The four letters word ‘free’ is a relative word because it means many things to many people, circumstance and events. However, according to Oxford Advance Learner’s dictionary New 8th Edition in the context of this article, the word ‘free’ means ‘costing nothing’, ‘not requiring a specified payment’, ‘not attached to something or trapped by something’. According Wikipedia, Free education refers to education that is funded through taxation or charitable organizations rather than tuition funding. The world over, things including government activities are carried out in such a way that stress is reduced, while making some frantic efforts to ensure that life is made meaningful to a common man.
In the United States of America , the first free public institution of higher education, the Free Academy of the City of New York (today the City College of New York), was founded in 1847 with the aim of providing free education to the urban poor, immigrants and their children.
Today, advanced countries such as Germany, France, Finland, Brazil, Argentina, and Norway among others are still operating free education to both indigenes and international students with a number of administrative and sundry fees. Most of these countries operate on a tuition free basis, not necessarily to help the less privileged but for the purposes of boosting their economies through inflow of these students. Most Africans including Nigerians throng into these countries in the name of free education or tuition free education only to end up spending three or four times what they would have spent in Nigerian institutions of learning.
In Africa, East African countries particularly Kenyan government in 2003 introduced free primary and secondary education policy to carter for drop out and helps poor families meet up with their contemporaries. In South Africa, Free education is a worthy goal, but not ready for it yet. According to a senior World Bank official, Francisco Marmolejo, tertiary education co-ordinator and lead tertiary education specialist at the World Bank noted that “in many countries free higher education is “regressive”.
In Nigeria, apart from the effort of the Chief Obafemi Awolowo who championed free education for the Westerners who today, stands as one of the highest legacies he bequeathed to his people. Since then, no government: national or regional attempts to provide free education to their citizens even when government funds education from the start to finish including payment of staff salaries, building infrastructure and giving subvention. The funniest aspect of this is that with all these efforts of government, school fees, development fee and other sundry charges that are collected by these institutions are used to “run the school”.
When the government of Akwa Ibom State in 2009 introduced free, qualitative and compulsory education for both Primary and secondary schools for both indigenes and non-indigenes alike that reside within the shores of Akwa Ibom State by the then governor, Chief Godswill Obot Akpabio, the people of the state received it with joy especially parents who heaved a sigh of great relief knowing that ‘burdens are lifted at Calvary’. During this era, economy was in the rise, oil was sold between N135 to N144 per barrel, Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) was high, business operators were making good returns in their investments, Federal allocation to states were high in fact, Akwa being the highest recipient of the onshore-off shore oil allocation received between N20Billion and N70Billion and even more per month. Under the free education policy, the then Governor Godswill Akpabio paid N300 for secondary and N200 for primary schools per child to each of the school heads for the running of schools across the 31 local government areas of the state per term. By implication, the about one thousand one hundred and fifty nine (1,150) primary schools and about two hundred and fifty (250) Secondary schools in the state multiply by the number of pupils and students in the state were spent by the immediate past governor to better the lot of education in the state. This aside the massive infrastructural renaissance in these schools across the state. Why the free education practiced in Akwa Ibom State was unique is that no state or country of the world ever practice equal free education to both indigenes and non-indigenes, irrespective of state or country of origin without any form of discrimination.
Today in Akwa Ibom State, the Federal allocation is between is between N5Billion and N9Billion and rarely N10Billion per month in the same state while salary bill for those under public employ in the state is about N4.8Billion; IGR has also dropped from the averagely N25Billion per Annum to approximately N15Billion per Annum between 2014 and 2016 while many businesses grounded as a result of recession in the country. The state cannot operate in the same frequency and so many things cannot be done exactly the same way it used to be. Let us not put Governor Udom in a quandary, this situation now has put the governor a yoke on the neck and could be likened a popular Ibibio adage, iyip inua, asong adimen anyong asong adikokko (meaning that blood that comes out of the mouth is difficult to spew out and difficult to swallow). Since everything has been politicized, some school of thought say if the governor withdraws the free education policy, no second term for him as he has committed a sacrilege as opposition will use it as a campaign strategy to nail him, another school of thought argues that it should be scrapped.
During the just concluded West African Examination Council (WAEC)’s examination this writer went round schools in the state and met some critical situations that demand urgent scrap of free education in the state. Though I am neither under government employ nor the spokesperson of government, but the situation as far as free education in the state calls for urgent attention. Under free education, the population in public schools has been increased exponentially thereby overstretching the facilities of the school as a result of over population as people from neighbouring states have decided to send their wards to Akwa Ibom to benefit from the free education; parents supervision, no discipline of their children is zero because in as much as they don’t spend any money on their wards, they see no reason to do that afterall, they pay nothing thereby leaving those children at the mercy of teachers and their fate. In terms of the economic reality in the country, let us reason by ourselves and face the fact, is it possible for government to still pay subvention as at before and on regular basis? If the answer is no, then why are we putting the government in a straight jacket instead of facing the reality?
The government should look into this matter and make an urgent proclamation of the scrapping out of the free education policy in the state and introduce a Regulated School Fee (RSF) system in both primary and secondary schools across all public schools in the state but maintain the payment of West African Examination Council (WAEC) examination fees to indigent students to ameliorate the suffering of poor parents who may not be able to afford it. By so doing, the burden of governance would be lifted off the governor and parents will have a sense of contribution towards the educational wellbeing of their children.