Do school fees block access to education?

Sep 15, 2009

A paper recently published by the World Bank and Unicef argues that school fees should be abolished in order for Africa to achieve its enrollment objectives and to stimulate further educational improvements on the continent. Quite ironic after the Bank’s user fee crusade of the 80s and 90s.

In the paper Birger Fredriksen argues that “school fees are a key determinant in the growth of enrollment rates and are also important for equity and access considerations, with more vulnerable children often unable to attend or complete primary school.”

He also argues that “the bold initiative required to abolish school fees could provide the catalyst for further educational reforms and improvements.”

Given the various challenges to education in Africa, it is hard to see how the scrapping of school fees could be the magic formula. Surely the general lack of financing,  the lack of trained teachers and poor road access to distant schools play at least an equally important role in poor education outcomes?

Decentralization is not helping either. Most African states are involved in some decentralization program with primary education and health often being among the first functions to be devolved to local level. But funds seldom follow the transfer of responsibility. Already weak administrations are challenged further by the complexities of fiscal transfers to remote localities. The result is a dramatic delays in the transfer of teacher salaries and operational funding for schools.

To his credit, Fredriksen concedes that school fee abolition should not be viewed as a stand-alone policy and should be implemented in conjunction with a number of other reforms.But it is hard to agree that the abolition of school fees should be one of the first steps in addressing the education challenge.

What do you think? Is school fees one of the major blockages to enrollment and quality education? Or are there other, more important blockages?


  1. If universal access to
    education is an
    important goal then
    it is crucial to
    address those
    barriers which are
    preventing this.
    One of the most
    important barriers
    for many (although not the only
    one) is school fees
    and other related
    costs such as
    uniforms, books etc.
    Supporting school systems to do
    This whith limited resources and while also
    Maintaining quality is extremely challenging
    But also essential if equity is to be addressed.

    Curious to hear from your perspective why abolition of fees is a bad idea from a transparency point of view
    And whether you think there is a trade off between equity and transparency

    1. I don’t think that it is a bad idea. Just that there are much bigger fish to fry in fixing problems in African education. I find it peculiar that the Bank and UNESCO should hold this us the major challenge.

      1. Why?

        Which barriers are bigger in terms of equitable access?

        A couple of papers on the impact of fee abolition:
        South Africa/Botswana:

        There is also some literature from the 80s/90s that shows how introduction of fees during structural adjustment led to lasrge declines in enrollment especially by the poor.

  2. I submitted a longer response earlier with citations which seems to have gone missing – but just to say there are quite a number of research papers from a range of African countries which show that elimination of school fees (and other associated costs) has a significant impact on school enrollment.

    There are also some older papers from the 80s/90s that show how the introduction of school fees as part of structural adjustment programmes also significantly reduced enrollment especially by the poor and by girls.

    I’d be interested to hear more about which barriers you feel are more significant than fees in terms of inhibiting universal access and why.

    1. “Surely the general lack of financing, the lack of trained teachers and poor road access to distant schools play at least an equally important role in poor education outcomes?”

      1. Lack of financing is critical – and is a major underlying factor also behind lack of trained teachers – and also without financing their won’t be sufficient school construction.

        BUT trying to meet budget shortfalls by charging user fees is extremely counterproductive in terms of outcomes, and particularly penalises the poor.

  3. Universal access to education is a major challenge across the developing world. There are various problems and barriers as cited by others – inadequate financial resources, lack of well trained teachers, poor physical infrastructure, quality of teaching/learning etc.. That is overall poor services. But apart from that access gets majorly restricted with user fees being imposed. So user fees in any fom shoould not be there for education and this means greateer resource commitments to it upto atleast 6% of GDP. And on the contrary in many deprived areas, especially where children are forced to work, one has to also make provisions for cash transfers to families, provide mid-day meals etc. to enable children to attend school. This helps improve substantially enrollment and retention as has been shown across some states in India.

  4. I completely agree with Ian!! It is very sad to see the Open Budget Project buying so much of the ideas from the World Bank. Making people pay does not provide quality services and accountability. It just stops the poor using the services. The evidence is clear:

    Several Sub-Saharan African countries have abolished primary school fees. In four east African countries, for example, the following dramatic increase in primary school enrolment occurred during the first year after the abolition of tuition fees:

    1994 Malawi 51%
    1996 Uganda 67%
    2001 Tanzania 49%
    2002 Kenya 22% (Burnett and Kattan 2004; Sperling 2005)

    Of course we also need better services, but with fees the poor are clearly excluded.

    We need to tax the rich and provide free and high quality services to the poor. This is how we can eradicate poverty. Not by ensuring that there is an invester friendly climate as the World Bank is doing in Lagos (where a third of the children do not go to school).

    The Open Budget Project needs to ensure that it does not accept most of the dominant ideas from the World Bank, IMF, OECD etc. Openness is not an end in itself, but a tool to fight for more equal societies. Povery reduction needs wealth re-distribution not user fees.

    1. Goodness Andy, I am pretty sure that this post did not deserve the series of accusations and suspicions that you threw at it 🙂

      Rest assured, the post does not try in any way to defend user fees. Please read it again. The only point that it raises is why more attention is not given to other barriers to quality education.

      I am not sure about you, but I believe that African children deserve more than mere access to education. Are you also prepared to talk about the quality of education? Read here to see what happens when you idolize access at the expense of quality.

      1. I’d agree that it is extremely challenging to pursue access to education and quality education at the same time in the context of limited financial resources.

        BUT there if you are willing to sacrifice universal access in the name of quality you are nevertheless on a slippery slope. How much of the population are you willing to deny the right to education in order to get a god quality education for those lucky/wealthy enough to get it. Historically in many societies this line has been drawn very high.

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