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Privatization of Education and the Trauma of School Fees Payment on African Societies

With the introduction of for-profit private education in Africa, schools degenerated from being a level playing field where the children of the rich and the poor could grow together to build a better future for their communities to becoming a status symbol

The endorsement of for-profit education, especially at the primary and secondary levels, in parts of Africa, has led to the unchecked downward spiral of societies at certain fundamental levels. Crime, corruption, a poor consciousness of purposeful living, low ethical standards, and a shrinking of cordiality and social relationships are only a few of the outcomes that are thriving at never-before-seen levels. African governments must come together and take critical decisions to save both the present and future generations from the cataclysmic reality that awaits the ongoing trajectory in the education sector.

The Rise of Structural Adjustment Programmes in Africa

The privatization of education can be traced to the era of the imposition of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) across Africa in the 1980s when many African governments went cap in hand, begging for financial assistance from international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. A combination of factors was responsible for the desperate financial situation of African countries at that time. For instance, immediately after independence, many African leaders felt the need to tailor Africa’s growth and advancement according to the realities of the former colonial authorities. Many began to embark on huge, unsustainable and unaffordable white elephant projects such as the construction of grand houses of parliament, presidential palaces, massive airports, stadiums, and industrial complexes (run with imported machinery and expertise). A huge borrowing spree to finance the infrastructural projects was normalized across the continent, strongly supported by lending nations in the global north who marketed the credit facilities. Encouraged by the burgeoning commodity market and the discovery of minerals, African governments could not borrow enough.

By the 1980s, however, interest rates on commercial credits rose exorbitantly, while the prices of commodities and raw materials fell in the international market. African governments found it difficult to service loans, let alone borrow more to fund economic expansion or even run their governments. The resulting crisis sent them running to the Bretton Woods institutions, like the IMF and World Bank, which promised help if they followed strict rules. At the core of the requirements of the Bretton Woods Agreement is that African governments must privatize a lot of social services that were previously under the jurisdiction of the state. Education was affected.

SAP and the Privatization of Education in Africa

Prior to the imposition of SAP, African governments heavily invested in elementary and secondary education. Many governments across Africa introduced Universal Basic Education among other programmes to ensure high enrollment and education quality. Millions of successful Africans, many of them with global acclaim, were beneficiaries of public education in the not-too-distant past.

When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) introduced the SAP, however, African governments were mandated to drastically cut back funding for education at all levels and to privatize education. For the first time, private individuals began to open schools across different African countries. Formerly well-funded public schools became starved of funds. As teaching quality and infrastructure nose-dived in public schools, private entrepreneurs rose up to fill the gap. Private primary and secondary schools were established, modelled after markets, where certificates were exchanged for money. Investors built infrastructure, recruited teachers and promised exceptional returns on parental investment. More and more parents felt obliged to withdraw their children from poorly funded public schools. The more money a parent would pay as school fees to private schools, the better and more successful they considered themselves, as far as having fulfilled their parental obligations is concerned.

Private Schools and the Rise of Corruption

With SAP, the prices of goods and services went through the roof, while the minimum wage barely went up. Add the inflation rate to the additional burden of school fee payments on parents, and what you get is a disruption of the social-psychological fabric of societies. Parents, previously content to work with integrity and appropriately budget their earnings to meet family expenses, became desperate to secure school fee payments. The excuse for civil and public servants to divert public funds assumed a sanctimonious dimension: who, when boxed into a corner, would not do anything to ensure a secure future for their children? Parents reflected as they transferred public funds into personal accounts. Civil servants with previously clean hands crept their way into public coffers near the start of the school year; people felt more confident asking for bribes in exchange for services that were their duty to provide.

Writing in “Development and Cooperation,” a monthly English language-medium journal funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Ndongo Samba Sylla, writes that with the SAP,

“Poverty, lawlessness and exploitation added up to a fertile ground for corruption. With stagnant incomes, public sector employees – regardless of their rank – were tempted to make ends meet with ethically reprehensible practices. Police officers took bribes from motorists. Bureaucrats demanded money for services that are supposed to be free, such as issuing IDs. Teachers and professors cheated at exams and charged high sums for private lessons.”

Private Schools and Childhood Trauma

Children suffered the harshest brunt of the promotion of for-profit education across Africa. In their desperate search for school fees, the time that should have been invested in the training of children was foregone. The demonstration of affection for children became defined by being able to pay their school fees promptly. How dare a child whose parents were sacrificing so much for their education ask for more?

Feeling unloved and uncared for, children grew up in the vacuum of expensive private schools, in the hands of capitalists whose major concern with their welfare depended on the uninterrupted inflow of their parents’ money. As private schools increased their fees, they increasingly catered to parents’ needs to work harder to pay. In some cases, schools opened at 6:00 a.m. and closed at 6:30 p.m. or even later. Parents were grateful. Sleepy-eyed children were dropped off in the morning as both parents hurried off in search of school fees. Worn-out parents picked up even more worn-out children in the evening; family life became a quest for school fees for children.

Family and community life, which are the joys of human existence, suffered tremendously. Family sizes have shrunk dramatically. Mortified at the possibility of not being able to afford school fees in excellent schools, would-be parents planned to have one, two, or at most three children. “What is the purpose of filling the house with children that one cannot afford to train?” was one of the questions about-to-marry young people asked each other.

During weekends, stressed-out parents needed to catch up on some socializing. Weddings, funerals, religious and other events took up much of the time until it was suddenly Monday morning and everyone has to rush off yet again. The cycle continues on end! Children became more demanding, and parents became more short-tempered. Children demanded overseas vacations or Nike tennis shoes and handbags like their friends in the schools they attended. Parents felt obliged to provide, not wanting their children to feel like the dregs of society in the school environment.

In turn, parents demanded their children study certain “lucrative” courses at the university. If parents spent so much time, energy and funds in paying school fees, then the rate of return on that investment must be exceptional and evident for society to see. The talents, dreams, aspirations and uniqueness of children became inconsequential. In short, children were stripped of the agency to explore themselves and their world, to find their voice and their place. The innate sense of purpose that defines humanity has been replaced by a money-making purpose for existence. The soul of society and the citizens in it have been sacrificed on the altars of ultra-capitalism.

For-profit Schools and the Breakdown of Society

With the introduction of for-profit private education in Africa, schools degenerated from being a level playing field where the children of the rich and the poor could grow together to build a better future for their communities to becoming a status symbol. Students from government or public schools are daily consigned to the margins of society, while their counterparts from private schools, especially the very expensive ones, are elevated to the core of society.

Brothers are turning to enemies because one can afford private schooling for his children and the other cannot. Jealousy is consuming friendships because one has her children in the most expensive private schools in town, while the other does not. Alliances are built and discontinued; communities are segregated according to the schools children attend.

Such is the situation in many countries across the continent of Africa. In places like Nigeria, many middle-class parents are leaving the country in droves, most citing their inability to afford to pay the school fees for the “kind of school” they want their children to attend. These parents are moving to Europe and North America, where public schools are still popular and well taken care of.

Revisiting For-profit Schools across Africa

Governments across African countries affected by the menace of private schools have a humongous challenge on their hands. In the global north, the part of the world where the mandate to privatize schools originated, schooling remains free at the elementary through senior secondary levels. Available statistics indicate that in the United States, only 9% of children in elementary and secondary schools are privately educated. In the UK, the number is even lower, at 6%. Contrast this figure with Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya where over 40% of students are enrolled in private schools. In Lagos State, Nigeria, “there are over 12,000 private schools, as compared to 1,700 public ones.

Critical at this stage in African education is the need to revisit the privatization of education, especially at the primary and post-primary levels. This will seem like a no-go area in many countries, being that the private school sector has established itself as a veritable industry, with investors, politicians, high-net-worth individuals, and other respected individuals often being proprietors of the best private schools. Yet, in the interest of the present and the future, African governments must begin to revisit the continued existence and dependence of countries on for-profit private schools from the kindergarten to post-primary education levels. There are alternatives that can be considered for not-for-profit schools, such as missionary schools, to support government efforts.

As frightening as the prospect of revisiting the existence of for-profit private schools at the primary and secondary levels may be, many African governments have demonstrated even greater willpower in developing and successfully implementing tougher policies. Africa has lost a lot since the introduction of for-profit private education across the region, yet, as a proverb from the region says, “You always learn a lot more when you lose than when you win.” Yes, there will be casualties, but here, the saying that “the end justifies the means” carries more weight than any other consideration. The stark reality is that African countries cannot advance equitably, root out corruption, and build strong, value-centered and prosperous citizens with the current trend of for-profit private education ruling the lower levels of education across the region.


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