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Education reforms Uganda needs

 By Andrew M. Mwenda

In the 1997/98 budget, government allocated Shs 200 billion to education; in the 2009/10 budget, Shs 1.1 trillion. Although the budget for education has grown fivefold in twelve years, there is little (save for a spike in student enrolment and new buildings) to show for it. Performance in public schools has been stagnant at best and declining in most cases. Government has achieved ‘allocative efficiency’ but has failed ‘implementation efficiency’.

Thus, in spite of the injection of huge sums of money into public schools, private schools outperform them in national exams. This is especially intriguing because in most cases, public schools have better facilities (libraries, books, laboratories and equipment, and classrooms) and better trained teachers all paid for at public expense.

Except for a few highly expensive private schools ‘ most of which are located in and around Kampala ‘ teachers in government schools earn better salaries than in private schools. A teacher in a government primary school earns Shs 220,000 per month; in private schools, only about Shs 150,000. A university graduate in a government secondary school earns Shs 560,000; in most private secondary schools, Shs 400,000 or less.

In fact, the terms and conditions of service in public schools are much better compared to private schools. Teachers in public schools have job security; in private schools, they get fired at a whim. Teachers in public schools have a pension; in private schools they do not. In the many public schools, teachers are provided with accommodation; this is only available in very few private schools. Yet teacher absenteeism is very high in public schools (only 18% of the time is spent in class) but low in private schools, a factor that partly explains variance in performance.

An interesting example is the 2008 Uganda Certificate of Education results in Kibale District: 78 students in private schools passed in First Grade; only 38 did so in public schools. Yet there are four times more government schools and five times more students in them than in private schools. The teacher to student ratio in public secondary schools is 1:27 compared to 1:50 in private schools. In almost every indicator, public schools in Kibale are better facilitated compared to private Schools. Yet they perform worse!

Look at Universal Secondary Education. In every sub country where government owns a school, it sends Shs 47,000 per student per term. But where there is only a private school, government sends Shs 60,000. Yet even with the Shs 13,000 difference, owners of private schools pay rent for the buildings (classrooms, laboratories, libraries and dormitories) in which their schools are or pay interest to banks for borrowed funds to build them.

Private schools buy chalk, text books, stationery, desks, chairs, equip laboratories and pay teachers’™ salaries on fees paid by students. In public schools, government owns all the buildings and sends Capitation Grants to cater for all the other costs. Yet many private schools charge less than public schools.

In spite of a lot of debate on the problems in public schools, and in spite of many initiatives to improve performance, things are not getting better. Why? This is partly because we are too obsessed with improving capacity of the state to do the work when we should be looking elsewhere.

First, it will be extremely difficult to reform the existing public education system and make it more effective and efficient. This is because every attempt at reform will be up against those who benefit from existing dysfunctions. Service delivery is poor because powerful individuals within the bureaucracy benefit from existing dysfunctions through corruption. It is naïve to expect hyenas to shut down the meat market.

Secondly, institutional dysfunction in the ministry of education in Uganda ‘ and the wider state bureaucracy ‘ has gotten deeply entrenched. It is now extremely difficult to uproot it in the short to medium term even if there were to be a change in government. Experience teaches that it is possible to reform a functioning system with problems; but it is extremely difficult to reform a dysfunctional system where dysfunction has become the way the system works rather than the way it fails.

Moreover, the decline in public education has made the most articulate sections of our population ‘ the rich, the powerful and the well connected ‘ to exit it. They have created or sought private sector alternatives here and abroad. But this also means that they have robbed public education of voice. They can only have an interest in reforming public education if such reform makes it attractive for them to return to it, which is not likely to happen.

As a result, it is extremely difficult to organise an effective political coalition in favour of reform. In any case, doing so can easily project you as an opponent of the government ‘ hence persecution. The costs of organising reform are incurred in the present time; so they are certain. But the benefits of such reform come at a later date; so they are uncertain. Very few people are willing to sacrifice so much today in the hope of such uncertain outcomes.

Finally, if the reform effort succeeded, those who sacrificed for it cannot exclude the benefits from those who stood in opposition or were indifferent to it; if we get good public schools, everyone stands to benefit. This creates incentives for what economists call ‘free riding’ i.e. potential beneficiaries will let others sacrifice for change, and they will turn up to reap the benefits. This has led to collective action failure i.e. demand for better education services does not find organised political expression.

Government has proved to be efficient at the level of resource allocation and poor at implementation. Rather than seek to fix its weakness (implementation inefficiency), it should seek to leverage its strength (allocative efficiency). So it should allocate education money directly to parents by giving them vouchers. The parents will vote with their vouchers which schools they want their children to go to.

Once this happens, schools with absentee teachers will see their classrooms dry. The taxpayer will no longer subsidise their incompetence. Many will be forced to style up or face closure. That is the reform we need.

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