A heated debate on the feasibility of free education has ensued on the Zambian political scene ahead of the 11th August general elections. Education is one of the key campaign issues given the high illiteracy levels in Zambia. According to UNICEF, though Zambia made commendable progress in increasing access to education and gender parity, more than a quarter million children are out of school and 47% of those enrolled in school do not complete the primary cycle.

Zambia’s leading opposition political party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), has promised to deliver universal free education from primary to university level by 2018 if voted into office this August. They have set the year 2018 as the target for the realization of this aspiration.

But other contenders in the race including the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) have argued that provision of free education to all Zambians was an unrealistic promise given the state of the country’s economy and the many challenges that confront the educational sector. The prominent problems quoted include inadequate trained teachers, poor and inadequate school infrastructure including an acute deficit of teacher accommodation especially in rural areas.

The two leading contenders in this election, PF and UPND have already published their manifestos. The PF has noted that In the last five years, the PF in government (2011–2016) has scored unprecedented achievements in the education sector in all the eight sub-sectors that is, Early Childhood Education; Primary and Secondary School Education; Youth and Adult literacy; Teacher education; Skills development; Science, Technology and Innovation; and University Education.

Despite the strides that the PF government has made in the last five years, there is still much to be done in the post- 2016 period to achieve quality and equitable education provision for all in Zambia. For the period 2016–2021, the PF will, therefore, be working on continued expansion of all the eight sub-sectors as well as the provision of quality education and skills development.

UPND has noted what it describes as a total breakdown of the Ministry of Education. They note that over half of Zambians are under 18 and need to be given a better life. They have promised to reform the education sector so that by 2018 children and youth will have full access to universal free education from primary up to university. They have also promised to ensure that youths are equipped with skills that will help them find work. They have also promised to support budding entrepreneurs and businessmen to ensure they are given proper support and the tools they need to succeed.

UPND Director of Policy and Research Dr Cholwe Beyani explains that it is possible to provide free education once government cuts on excess and wasteful expenditure. He argued that austerity measures coupled with prudent economic management can enable the country to generate sufficient resources to enable the provision of free education in the public education system. According to Dr Beyani the PF government spends in excess of 20 billion Kwacha on cabinet emoluments alone a figure they commit to cut to half should they assume power thus freeing up additional resources for the provision of free education.

An online blogger from Malawi Lily Musaya commented on free education that:

”somebody somewhere will be paying for it, nothing like free. My question then is who will pay for it? When South African Government adhered to fees must fall therefore did not raise school fees last year, guess where they took the money to support this deficit? From the primary school budget! Which isn’t fair and only exacerbates problems in the education sector. So UPND must say who will pay for this free education”

Musaya further argues that if tax payers pay for education then it’s not exactly free. Instead of parents paying school fees directly to the institution they will pay indirectly through tax. She argues that this is even worse because by the time that money goes round in the system a lesser percentage of it will be invested in that school as compared to if that money went directly to the school via school fees

A Lusaka resident Nickson Bwalya observes that the promise of free education from primary to university level sounds too generous to be true.

“Looking at the current growth of our economy it cannot sustain such a venture. [Kenneth Kaunda] managed such a project for a short while but we all know what became of our economy. If UPND is promising to be growing the economy by at least 12%, then MAYBE, that can be achieved for a while. Now tell me which country in the world does that. Also show me which country in Africa offers free education from primary to university level… But my general knowledge is that even developed countries cannot afford free education. Then there is the question of how much value will people attach to free education. Free things rarely attract good value. How many schools and universities will be built to accommodate everyone? I believe the UPND campaign team has a lot of explanations to convince people,” said Bwalya.

Eugene Kabilika of Caritas Zambia explains that during the first republic the Zambian government could afford to provide free education because the government had a lot of tax money from the mines as copper prices were high.
“The population of children in school was not as high as now because the population was also small. At the same time no child below 7 years was allowed in Grade One. Classes were always limited to 40 pupils. So providing school materials was easy. At secondary school, we only used to pay sports fund. At the University of Zambia and colleges we were even paid allowances for our up keep. Meals and tuition was free. The UNIP government failed to sustain this because they forgot to expand the economic side of the equation.

“The parastatal companies were subsidised so was all essential commodities. So funds got shifted from education and health to subsidizing eating. President Frederick Chiluba under pressure from IMF removed subsidies and privatized many companies including the mines. So from 1991 money shifted from government to private companies who were not interested in social services. Public finances that were available disappeared into massive corruption which is still alive and kicking. To provide free education will require government to: eradicate corruption: collect all tax due from the mines : reduce size of cabinet: disband districts such as Chilanga, Pemba, Chikankata, chirundu etc. This will free resources to benefit thousands of students.”

Nambala Joel Frederick a Zambian citizen advises Zambians to find out how German operates its free education system. He said he was at Universitaet Stuttgart’s Institute for Raumfatsystem for a considerable time where he got to learn that education is free in that country. He claimed that lack of exposure is killing our fellow Zambian people due to ignorance.

Nickson Bwalya however argued that one cannot compare Germany to Zambia.

“Germany is the most industrialised country in Europe. In fact industrialisation began in Germany. Its economy is driven by its strong manufacturing industry. If you believe that by 2018 Zambia’s economy will be as strong as Germany’s, then you should also believe that Zambia will lift the 2018 world cup to be held in Russia.”

Rina Mukumba had this to say:

“While I do not dispute the fact that Zambia can offer free education, I refuse to believe this will happen when [Hakainde Hichilema] comes into power. The paid for education we have now is nothing to brag about. I think we need to be critical in the way we are analyzing this free education subject. I repeat, I do not dispute that it’s possible let [Hakainde Hichilema] and team tell us how they will do this. We want a proper plan. And it should be a realistic plan.”

Zambia operates free education from grade one to seven. The government has banned user and examination fees at primary school level, and has gone a step further to abolish examination fees at grade nine level.

From grade one to seven, pupils are supposed to receive free exercise books from Government and no school administration is allowed to charge parents user fees. Parents are still paying ‘hidden’ user fees in form of PTA, no matter how minimal they are.