President George Manneh Weah, calling out all his phrasal nicknames and declaring tuition-free for all public university and college students, received another rain of applause on Wednesday, October 24 in the auditorium of the University of Liberia and other public places.
The declaration, however, affects only tuition of those public universities including the University of Liberia, Tubman University and community colleges across the country. The President’s action is predicated upon his empathy for students who are finding it difficult to enroll universities and colleges because of financial constraints. According to him, education makes one to think logically and therefore he feels disenchanted when he sees students put out of class and refused entry at universities and colleges.
The declaration is welcoming if not for anything more than the allure of a free education. Once again, the President has raised hopes but, how and whether his promises can be actualized is the question which remains unanswered especially given the country’s current dim economic outlook.
A cursory review of the budget shows that recurrent expenditure accounts for more than two-thirds of the national budget, with administrative costs accounting for 30 percent of the budget. The total projected resource envelope for 2018-2019 is put at 488.2 million.
The statistics also show that public spending on education has been on a steady decline, from 7 percent in 1978 to 2.8 percent in 2012. Resource mobilization has proven to be a challenging task. With the reported disappearance of billions of newly printed banknotes, it can be imagined that donor receptivity to Liberia’s quest for support to its development programs will hit a snag.
President Sirleaf once said, Liberia’s educational system was/is a mess although she did little to change it. Conditions in public elementary, junior high and senior high schools around the country leave much to be desired.
From Cape Mount to Cape Palmas, the story is basically the same — lack of educational and instructional materials including textbooks, chronic shortage of qualified teachers, lack of science laboratories and libraries, lack of desks, chairs and poor salaries for teachers.
A top Ministry of Education official addressing himself to concerns about high fees being charged in public schools admitted that in the absence of adequate support to public schools, school administrators have been asked to find creative ways to address the problem of financial support to public schools. Such “creative ways” simply imply the imposition of fees which parents must bear but which they can ill afford. Thus, many students, by no choice of their own, are compelled to drop out of school because their parents cannot afford the cost of their tuition.
It is in consideration of all the above that this newspaper welcomes President Weah’s with caution, being acutely aware of the implications of the problems he may likely face if government proves unable or incapable of raising the funding required to support a tuition-free policy in public colleges and universities. Nearly all such institutions are struggling, barely able to keep their doors open to the public. The case of the Bong County Community College is a typical case in point where the inordinate greed of public officials have undermined the development and growth of the institution.
Speaker Bhofal Chambers, for example was indicted in an audit report showing that he owned shares in a company hired to construct the college, but the company failed to complete the project even after estimates had been revised upward, thus providing room for unscrupulous officials to squander public funds. The pronouncement at the University may have earned the President rounds of applause and perhaps temporarily distract attention from burning issue of the day which is the missing billions.
Further, the continued depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the US dollar does not portend favorably for the implementation of a tuition-free scheme at public universities and colleges. Moreover, statements by Representative Yekeh Kolubah charging that legislators are placing in the budget huge sums allocated to some obscure schools where they will benefit from or share the allocation in a two-way split is a matter which should claim the urgent attention of President Weah, not to speak of integrity watchdogs such as the General Auditing Commission (GAC) and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission(LACC).
Honestly, this newspaper empathizes with President Weah, challenged as he is with a myriad of problems but surrounded by a corps of seasoned and greedy opportunists who will spare no effort to line their pockets and risk drawing the Weah administration into a cobweb of corruption that may eventually prove his undoing. Policy makers in this government would do themselves well to go back to the drawing boards to figure out how they are going to increase the resource envelope that will lend to the successful and sustainable implementation of the President’s tuition-free program in public colleges and universities.
In so doing, President Weah should be aware of the fickle nature of young, impulsive students who may today cheer the announcement but who will, the next day, be mounting street protests. They must be told the truth rather than building false hopes in an attempt to placate what might be their revolutionary fervor. What would have been a better idea than to engage the students in get them involved, along with others, in examining the economy and proposing ways in which this tuition-free program can be financed?
In this regard, this newspaper makes it clear that it supports free education from elementary to college, however, such an endeavor must be studied and carefully worked out to avoid failure. Ghana has done it; Sierra Leone has also done similarly. But the difference is, those were policy decisions made by conscious, deliberate design and planning, not a rather knee-jerk response to student agitation.