School days in Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and several other nations in sub-Saharan Africa are now just that for more children than ever before. Millions who, in the past, were more likely to stay home or go out to work than sit in a classroom—especially girls and poor youngsters—now are crowding into government schools.
What’s changed is that expenses that historically have hindered access to education—tuition, textbooks, transportation, uniforms, and other costs—have been reduced or eliminated.
About 21 million fewer school-age children worldwide were out of school in 2004 than just five years earlier, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, which released its annual education report last month. Many of the new students enrolled after a number of countries, primarily in Africa, instituted free education, according to UNESCO’s “2007 Global Monitoring Report.”
Despite the progress, many more children—a majority of them girls—still do not have access to education, the report says. UNESCO and other international organizations launched a new initiative last year to wipe out school fees as a way to help more countries meet the goal of universal primary education by 2015.
“The good news is that there is very rapid progress indeed in getting children into the first year of primary school, both girls and boys, … and the most rapid progress has been made in the countries that are the furthest away from the goal of universal primary education,” Nicholas Burnett, an economist who has overseen the UNESCO report for more than a decade, said in an interview. “The not-so-good news,” he added, “is that those who are starting school are still not all finishing school. Indeed, some 77 million children of primary school age are not in school at all.”
Successful efforts to raise enrollments in several countries over the past five years, and the recent campaign by international-aid organizations, have led to a number of initiatives to provide free primary education in the developing world. A surge in enrollment soon followed.
In Burundi, which instituted free primary education when the school year began last month, teachers are holding classes in tents to serve the additional students. In Uganda, where school fees were eliminated five years ago, more than 150 students are squeezed into some classrooms as the country works to build more schools and recruit enough teachers. And in Kenya, where the free-primary-school initiative was introduced in 2003 and there is no age limit on students entering the 1st grade, adults and young children alike pack schools that had long been effectively closed to the poor.
“It’s just amazing that every school you go to is just chock-full,” said Susan Nkinyangi, a senior education adviser to UNESCO in Nairobi, where she oversees development projects in Kenya and several neighboring countries.
Fees and Enrollments
SOURCES: UNESCO; World Bank
School fees are common throughout the developing world, providing a funding pipeline for education in places where government revenue sources are limited. A 2001 report by the World Bank found that of 79 developing countries surveyed, nearly all imposed some kind of fees, a third of them “unofficial” or illegal. Most countries in East Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East collect such fees. Removal of school fees has meant more students per classroom, and the need for more facilities, teachers, and materials.
A year after fees were abolished in Kenya, for example, most students were taught in primitive facilities. Three or four students had to share each textbook. Many teachers were assigned classes with 100 students or more.
Kenya and other countries face teacher shortages as a result, at a time when the pool of qualified educators is inadequate.
The reduction in fees collected by governments, however, means less revenue for the very expenses and improvements the policies trigger. The campaign to remove such fees, according to international-aid groups, cannot succeed without additional short-term aid from the United States and other industrialized countries.
“If richer countries come to the rescue for the short term, not only can you get millions more children to school, it can trigger a quality change at the same time,” said Cream Wright, the chief of the education section for UNICEF.
But most of the countries that pledged to help make the Education for All goal a reality across the globe, have not contributed enough, experts say.
Earlier this year, the United Kingdom pledged $15 billion over the next decade. The United States contributes some $300 million a year in development aid for basic education, and another $64 million for school-fee-abolishment programs was added this year. While that amount accounts for a large proportion of all the aid offered by industrialized countries, it is far short of the $2.5 billion experts say is needed from the United States to help meet the universal education goal.
UNESCO estimates that plans for providing universal primary education worldwide will take up to $10 billion a year by 2008.
Sustaining fee-free systems has proved challenging even in countries with a long history of universal education.
Botswana reinstituted school fees earlier this year, after nearly two decades without them, to help pay for the growing cost of social services. The fees, about $75 per student, are expected to cut school enrollments in a country where unemployment has climbed to 24 percent.
Regardless of the consequences stemming from the removal of school fees, experts say such initiatives are worth the short-term frustrations.
“It’s better to have [children] in school than out of school even if you can’t guarantee high-quality education right away,” said Patrick Fine, the director of the Global Education Center at the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development.
“No one wants to go back to the way it was before,” said UNESCO’s Ms. Nkinyangi.
In fact, she added, the elimination of school fees has raised expectations as parents demand more and better opportunities for their children. While more children are entering school in many countries, for example, retention and completion rates have not improved—indicators that have garnered increasing attention in many places. And free preschool is now among the demands of parents in several countries.
“You can’t say that a child who finishes primary school is ready for the world of work,” Ms. Nkinyangi said. “So now, countries start looking at 12 years of basic education and how they can make it accessible and affordable.”
As expectations rise, government officials are being forced to focus on school quality as well, according to UNICEF’s Mr. Wright.
“When the system is falling apart, you have to start asking serious questions, … questions that go to the heart of quality education,” he said. “Like anything else, when you have a crisis, you take action.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as Elimination of School Fees Drives Student Enrollment