Civil society organisations (CSOs) have queried the freeze in payment of K500 public secondary school tuition fees per term, warning government to tread carefully on attempts to introduce free secondary education in the country.
In a written response to an enquiry yesterday, Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) executive director Benedicto Kondowe accused the Malawi Government of being keen to score political points by hastily moving towards free secondary school education.
His reaction followed a Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) circular issued on September 4 2018 which advised education division managers and head teachers “to delay” collection of tuition fees from learners in all public secondary schools.
But MoEST Principal Secretary Justin Saidi, in a telephone interview, yesterday dismissed suggestions that government was moving towards introducing free secondary school education, saying the decision by his ministry was temporary.
The MoEST letter under reference number EDU/EP/MGT/2/1, issued ahead of the opening of public schools yesterday and signed by Saidi, reads in part: “I write to advise that you should delay the collection and receipt of tuition fees from students for the 2018/19 academic year. You will receive further instructions on the same in due course.”
The letter added that the instruction only applied to tuition fees, meaning that learners would still be obliged to pay other fees such as textbook revolving fund, general purpose fund, development/Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) fee and boarding fees where applicable.
Fees structure documents we have seen show that students in public secondary schools pay K500 per term as tuition fees which is deposited into the Malawi Government Account Number One. Boarding fees, on the other hand, range between K5 000 and K100 000.
Basing on the 2016/17 academic year when the total enrolment in public secondary schools stood at 100 483, if government does not receive tuition fees this year, it will forgo about K150 million.
In his reaction, Kondowe said: “Any decision to announce free secondary education, although supported by SDG [United Nations Sustainable Development Goals] Number Four is but trying to score a political point that has potential to disrupt the education system.
“The government’s decisions on education should not only be driven by political impulse to win votes, but on moral responsibility and due commitment to improving the quality of education.”
He observed that many secondary schools were currently grappling with insufficient teaching and learning materials.
In recent months, MoEST has been under pressure to clear leave grant arrears owed to primary school teachers who have since threatened industrial action.
The tuition fees hike also comes at a time government is implementing a number of programmes targeting the youth, including Youth Internship and National Tree Planting programmes. For the youth internship scheme, K4.8 billion has been allocated while the tree planting exercise has been given K5 billion in the 2018/19 National Budget.
When Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe unveiled the youth initiatives, opposition party leaders and other commentators charged that the move was meant to woo youthful voters in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections. Registration figures for the first four phases as released by Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) show that at two million, the youth aged between 18 and 35 are currently in majority.
But Saidi said the MoEST directive only covered tuition fees in all government national, conventional and community secondary schools and grant-aided schools.
He said: “We are a policy holder as a ministry and we have that mandate to advise whenever necessary. What we announced was a temporally delay for the collection of tuition. As for other fees, there is no change.
“Within the next two weeks we will announce a suspension of that order. We have not announced this abruptly because we did it before schools opened.
“For those who are saying that we are piloting free secondary school education, they are very mistaken. Neither are we trying to raise fees as other quarters are speculating. Mind you, this is not an expenditure as we are not spending anything. Whenever we want to change policy, we consult and communicate of the same.”
But chairperson for the Education Committee in Parliament, Elias Chakwera, expressed surprise at the MoEST decision, saying: “In fact, we [the committee] are equally surprised because we only saw the communication on social media platforms.
“We were not consulted and as a committee we intend to summon the ministry officials next week to give them chance to explain because we are equally confused as to what they intend to do.”
On whether the ministry’s decision was in a way in tandem with what legislators pushed for two years ago to stop government’s move to raise fees in secondary schools, Chakwera denied any link between the two.