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Nii Moi Thompson and the Cheerleaders of Free SHS

Our attention has been drawn to a recent article by Dr. Nii Moi Thompson, a former Director of Research of the Convention Peoples party.

We would ordinarily not have responded, considering the fact that Dr. Thompson advances no new arguments in support of the need to introduce blanket fee-free SHS for both rich and poor guardians/students in Ghana.

He furthermore does not even bother to discuss what “free” would imply in a context where government already provides free tuition across the public educational system, heavily subsidise other costs, and maintain educational infrastructure at multiple levels of the public educational system, including at second-cycle level.

We would ordinarily not have responded, considering the fact that Dr. Thompson provides not a single credible source to back his belief that the blanket provision of fee-free SHS would have any link to improving the key issues confronting Senior Secondary today:

1. That students from public, fee-free, basic schools (aka “syto”) are heavily under-represented in first and second – class senior secondary schools today. Somehow, the provision of fee-free education at that level appears to have made little difference to performance within the public basic school system. In fact, under the fee-free basic educational system, many basic schools in a number of regions have been recording zero percent pass rate in exit exams (eg. BECE). How is fee-free SHS going to ensure that more students by the time they get to JHS3 are ready to benefit from the harder SHS curriculum in the newly fee-free SHS schools?

2. That despite massive public subsidies, the quality of education across most tiers of secondary schooling is falling. This is mirrored by a deterioration in infrastructure and in the quality of teaching and services. In some schools, middle-class students refuse to eat the subsidised food served on school premises, and choose to bring their own food in so-called “chop-boxes”. They pay for extra-classes to ensure that they can pass effectively, and they never step a foot in outdated school libraries.

Why the government would want to hand over public money to such students, when quality would be much better served were the resources more carefully targeted at those who genuinely cannot afford to be in secondary school without such help, beats our imagination. Unfortunately Dr. Thompson’s screed does not help us there.

3. That despite free tuition at public secondary schools, subsidies on feeding and lodging (expenses parents would have borne were the students not in school), and maintenance of public SHS physical facilities at public expense, students from third and fourth class secondary schools cannot find places in the public universities due to low performance, and must struggle through unsubsidised private universities if they choose to further their education. How providing additional free grants to middle and upper class parents and their students can contribute to solving this problem, Dr. Thompson remains eerily silent.

He does not use a single empirical point in any of his arguments to explain why he believes ALL parents need government support to help pay for the highly subsidised fees at day SHS, which in our surveys can be as low as $32 per annum, nor does he even acknowledge the clear reality that were fees the principal impediment to enrolment, then the chief problems of education in the North, where this free concept has been taken to its logical end, would be no more. He cannot explain the paradox whereby the regions where education is “freeist” are also the ones with the worst literacy rates, so he doesn’t even make the effort.

So why are we responding to Dr. Thompson, then?

We are doing so because Dr. Thompson was less keen about engaging in the SHS debate and more fired up by the opportunity to take IMANI to task. He was more motivated by the opportunity to dress us down. In the course of this activity he was at pains to paint our work in the most unpalatable light. Should we ignore his various accusations they are likely to “go on record”. So despite their lack of core relevance to the unfurling debate, we will spend some time going over them, point by point.

1. Dr. Thompson’s first gripe is that IMANI has been shifting its position erratically, moving from concerns about cost and then shifting to “a glorification of schools under trees”. This is patently false. IMANI has always indicated that it is interested in all dimensions of this policy proposal and not once have we endorsed “schools under trees”. Indeed, in our very first submission on the issue, we started by saying: “At the very least the debate can focus on settling the financial cost of the proposed policy so that the country can *more effectively debate the merits*.”

In our second comment, we ended as follows: “In future commentary, we shall investigate the capital costs of adjustment, before moving on to examine the cost-benefit matrices and overall structural and other objective social and economic merits of the proposed policy.”

Clearly, our intention has always been to fully and holistically examine this policy proposal, and not only from a financial feasibility point of view. That position cannot be twisted by Dr. Thompson’s cynical observation; the record stands for itself.

2. Dr. Thompson then moves on to castigate the NPP for stealing the free SHS idea from the CPP and makes other accusations about the integrity of its flagbearer’s intentions regarding this policy. We cannot speak for the NPP. IMANI did hear and did in fact react, negatively, to a promise to offer free secondary education by the NPP in the run-up to the 2008 elections. This is a matter of public record. We think Dr. Thompson protests too much.

3. Dr. Thompson then makes a rare empirical point: IMANI exaggerated enrolment figures in its initial comment. Bizarrely though, he cites enrolment figures in the 2012 budget statement, creating the impression that these are somehow fully authoritative. A public commentator of Dr. Thompson’s experience should have exercised more restraint, because he knows or ought to know that there hasn’t been a school census in at least a decade in this country.

The Ministry of Education in its own performance report in 2008 reveals that head counts are performed through projections of partial data, since some headteachers routinely fail to submit population survey forms sent to their schools. All of us are therefore relying on projections using different methodologies. To create the erroneous impression that IMANI is fabricating data was cynical or disingenuous or both.

4. He then moves on, descending even further into self-congratulatory counter-analysis, to question IMANI’s per capita analysis of household expenditure on public education. He makes it appear that IMANI is not aware of disaggregation effects on its analysis, when in our comment entitled: “An Alternative Costing of the NPP’s Free Secondary Policy”, we state explicitly that: “because the data used for the CGS calculations are already averaged out, there is no need for specific disaggregation of rural – urban, private – public, or day – boarding sub-data.” We certainly cannot be said to be blind to these weaknesses in the source data, nor can we be accused of neglecting to address them as best as we can. More importantly, we did not induce those weaknesses into the data, government institutions did.

Even more egregiously, Dr. Thompson appears not to be aware, or pretends not to be aware, that the government’s share of expenditure on public SHS at per capita level is derived not from the GLSS4 or GLSS5 data but from the Ministry of Education’s own performance report of 2008 – the latest one available. Considering that it is this particular per capita amount that is the key driver of costs, it is wondrous that he chose to omit it entirely, and opted instead to engage in acrobatics on disaggregation of the GLSS data on private expenditure, when he knows very well that the data is already averaged out in our analysis. The big question is: WHAT ARE THE RESULTS OF HIS OWN FINANCIAL ANALYSIS OF CURRENT AND PROJECTED COSTS IN THE WAKE OF THE PROPOSED POLICY?

5. Continuing with his hair-splitting approach to these important fiscal implications of the free SHS policy, he proceeds to berate IMANI for getting the exchange rate for June 2006 wrong, and therefore for arriving at $256 rather than $264 as the constant household expenditure in US dollar terms. Here, Dr. Thompson takes on the tone of the playground bully, wagging his finger at every turn. Having detected, in his view, a 3% or so deviation, he promptly and triumphantly declares the entire analysis to have collapsed under the weight of his superior scrutiny. Even at this stage, he is, irritatingly, unable to offer a clear alternative to the various costing scenarios.

What Dr. Thompson does not tell the reader is that in relying on the drafters of the GLSS 5’ exchange rate figure on page 8 of that report, he was merely endorsing one methodological approach of obtaining the historical rate of one currency compared to another.

That does not give him the license to pass disparaging comments on the work of other people just because he disagrees with them on a matter of public policy, especially in a democracy. IMANI preferred to use the 2006 historical exchange rate for the Ghana Cedi in dollar terms favoured by most reference charts; this was 0.95. No one is under any obligation to defer to Dr. Thompson’s preferences on objective methodology.

6. As for his claim that, in addressing the disinformation then making the rounds that Dr. Nkrumah and his CPP introduced free secondary education, IMANI was indulging in strawman argumentation, the continued parroting of that wrongful assertion in sections of the press is enough response to him.

7. Dr. Thompson saves his most sweeping and most unfounded assertions for last. He begins by saying that total expenditure for 2012 is nearly 19 billion Ghana Cedis and therefore that IMANI’s calculation of public education spending is wrong. Why he chooses a year yet to be reviewed is unclear.

We are happy to help Dr. Thompson find the right places in the budget statement to look for the relevant budgetary information. On page 27 of the same budget he cites, a table is provided as the “summary of expenditures for 2011”. Total revised government expenditure for 2011 is provided as: 14,397.4 million Ghana cedis. On page 148 of the same budget statement he cites, educational expenditure is given as: 2,871,680,218. This does not include any public expenditure on education taken from the statutory funds such as GETFUND or DACF. Even so, the percentage of budgetary allocations to education comes to 20%.

On what basis then did the good Dr. Thompson conclude that educational spending amounts to 15% of total government expenditure? Either he was being cynical or disingenuous or both. As for his other effusions about deficit financing they do not even measure up. He uses the current projected deficit as his benchmark but does not even bother to evaluate the impact of an additional $1.4 billion (IMANI’s estimate of what a truly fully-subsidised regime at secondary school would cost in year 4 of such a policy – minus capital expenditure) on the public purse. If total public spending (reviewed 2011 figures) is currently $8 billion (2012 dollar prices) with a deficit of roughly 4%, what will an additional, let’s even say $1 billion item of spending do to the deficit figures?

The calculations in respect of this matter are so basic that a public commentator of Dr. Thompson’s experience cannot pretend to be having trouble with them. He is obviously acting in his capacity as a partisan politician rather than as a public interest researcher in this case, so the weakness in his grasp of the relevant figures could only have been induced.

8. After this disastrous foray into counter-analysis, with its twisting and massacring of data and sums, Dr. Thompson ceases even the pretence of objective analysis and launches into rampant “opinionating”. We will not bore the reader further. We will only correct the false impressions created about Uganda:

A. Uganda’s “free SHS” reforms have only taken them to OUR CURRENT STAGE – i.e. free tuition at secondary schools. They are not proceeding to implement any massive subsidisation of boarding and lodging costs.

All they have been offering are fixed capitation grants of roughly $56 (per some reports) as subsidy to schools that agree to participate in the policy. This is similar to the maintenance grants currently offered to boarding students in Ghanaian public secondary schools. It is not clear whether Dr. Thompson therefore believes the current situation in our boarding houses already suffices for what he and his party has in mind.

B. Uganda does not have “40% of Ghana’s income”. This is patently false. Uganda’s current GDP is $17.1 billion according to the World Bank, compared to Ghana’s $31 billion. That is at least 55% of Ghana’s GDP. This is prior to the onset of significant commercial oil production. Such flagrant massacring of data and facts to suit any argument that catches Dr. Thompson’s fancy does not do much credit to his cause, whatever it is.

As the debate continues, IMANI shall continue to examine various facets of the proposed policy in pursuit of our public interest objectives.

Next stop: the equity, social justice, and equitability dimensions of the proposed free SHS policy.



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