Cost of education: Running on fumes

Learners board boda bodas to return to school in Wakiso District. There are fears that some parents, already saddled with debt, will only sink further into the clutches of loan sharks, thanks to high school fees charges. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • A Monitor survey indicates that tuition fees for a term across elite schools has shot to about Shs3m per student at secondary school and Shs1.3m across primary schools.

There was a marked decline of students who reported at their respective schools across the country as parents, who are at the mercy of the extortionate power of school boards, could barely meet their children’s school dues.

In an ailing economy, which is yet to rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic amid the rising cost of living, there are fears that some parents, already saddled with debt, will only sink further into the clutches of loan sharks.

“We see people who got their mid-term NSSF [National Social Security Fund] access, which was supposed to be used for them to prepare for their retirement and they used it to pay tuition, which means when they retire, they will have nothing, so they slide back into a life of destitution,” Prof Christopher Mbaziira, the former principal of Makerere University Law School, said.  

He added, “Parents have to choose between paying tuition in January and having a certain medical procedure. So you postpone that and it is affecting your health. If you want to improve your house, put up a house or buy a plot of land. Actually, instead of buying a plot of land, you sell what you had bought, so it is creating desperate families in the future.” 

A Monitor survey indicates that tuition fees for a term across elite schools has shot to about Shs3m per student at secondary school and Shs1.3m across primary schools. Traditional secondary schools are charging about Shs1m a term, while primary schools are charging about Shs800,000 a term.

There are a raft of other expenses, including development fees, functional fees and Parents and Teachers’ Association fees, examination fees, and uniform fees.

Parents in the lower rungs of the social strata can only afford to send their children to Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education) USE schools, which operate on shoe-string budgets. These receive an annual capitation grant for each learner at primary level of Shs20,000, Shs174,000 at O-Level and Shs255,000 at A-Level.

Sad state of affairs

Mr Hamis Mugendawala, an education expert at National Planning Authority, has previously said the capitation grants ought to be raised to Shs63,000 at primary school, Shs530,000 at O-Level and Shs885,000 at A-Level to be able to improve the quality of education.

The right to basic education is provided in Article 30 and 34 (2) of the Constitution. While it calls for the right to basic education for every Ugandan, the quality of free education is beyond the pale.

“The girls who are dropping out of school because their parents can’t afford school fees start early marriages, you are going to see teenage pregnancies because they are at home [...] when those girls start having babies, what effect is it? This is a child having a child. What is the long-term impact on the country? Are you going to have skilled labour if children are dropping out of school?” argued Ms Angella Nabwome, the executive director at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER).

Ms Nabwome said Sections 3 and 57 of the Education Act empowers the Education and Sports minister to “issue statutory instruments to regulate school fees in all schools in the country and that includes both government and private. In doing so, you have some kind of legal force and schools know when I do this, there is going to be some sanction.”

Past interventions by the Education ministry intended to regulate school fees have had little to no effect, with Mr Joel Ssenyonyi, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LoP), blaming this state of affairs on a conflict of interest.

“They are slow or inactive when it comes to regulation because they are conflicted. Many of these ministers or government officials have got schools of their own and this is why they cannot play that regulatory role, it presses hard against them,” the LoP reasoned.

Out of kilter

The unilateral decision to raise tuition is not in tandem with key metrics such as wages and household income captured by the 2019/2020 Uganda Bureau of Services (Ubos) national household survey. In fact, there are fears that this practice—akin to education ‘apartheid’—will likely amplify the social strata fault lines and income inequalities.

“Aristotle said if you privatise social services, you are going to have two categories of citizens—those who can afford and those who can’t afford, Ms Safia Nalule Juuko, the chairperson of Equal Opportunities Commission, said, adding, “It is a time bomb to have those two types of citizens because those who don’t have will attack those who have.”

The Ubos survey indicated that the median or average monthly wage for a public servant, which was on a higher side, was Shs526,000. Elsewhere, a private employee earned Shs150,000. The highest paid employees were the managers, earning a median monthly income of Shs580,000. The least paid were elementary workers, earning an average of Shs100,000.

The household survey indicates that the average size of a Ugandan family is 5.6 children. To draw a hypothesis, if a parent has two children in an elite primary school and two in an elite secondary school, he/she will have to part with about Shs7.6m a term in tuition fees. This does not include other costs such as expenditure on health, food, utilities, and transport, among others.

The average monthly wage of Shs150,000 for those in the private sector may just be enough to purchase a pair of school uniforms for a child studying in an elite primary school.

The other valuable data set for this analysis is household income. The household survey evaluates incomes received both in kind and cash from agriculture, wage employment, income from non-agricultural enterprises, property incomes, transfers, and organisational support, among others.

The survey indicates that the median monthly household income in Uganda by 2020 was Shs190,000. Nearly 90 percent of the population by 2020 earned less than Shs830,000 as monthly income.

Cost of living crisis

A 2022 Bank of Uganda survey indicates that only one percent of Ugandans earn more than Shs1m monthly out of the working class of 22.8 million persons.

Consumption expenditure per household, which is the amount of expenditure spent by the households on food and non-food items such as utility bills adjusted for inflation, is another indicator that could be instructive in analysing tuition fees.

The consumption expenditure average per household monthly income increased from Shs324,288 in 2016/2017 to Shs339,263 in 2019/2020, representing an annualised growth rate of 1.4 percent.

For instance, if the monthly consumption expenditure or welfare indicator is Shs339,263 against the average monthly wage for a public servant, which is Shs526,000, it means that a household will only be left with Shs186,737 to spend on tuition fees.

Currently, Uganda has two national poverty lines that have been used for poverty measurement— the food poverty line, including the extreme poverty, and the absolute poverty line. Both are updated periodically using the consumer price index.

Another poverty line of interest is the global poverty line of $1.9 (about Shs7,000) per capita per day expressed in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

Regardless of the poverty line used, a household is said to be poor if its consumption expenditure per adult equivalent is below the minimum income required to meet the basic needs (food and non-foods).

According to the survey, in rural areas, the percentage of persons in poverty reduced from 25.2 percent in 2016/2017 to 23.4 percent in 2019/2020. The number of poor persons also dropped from 7.1 million to seven million. Elsewhere, in urban areas, the numbers of persons living below the poverty line increased from 9.5 percent to 11.7 percent and the number of poor persons increased from 0.9 million to 1.3 million persons.

Hope, despair side by side

In 2019/2020, at least 20.3 percent, which is representative of 8.3 million persons, were estimated to be poor, of whom nearly 85 percent is the rural population. In other words, one in five people are living below the official national poverty line. Worth noting is that 41.8 percent of the 20.3 percent are food-poor.

Based on the upper poverty line of $1.77 (about Shs6,700) per person per month, the share of Ugandans living in poverty in 2020 stood at a staggering 30.1 percent, representing 12.3 million poor persons. Upon relying on the upper poverty line, it increases the number of poor persons by four million from that estimated using the existing poverty line of 8.3 million.

The poverty headcount at $1.9 per person per day, which is the global measure for those living below the poverty line, is 41.1 percent and in absolute numbers, income of poor persons was estimated at 16.9 million.

A large number of those in the poverty bracket are food-poor and can barely afford to pay for utilities such as electricity and water. They usually rely on ailing government hospitals and health centres, which lack basic medicines and are acutely understaffed. This category of persons usually educate their children at UPE and USE schools.

A large number of Ugandans estimated at 41 percent who live below the global poverty estimate of $1.9 per day are condemned into a vicious cycle of generational poverty and spatial inequalities as their offspring are excluded from well-paying white-collar jobs. In stark contrast, the offspring of wealthy families who attain higher education get well-remunerated jobs with high incomes and perks as well as better medicare.

These inequalities were captured by the household survey through the Palma ratio, which is the ratio of national consumption share of the richest 10 percent of the population to that of the bottom 40 percent.

The 2019/2020 survey revealed that the richest 10 percent consumption expenditure was twice as much as what the bottom 40 percent consumed.

The Ubos household survey was conducted barely after the Covid-19 pandemic barrelled across the country, leaving the economy in a tailspin. The Finance ministry indicates that another 10 percent of Ugandans have now fallen into the poverty bracket.