Dear Honourable Minister Ntlhoi Motsamai,
It is my pleasure to extend my congratulations to you on your appointment as Minister of Education and Training – a key ministry in the government of Lesotho.
I wish you every success in your endeavours. Yours is not an easy task, but I know you are one of the most capable female leaders our country has ever produced.
I write to you as concerned citizens in my private capacity, convinced the message in this letter is shared by thousands of Basotho.
There are number of concerns that I would like to draw your attention to concerning this important aspect of life, education in our age and time, but for your time’s sake I will deal with the most important – secondary and high school fees.
Section 28 of the constitution stipulates that Lesotho shall endeavour to make education available to all and shall adopt policies aimed at ensuring that:
- Education is directed to the full development of the human personality and sense of dignity and strengthening the respect for human rights and fundamental freedom;
- Primary education is compulsory and available to all;
- Secondary education, including technical and vocational education, is made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular, by the progressive introduction of free education;
In 2005, the Ministry of Education developed a Strategic Plan as a step towards fulfilling this constitutional obligation.
The Strategic Plan was intended to provide the Ministry of Education and Training with an effective long term planning instrument over the period from 2005 to 2015.
The plan recognised basic education (primary and junior secondary education) as an essential part of social and economic development and regarded it as a fundamental human right, and committed to provide free basic education.
The Ministry of Education also committed itself, in that strategic plan, to improve access, efficiency and equity of education and training at all levels.
Today, 15 years later, we cannot overlook the fact that our education system is still not accessible and equitable to every child.
Surely, you will have to agree with the argument that our educational system does not seem to be founded on what the poor people in this country need. Instead, it looks like it is class-based.
Since the government introduced free primary education in 2000, Lesotho is almost achieving universal primary education. Over the years, there has been a growth in both the Net Enrolment Rate and the Gross Enrolment Rate.
Primary school net enrolment rate was 87 percent (female 86.9 percent and male 87.1 percent) in 2017.
It’s a cause for celebration. And yet, despite years of growth, Lesotho continues to send a smaller proportion of young people on to secondary education than many other countries.
In South Africa, for example, secondary school enrolment was 71.93 percent in 2017. Since 1996, South African children whose parents are very poor are legally exempt from some or all school fees.
In Lesotho, far more young people want to go to secondary school than make it. Our secondary school enrolment rate is just 43.3 percent.
There is significant evidence that school fees are a deterrent.
While primary education is free, secondary and high school education on the other hand is funded by parents, meaning more out-of-pocket expenditures are required by parents for items such as books and examination fees.
In addition, there are computer fees, uniform costs, sport fees, and school educational trips which are not affordable for students from vulnerable and poor families.
According to the Lesotho Education Sector Plan: 2016 – 2026, fee policies contribute to lowering demand and access for secondary education among the poorest families.
Studies have indicated that only less than 30 percent of students in the country are able to afford the fees necessary to attend the secondary and high school.
This makes access to secondary education to be skewed towards urban areas and higher income groups while rural areas and the poor continue to suffer disproportionately.
As a result, a number of learners have dropped out of schooling after completing their primary education and have not been able to enter the secondary education cycle while others have dropped during the cycle given the high cost of secondary education.
The World Bank report titled Kingdom of Lesotho: Education Public Expenditure Review and published in March last year, revealed that for every 100 students that complete their primary education, only 36 complete their secondary education and five complete their tertiary education.
This makes the higher education elitist because the poor cannot afford secondary education – a prerequisite for tertiary education.
It is mostly the children of the political and business elite who have the significant economic capital who succeed in secondary school and gain access to tertiary education.
According to data from the Lesotho Demographic and Health Survey, amongst the poorest quintile the net attendance ratio of 13 – 17-year-old in secondary education was only 15 percent in 2014, whilst this was 72 percent amongst the richest quintile.
One result of this is that, higher-income secondary students end up at the universities abroad studying medicine or at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) while their lower-income counterparts are more likely to drop out of school.
The fees at the secondary education level have become the gatekeepers of tertiary education, leading to lack of high level skills among the poor people.
That is why some people argue that in this country, it is income not intelligence which determines whether one completes secondary education and subsequently qualifies for higher education.
It is important to note that tertiary education is a significant advantage.
Graduates have a greater advantage when it comes to employability and the potential of higher earnings.
Graduates earn higher wages.
Students that do not complete their secondary education, most of which are poor, do not gain these advantages.
The result is that, rather than eliminating inequality, secondary education in the current context is exacerbating it.
Because wealthier students are more likely to enrol in universities, government’s higher education funding here benefits the rich families. Government’s international scholarships and the bursary scheme for tertiary education, meant to help the poor instead skew toward the rich.
The World Bank report I mentioned earlier shows that higher education spending in Lesotho favors the rich.
It reads: “For each 100 Lesotho Maloti that the government spends per student in primary education, it spends 165 per student in secondary education and 326 per student in tertiary education. This makes education spending highly regressive and unequal, considering that only a small number of students reach tertiary education.”
Education is central to building bridges towards societies which offer equal opportunities for people.
Our government need to make education count, not just for the wealthy and their networks, but so that each individual can flourish according to his or her own capacities and efforts.
Providing all children with access to free and quality primary and secondary education could potentially break the vicious cycle of inequality by making sure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not miss out on this opportunity.
I am sure the Minister will agree with me that there is need to reduce the burden of the high costs of secondary education for the poor to improve their progression to universities and colleges.
Free provision of education at secondary level will definitely help break monopoly hold on education by the elite.
Free secondary education will ensure that students who can thrive at high school no longer have the door slammed in their faces because they do not have money to pay school fees.
While primary education is free, government also provides study loans to virtually all Basotho who get admitted to tertiary institutions in the country and abroad.
About three-quarters of tertiary students receive bursaries from the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) that fund both tuition and accommodations, and about 85 percent of tertiary students are from households in the upper two wealth quintiles, according to the World Bank.
When NMDS bursary scheme spending is included in tertiary education expenditure, the state spends much more on a tertiary than on a secondary student.
The bursary scheme offers around 17,300 bursaries to students studying in higher education institutions, but the World Bank found that only four percent of the funds is recovered.
I wonder if the Honourable Minister can reasonably justify this preferential treatment of two parts (primary and tertiary education) of the country’s student population through taxes paid by everyone.
Why should high school students fork out for school fees while their counterparts in primary schools and institutions of higher learning get a generous support from state?
You see, it does not make sense and I believe it is utter discrimination.
Section 18 of our constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination to the people of Lesotho.
It states that no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any person acting by virtue of any written law or in the performance of the functions of any public office or any public authority.
Please Minister, it is important that you consider introducing free secondary education by abolishing school fees and textbook rental fees as soon as possible.
I take this opportunity to once again wish you and your ministry well with your future endeavours.
Kananelo Boloetse is Public Eye’s reporter.
- The open letter was originally published by the Public Eye.
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