was much more visible than attendance at parents nights. One wonders whether the institution of parents nights has spread in Africa?

  17. We’ve been hearing this argument in India for a while now. More so with the new Right to Education acts. Unfortunately, there is little consensus on what an acceptable cost is and what the outcomes of free education are supposed to be.

  18. Two questions here:
    Uneducated people do uneducated things, but how will the next generation act?
    Is everyone getting mediocre education worse than few receiving good, and most no education?