External debt servicing; will the poor afford school anymore?

Education is a fundamental human right and a public good that every child should receive.  This statement is not entirely true for Kenyan learners. The Education sector in Kenya continuous to struggle with financing as the country endures external debt serving burden. The education spending has consistently been below United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Incheon Declaration target for the developing countries, which recommends 20% public expenditure allocated to the education sector. It is impossible to provide quality and safe education without increased financing.  Currently, Kenya’s country’s debt serving as a share of GDP has increased by 4.3% in 2020 from 3.2% in 2015 constraining available finances for priority sectors such as education. Resultantly, budgetary allocation for higher education was slashed by 26%, leaving universities struggling to remain afloat. 

Last year, amidst of COVID-19 crisis, the government paid Ksh 223,440 million to service external debts against Ksh 497.7 billion allocated to the education sector. Salaries and wages take about 57% of the pie, leaving less than half of the budget to be shared among public institution learners constituting 7.7 million primary school learners, 2.73 secondary school learners, and 5,000 thousand-university learners. The allocation of KES 1,420 per learner for primary school and Kes 22,244 per learner in secondary school is expected to cover learning materials, repairs and maintenance, transport and travel, activity fees, basic medical cost, administration cost, salaries for the non-teaching staff, and salaries for teaching staff employed under Board of Management (BOM).  The situation is expected to worsen as the country’s Eurobonds and other lending agreements, especially with China, mature.

Owing to limited finances, schools are lacking the adequate capacity to observe the COVID-19 health and safety protocols as the government. Children are still using congested classrooms, dining halls, and dormitories. There is inadequate clean safe drinking water and handwashing points at strategic locations within the schools. Teachers, who are frontline workers, lack necessary and quality personal protective equipment and still use the congested staff rooms. Some schools, which served as quarantine centers or holding centers for COVID-19 were not properly fumigated posing a threat to the learners.  

Financially abled parents have turned into private schools, which are better equipped, less crowded, and children receive better attention from the teachers. The situation has increased learning inequality, dislevelling the playing field for the poor whose academic performance ability continues to be disadvantaged. As a matter of fact, the quality of education in public schools, especially at the primary level, is questionable. The Pupil-teacher ratio, which indicates how many students that one teacher serves, is very high, at a rate of 44 students per teacher.  The increased enrollment due to free primary education has not accompanied by increased teachers because the government cannot afford it. Schools have resulted into hiring low-paid untrained teachers to supplement the government salaried teachers within the BOM arrangement

Within the framework of ‘Free primary education’, government and parents share the bill for utilities and further pay for BOM salaried teachers when the government funding is not sufficient. Parents who cannot afford to cater for that cost in addition to providing meals or uniforms for the school-going learners opt to have their children stay at home. According to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund  (UNICEF) out of all the learners who enroll for Standard one (now Grade 1), 40% of children do not complete Form Four. As such, more than 1.2 children in Kenya are out of school, because either they never attended or they dropped out.

The current debt position of the country is Ksh. 7,281.6 billion and it is fast approaching the debt sustainability red line as the country looks forward to borrowing more loans to finance the National budget. The governments’ struggle to keep learners in school is competing with the need to service the public debt. Increasing funding to improve the school system will not be possible if the government continues to channel resources to debt servicing. The government may have to re-introduce school fees, stop building or expanding the classes, stop buying textbooks and equipment, and even cut back on training teachers and reducing their wages. The path is worrisome. We are looking at a situation where education is no longer a fundamental right to learners in Kenya. As the country focus not to default, the education sector continues to suffer. Depriving children and youth of opportunities for learning will have damaging implications to the economy and social justice in the society.

by Dr. Judith Nguli

this blog first appeared on www.judithnguli.com

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