Problems with Uganda’s school fees solution

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

  • Ironically, the government has thrown its hands in the air when asked to offer subsidies for especially fuel. This may bring down the cost of production and in effect prices of other goods and services.

Once again we are talking about the bully called school fees. Only this time round, the government has come up with a solution.  

A cap on what the schools - most of them private - should charge to mitigate challenges facing the financially constrained citizen. It is a good step that the government correctly acknowledges that indeed the citizen is living in very difficult economic times. That the people need a helping hand by way of statutory and policy declarations. 

This citizen is recovering from the disruptions of the economic meltdown caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic. For almost two years most people stayed home to save themselves from catching the virus. As we climbed out of the realm of lockdown the world was rocked by the war between Russia and Ukraine causing bottlenecks in the global supply chain.

Consequently, food prices and those of most essential commodities and services are on the rise.

The citizen now pays much more for fuel, soap, sugar, and many other food items. Same applies to the fees when one visits a hospital or rents a property.

Ironically, the government has thrown its hands in the air when asked to offer subsidies for especially fuel. This may bring down the cost of production and in effect prices of other goods and services.

Their answer is that we are following the free market economic model where prices are determined by the forces of demand and supply. So intervening in the process will lead to ‘distortions.’

That is why the government has not put a price cap on the prices of fuel or soap. The forces of the market have more than doubled these at some point. They have left it to the nature of the prevailing economic dispensation to take its course. 

 So we must ask why the government that has a purist belief and faith in market driven economics, backsliding when it comes to school fees? The truth of the matter is that the school doesn’t exist nor operate in a vacuum. They will have to pay more for food, fuel, chalk, and the like, to teach the students.

They will pay high bank interest rates for operational funding of the school. Some of the fees from students come in bits and pieces and never on time yet they do not postpone teaching. They may have to subsidize the pay of their teachers to keep them in class delivering quality teaching with one heart. So they have pressures to either maintain their fees or increase them in line with the prevailing economic circumstances.

If the government believes in patriotism and sacrifice, why not also think about cutting and going slow on some taxes to help the citizens through their pain? What about cutting back on government expenditure on things like new cars, travel and all these expensive endless merry making functions organized by the State? 

Why not put up schools where it implements these lower fees but at the same time provide the same quality of education, the ‘exploitative’ private schools are offering? Those sort of questions will disturb the rational mind and lead it to the conclusion that the government is not being honest, consistent and coherent.

 Appalling as it may seem, that is the insignificant part of the matter. The main issue here is the spot of difficulty in which the government finds itself. It is a situation in which most governments the world over are in from time to time. To this we shall return.

You see governments run the state on the strength of a social contract to be the provider and chief custodian of the social safety net. 

In cases where the government of the day is not directly or should we say ‘physically’ in charge of what constitutes the social safety net; things like having its own schools and functional hospitals, it becomes a slave to those who own them.

In many cases many within the government actually own the schools and hospitals. They benefit from the destruction of the ones funded by the public and other people who are not themselves. 

So if there is insistence on cutting the fees to below commercial rates some of these school owners may be forced to sell to a few wealthy people. Many of these have pockets heavily laden with corruption money. 

They work within or are related to the government by ‘blood’ or political affiliation. After the sector is firmly in the hands of a few ‘monopolists’ there is no guarantee that these will not use their influence to increase the fees back to market rates citing new realities. They will use the same statutory and policy declarations that put education firmly in their hands.

You see education is now one of the most lucrative businesses, going by the demand and the size of bank accounts school owners operate. Remember the one who controls the money controls the people. 

As the tyre advert says power is nothing without control. Controlling school fees is about power. As said earlier, when governments find themselves in situations where they are supposed to provide answers but can’t, they find a scapegoat, an excuse. 

They shape opinion and guide the arguments in a direction that is overwhelmed by emotions and is less about reason.   In most of the Western world they will blame the Blacks, immigrants, Islamists, homophobes, big business, the unemployed, the communists, the Chinese etc. for the failures of government. 

The very way we blame this tribe, bad laws, past regimes, multipartists, the opposition etc. So instead of the people asking the government hard questions they end up fighting Islamists or immigrants and the other tribe. It was the same story in the Bible when Jesus was put before Pilate and the governors. 

They knew he was innocent but had to please the charged crowd by asking them who between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus should be crucified. When the crowd asked that Jesus be crucified, Pilate washed his hands claiming that the blood of Jesus was not on his hands but on the people.

Ridiculously, the ‘greedy, unpatriotic,’ school owners are now the reason our government cannot provide quality education at affordable fees to its citizens! 

Apparently they are the stumbling block to securing our future as promised by NRM. We cannot blame them anymore. They have pointed us to the problem and for the sake of transparency, and washed their hands in public!

Twitter: @nsengoba