Apparently the Akufo-Addo/Bawumia NPP government has been borrowing to finance Free Senior High School (SHS) as revealed by the Minister of State at the Finance Ministry, Charles Adu Boahen in an article published on May 25th titled “Ghana to Sell Sustainable Bonds for Up to $1 Billion by July” on www.bloomberg.com.
According to the article, Ghana is planning to raise as much as $1 billion through a sale of sustainable bonds, including Africa’s first social debt to fund a flagship policy to broaden access to education. More specifically, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Finance, Charles Adu Boahen, is quoted as follows, “the proceeds would help refinance domestic debt used for social and environmental projects, including loans taken to pay for the government’s free senior secondary school policy.”
The position of Mr Adu Boahen was loudly reiterated by Deputy Finance Minister nominee, Abena Osei Asare, during her vetting when she stated that borrowing to finance Free SHS could not be bad. In her response to increasing debt, she stated before the Appointments Committee of Parliament that although borrowing was rising, borrowing to finance Free SHS is prudent.
The above admissions by officials of the Akufo-Addo/Bawumia government will not be surprising to those who believed from the onset that funding the policy with national revenue, specifically oil revenue, would prove challenging in the medium to long-term.
However, what many Ghanaians will like to know is exactly how much the government has borrowed so far to finance the fSHS policy, and whether or not Parliamentary approval was granted to government to borrow to finance fSHS.
To put matters in context, the Parliament of Ghana from 2017-2021 approved in excess of ¢7 billion (2017 – 400 million; 2018 – ¢1.2 billion; 2019 – ¢1.6 billion; 2020 – ¢2.4 billion; and 2021 – ¢1.9 billion) for the financing of Free SHS.
Based on the above, it’s justified to ask government to tell Ghanaians how much it has borrowed to finance Free SHS. How much of the estimated ¢170 billion borrowed by the Akufo-Addo/Bawumia government in just about four and half years has been used to finance fSHS?
The bigger question is, is it sustainable to borrow to finance Free SHS? My candid view is that borrowing to finance Free SHS is not sustainable. This is because the student population increases each year. We currently have 1,200,580 students in the publuc secondary school system, and the numbers will increase next year and every year, naturally, as we keep making babies. The trend is self-evident. For example, at the commencement of the policy in 2017, the student population was 432,780, in 2018 it increased to 613,780, and presenty the number is 1,200,580 according to the 2021 budget.
Sadly the provision of educational infrastructure is lagging behind, not at pace with the increasing numbers of students. Out of 1,119 infrastructure projects government initiative since 2017, only 539 have been completed. Even the securitisation of GETFUND in 2018 for an amount $1.5 billion dollars to help address the inadequate infrastructure, that is, complete some 766 old GETFUND projects and to add new infrastructure, has not changed the situation.
The need to consider a more sustainable source of financing the Free SHS policy is urgent now more than ever because as the student population increases, so will their needs: space, food, textbooks, teachers etc.
Even with current budgetary allocations and loans, reports of reduction in quantities/portions of food served to students and its quality, as well as the supply of teaching and learning materials, including books are prevalent. Students complain of inadequate and poor food and the sharing of core textbooks.
The two principal challenges bedeviling the implementation of the policy are products of inadequate funding: inadequate space; inadequate/poor quality of food.
Sustaining and improving our secondary education means the issues of inadequate space and inadequate/poor quality food must be addressed.
This will require a national forum of stakeholders to discuss all the challenges, especially a sustainable source of funding Free SHS. Obviously, budgetary allocations and loans have been unable to resolve the challenges; proven to be insufficient so far.
Rather than being defensive, government must admit the funding challenges. That a national forum is urgently needed if we are to avert the worsening conditions in our secondary schools cannot be overemphasised.
The writer is the Builsa South MP and the Deputy Ranking Member of Parliament’s Committee on Education