President Weah’s Tuition-free Declaration Laudable But…!

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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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. The last paragraph of this article highlights an important point about President Weah’s decision-making style that he’s basically making decisions by the “seat of his pants” as we call it in America. The risk of making policies by “seat of the pants” mean the policy may not be successful because it is not well thought-out. This is a very significant decision which will impact tens of thousands of students and cost millions of dollars, so it should have been part of a broad development plan. The country is still waiting his development plan.

  2. Totally agree with you Phil George and also the editorial. This was not a planned policy driven announcement but just a “knee jerk, “shooting from the hip” decision. It is not allocated in the budget that was approved. Where is this money coming from? How much are we even talking about? Was this allocated in the present budget? How is it being financed in the budget? How are we going to raise this huge additional budgetary allotment? These are questions that have to be answered before a well determined announcement is made. Such decision has to be discussed and even better, approved by the House and Senate and not based on an executive decision. While it is very laudable to offer free education, this is an immature, amateurish, poorly thought of decision made by Weah that will have dire consequences for the educational system in the country. I am sure before the other African countries decided this, it was a well thought of, designed and completely researched decision.

    Some may wonder if this was just not a political decision to get back in the good graces of the students since they were the ones in the vanguard of inquiring about the missing monies.

  3. I laud the Government’s efforts in providing for a tuition free college education in all public universities in the nation. While it thus provide immense benefit to the current crops of students and may potentially provide for future crops of students at these universities, the fact that the initiative is not policy driven may create a bottleneck and legal issue. First, because there was no analysis conducted to ascertain how the government would fund the President’s pronouncement means that, and to the President’s credit, the appropriate Agencies of government must quickly review the current budgetary allocations and reprioritize and drawdown on prior amounts already allocated for other programs in the 2018/2019 Fiscal Year budgets to accommodate the President’s urgent prioritized initiative of free public college tuition.

    The legal issue that may arise, and it doesn’t have to if handled properly, is that if the initiative and beneficiary only ends up being the current crop of students for the 2018/2019 school years. That would amount to the Government using tax monies to benefit a select group of students based on their luck of being enrolled in college for the two years, but students with similar economic hardship that subsequently follow finding themselves not equally receiving the government’s support. While it would be difficult to legally prevail over the government on a charge of intentional bias, it could lead to chaos. My solution to this dilemma is a retroactive adjustment in allocations made in the current budget prior to the President’s announcement and fast pace a legislative enactment to make it law, as one commenter suggested. What this does, is compel the governments now and in the future to have to include this program in all budgetary discussions and allocations. It would also allow Public Institutions to take the government to court if the government fail to make appropriate allocation in the yearly budget for such program.

    My other point I suggest is the Pre-K to High School level education received in the country. I am not versed in the educational structure of Liberia having spent most of my life away, in light of the many changes that have taken place in the country, but I believed that there is free tuitions for public schools from Pre-K to some level short of high school. I stand corrected if someone has an accurate information. Whatever the case may be, it’s proven that a strong early education foundation is the basis for successful secondary and post secondary education that bring greater utilities to both the students and society as a whole. So, investments in early childhood education in written and spoken english, math, the sciences will form a competitive pool of candidates who would be able to compete for entrance at any major universities in the country and the most select universities around the world. I have had the privilege of volunteering at lecturing at the Pre-K and High School level as part of my employer’s effort in preparing students for the corporate environment and I have seen the benefit of the types of early educations that have enable students to enter some of the most selective ivy leagues and private and public universities in the United States.

    In conclusion, I believe, whatever the cost of the President’s initiative is and the few I have suggested here, the benefit outweigh the opportunity cost of not doing anything to sustain this initiative and broadening it to all Public Schools.

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