The decision by the Government of Liberia (GoL) to provide free tuition for students is welcome news, but I think the priority is mixed, farfetched and mind-boggling. I think it is troubling no matter how nice it sounds.
I expect that the party has started and the balloons are already out for the celebration. Good, but in my mind, this isn’t a strategic priority right now given the alarming and distressing economic situation in the country. It makes me wonder what’s behind this sudden act of kindness.
If you read the just released World Bank Assessment (WBA) report on Liberia, it paints a complex economic situation (a country on the brink of failure) with more than expected declining and widening fiscal deficit compounded by a significant shortage in revenue intake, grotesque underperformance, blockbusting non-discretionary expenditures, and runaway inflation set off by decreasing foreign exchange supply and other negative externalities. Does it sound like a pretty nice picture to you for any new social program at this size and magnitude?
Let me say that in Public Policy there’s a time when collective actions by government are warranted. As a policy wonk, I understand that. But, providing free education to student when there’s depleting foreign aid and limited economic activities driven by new businesses and decreased revenue, it makes no sense whatsoever for government to make an already bad situation worse. We understand the act of kindness and hardships, but a more prudent approach was not this decision. I’m sorry. Look, I admit we cannot be critical about every decision this government makes, but there’s a time when you call a spade a spade. This isn’t a spade. It is a Jack. It makes the administration look like a bunch of jokers. At this point, I can sense vulgarity from some ‘Cdcians’ reading this, but that’s fine.
According to “Front Page Africa” (a Liberian daily newspaper), the Vice President for UL Relations said that based on 20,000 students projection taking 15 credits you will have a budget of $1.2Million to cover the costs. Now that the government has agreed to cover this costs for the UL we also need to consider the costs of the other Public Universities and Colleges and explain where the government will get the funds to cover all of these costs.
I think for now, the more farsighted and logical thing was to engage the Administration of the University of Liberia (UL) to maintain the current $4.00 US dollars per credit per course or better yet, reduce the per credit amount by $0.25 cents to say $3.75 US dollars until the entire situation was assessed. The President should have sanctioned a committee of the best minds to propose the best way forward. Part of this committee’s work would have been a financial analysis of the costs and benefits and using data (facts) to drive decision-making. This committee would have included institutional and education policy-makers who would brainstorm ways in which government can pay for these added expenditures and to limit questions about “…how are they going to pay for it?”
Any important tenet of policy making, design decisions, suggestions, and choices shouldn’t be driven by gut feelings alone. Rather, adequate analysis and data-driven decision-making to ensure effectives and robustness of the outcome. Now, to many, it doesn’t pass the smell test. It appears as though government is trying to recover from the pejorative of issues it is faced with.
Done right, I think free education should start from the pre-primary and primary levels, in order to strengthen the foundation first and build for the future. Focus should be on creating the environment for learning; by renovating and modernizing established schools, erecting new ones where appropriate, paying teachers on time, providing nutritional services since hunger impacts learning, etc. Moreover, making teaching an attractive career choice and recruiting the best and brightest minds in the field should take precedence.
Look, I’m not saying the poor UL students don’t deserve it. They do. But it is not the right time. If I had the chance to advise the President, I would tell him to focus on developing the economy and bring everything to bear on it. Make this a strategic national priority for now. When people are able to find fairly decent paying jobs, they will care for themselves and their families. They’ll pay their own school fees. The rationale here is that Liberians need to start working. Creating jobs will create additional tax dollars to spend on social programs like free education for all. In contrast, even in mature economies like the U.S. where resources are in abundance, public colleges and universities aren’t free.
Let’s assume that this government finds free education a strategic priority choice; it then would have been appropriate to learn a thing or two from our nex- door neighbor – Sierra Leone.
Under the leadership of President Julius Maada Bio, the country pursued a similar flagship initiative to increase access to education benefiting 1.5 million Sierra Leone students – from pre-primary to secondary levels. But, it wasn’t a government only funded inventiveness; it started as a Public Private Partnerships (PPP) that included UK Aid, World Bank, Irish Aid, World Food Programme (WFP)and UNICEF. Additionally, the Maada Bio government increased its education budget from 12 to 21 percent so that the education program would be broad-based to covers tuition, admission fees, teaching and learning materials, text books, examination and assessment fees – the whole yard. This sounds like a more ‘pro poor’ education policy objective to me, than just free tuition. Do you agree?
Look, I give credit to President Weah for this gesture, since it will help ease the burden on students and parents who are making a lot of sacrifices under extremely difficult economic conditions. However, by just reducing school fees without adequately studying the situation is the wrong approach of stretching an already cash strapped government that has no wiggle room because of large budget deficits. I would have felt better if the President had proposed to reduction in salaries of top government officials to pay for this initiative first. Well, the damage is done.
So, I caution this administration to do itself a favor and learn from this lapse in judgment. This isn’t how government works. Moving Liberia forward requires new mindset and new ways of looking at the world by enabling policy makers to do their homework first. The ‘status quo’ is not sustainable. An initiative requires taking a systematic approach by examining both formal and informal impediments such as political, legal, bureaucratic, organizational, economic, financial, and social factors that affect it. Decisions that impact a lot of people cannot be hastily done. These things take time and effort to get it right. Be smart people. The world is watching!
Dr. A Joel King has a doctorate in Management and a diploma in Public Policy Economics from University of Oxford and Executive Coaching from University of Cambridge, UK. He is a Wharton Online Scholar and an academic tutor at Cousera and volunteers at the American Academy of Management (AoM) and Strategic Management Society (SMS)