24 August 2018

Sierra Leone Makes Schools Free but Scraps University Subsidies

Sierra Leone has launched a public awareness campaign to inform people about its free education programme due to start in September. More than two million primary and secondary school children will be exempt from paying fees. On the flipside, subsidies for university students will be scrapped.

"This is a very laudable but ambitious national programme," Brima Michael Turay, the education ministry spokesman told RFI Friday.

"For the first time in the history of education in Sierra Leone, a political administration is pronouncing free quality education for kids from pre-primary school, right to senior secondary school."

Turay makes no secret of the government's desire to rebuild its reputation as the Athens of west Africa. Between 1827 and 1948 it was the only country to have an institution of higher learning in sub-Saharan Africa.

Its performance dropped after the civil war of 1991-2002 and slipped down further because of the Ebola outbreak.

President donates three months' pay

Now Freetown wants its schools to rise from the ashes.

President Julius Maada Bio promised to introduce free quality education during his election campaign and reaffirmed that commitment on 20 August, promising to donate three months of his own salary to the cause, according to local reports.

It will not be enough to cover 39 billion leone (2.5 million euros) estimated to be needed to provide core text books, uniforms, a free school meals programme and pay rises for teachers.

Within civil society, there is also scepticism about how free the scheme will actually be.

"You're talking about free education but some schools will ask students to pay for a result, maintenance ... for different things," reckons Joseph Sannoh, Director of the NGO Heal Sierra Leone.

"In fact, some schools sell uniforms, text books that they will charge the students to undermine the free education," he told RFI.

Scrapping subsidies

Elsewhere, some people are concerned about the impact of scrapping subsidies for university students.

"If the subsidies are taken out I don't know what will happen," parent Edward Conteh told RFI.

"I think my daughter will go out of university. I'm always helped by people and I'm not working, I don't have nothing. It's very difficult. Where can I now find the money? It is going to affect me," he says.

Under previous president Ernest Koroma, university students benefited from subsidies "as high as 85 percent", comments education ministry spokesman, Turay.

"That's a lot of money going to one student from a government, almost free money," he says, urging parents to shoulder some of the responsibility for their children's future.

The subsidies will now be replaced by student loans, which the government will lodge in commercial banks.

It's a way of "motivating the students", explains Turay, "because if they now know this is not free money and that it's money that they're going to repay at the end of the day, they will now be serious with actually doing what they're supposed to do at the colleges or universities."

The government argues that it is more important to get it right at school level "because, if that level is crumbling, if we don't get it right at that level, we will be wasting all the resources at the higher level", Turay says.

School pregnancy ban

The fear though is that higher tuition fees will lead to more girls dropping out of university.

And at the lower level girls may still be barred if they become pregnant.

The education ministry says this policy may change in time.

But culturally ingrained attitudes die hard, says Sannoh.

"In Sierra Leone for us, it is not ethical for a pregnant girl to sit down in a school with a girl that is not pregnant," he told RFI.

The ban on pregnant girls was introduced in 2015 after a rise in rape during the deadly Ebola outbreak fuelled a spike in teenage pregnancies.

"For university students, we have no problem with that because for university we believe that they are mature people," Sannoh continues. "But when it's high school we think they are still children."

Currently pregnant girls are separated from other girls in main schools.

"Most civil society believe that that should not be done because they think it should be inclusive," continues Sannoh. "They should sit down in the same classroom with other girls."

Issues such as subsidies and pregnancy, will be at the forefront of discussion when officials criss-cross the country to inform the public about the government's new measures.

"We will hold town hall meetings, do billboards, posters, to help people understand why this is happening and what their responsibilities will be," says Turay.

They have until 17 September when the new school term begins.

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