By: Dounard Bondo
October 24, 2018, President George Manneh Weah declared that all public universities will be free for undergraduate students in Liberia. This announcement has largely been met with jubilation all around Liberia. It is a welcomed news for citizens; however, could it be a double edged sword?
The policy on no tuition at public universities is intended to help lift the economic burden on individuals from low income homes. In 2016, the World Bank reported that 54 percent of Liberians lived below 2 dollars a day. As such, there have been persistent calls for the development of human capital, and this policy will encourage more individuals to further their education, and thus greatly build human capital in the country through the increased investment in education.
At this juncture, lets define capitalism and socialism. For the understanding of the layman, capitalism is an economic system where trade and industry is largely run by private organizations. Socialism on the other hand, is an economic system where the means of production and distribution is largely handled by the state.
Liberia is a capitalist state, however, many Liberians have a socialist mindset. Due to the economic conditions and rate of poverty, there is an over-dependence and high expectations towards government for many things; including jobs (government remains among the highest employer of labour) and education (public universities are highly subsidised and have the highest number of students). While it can be agreed that this policy can be highly beneficial to the development of human capacity in the nation, we question to what degree this policy can be implemented with minimal risk.
Countries that have successfully implemented free education policies are usually wealthy European countries. An example is Norway where education and healthcare are state funded. The Norwegian sovereign fund is worth around 1 trillion USD, funded from Norway’s huge oil and gas sector, and its industrial sector. Countries like Norway, Finland and Sweden also have high tax rates for citizens, in return, these taxes fund education and health.
Liberia on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in the world, thus, taxing individuals and private companies can’t possible generate enough income, and the private sector remains considerably small. In 2018, Liberia was rated as the worst country to do business on the continent by Forbes. Since the end of civil wars in 2003, Liberia remains unable to fully fund its national budget, leaving the country to borrow or beg for aid to fund its budget and for various development projects. With senators earning around 10,000 USD monthly (minus benefits), and increase in government recruitment, expenditure on salaries and benefits are a huge chunk of the budget. The additional expenditure for free school tuition at tertiary level will most likely have to be covered in loans to fund the national budget, adding to the nation’s growing debt profile.
Liberia currently spends a little over 26 million USD for its 11 public universities and institutions of higher learning. This cost will see a significant increase due to government taking over cost of tuition, as proposed in President Weah’s policy. The question, however, arises as to whether it is economically wise to borrow annually to fund tertiary education. It is largely expected that this new policy of ‘No tuition in public universities’ will start with the next fiscal year, as it wasn’t contained in the budget of this year, and it will take an economic miracle to start it presently.
Another question that arises in regards to the implementation of the new policy is the issues of other fees. When former Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf declared free education from grade 1-9, most public schools increased fees associated with registration. The policy only affects tuition, with students expected to pay other fees (registration etc.). With this new policy, there are fears of the possibility that these fees could see an increase, as the Universities will still need other means of funding apart from tuitions.
Also, government-run primary education (which is free) is grossly underfunded in the country, with the public universities also seriously lacking in quality. To put this in perspective, there is a lack of labs and equipment to enhance the learning environment, and it wasn’t until earlier this year that the University of Liberia got an online system to enable students register online, making them the only public tertiary institution to have that platform. With constant complaints by public universities for increase in funding, will the needed additional funding be given, and how sustainable will it be? Taking into consideration that government now bears the cost of tuition.
There remains differentiating views on the newly announced policy among Liberians. Are we a capitalist country seeking socialist benefits? Is tertiary education a right that government has to fund, considering the economic status of the country? Does investment in human capital trump a growing debt profile? There are diverse opinions and questions on the implementation of the policy. Questions that only time will answer.