27/01/2016 18:00 GMT | Updated 26/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Can Africa Afford Free Education?

bbcToday, BBC World Service is holding a debate in South Africa around the question 'Can Africa afford free education?', which we have been helping them answer.

Inequality in education: poverty as a major factor.

The new agenda calls for 12 years of free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, yet, as of 2010, on average in the region, 20-24 year olds had only attained 6.6 years. A lot of the blame for this unfinished business falls on the persisting inequalities in education, not the least of which is related to poverty. The 2015 GMR underlined this fact, showing that in low and middle income countries, the poorest children are 4 times less likely to go to school than the richest, and are 5 times less likely to complete primary education. The poorest children are also almost 6 times as likely to be unable to read as the richest.

Recently, we reemphasized the point in relation to the bid to achieve 12 years of free education as written into the SDG agenda: we showed that, in Africa, across 44 countries, children from the richest households had completed at least 12 years in only 4 countries. Children from the poorest ones had completed 12 years in none.

Do African countries guarantee free education today?

In committing to make education free, as was done in the 1948 Universal Declaration of human Rights, reiterated in the Dakar Framework for Action, and now in the Sustainable Development agenda adopted last September in New York, countries are recognizing that costs, either direct or indirect, are clearly a barrier to education.

T graph his is why many countries in Africa abolished school fees. Among the 53 countries with data available in the continent, 42 now legally guarantee free education at the primary level.

This has had a positive impact on enrolment as Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda show. In Burundi, for example, primary enrolment rates were 54% in 2004, the year preceding fee abolition; they increased to 74% in the year after fees were abolished, and by 2010 reached 94%.

But, is primary education truly free?

Clearly, as the BBC is also hinting at, once education is made legally free in terms of tuition fees, this is only a small part of the picture.

Various surveys show that school fees continue to be charged despite the legal guarantee of free education, an issue we covered in our latest blog about Tanzania's latest move to abolish fees at the secondary level. This is the case in 17 countries in Africa including 3 Arab States in the continent (Egypt, Mauritania and Sudan) according to GEM Report analysis.

graph 2 The GMR 2015 also showed that even in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa where there are no school fees, much of the actual cost of education is still being covered by the household, rather than the government. Textbooks, as our latest paper showed, can also cost parents significant amounts, making up over half of the amount the poorest households are putting aside to spend on education for instance.

Globally, the poorer a country, the larger the burden on households. In Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Zambia, households are covering more than half of the total cost of education. By contrast, in Austria, Finland and Italy, households account for less than 10% of total education expenditure.

How expensive is a free education?

If education is to become 'free' and cost barriers therefore removed, African governments will not only have to spend more on infrastructure, on teacher salaries and on keeping large cohorts of children in school. They will also have to cover a larger share of the total costs of education. Will the added financial burden on governments be one they can realistically afford to cover?

As part of the GEM Report's estimates of the finance gap for achieving new education targets by 2030, we calculated that, across all low income countries, the cost per primary student will increase almost three times from 2012 to 2030; the cost per secondary school student will almost double.

Realistically, covering the lion's share of these costs is something that will require external aid. The finance gap left over even once domestic contributions are scaled up is particularly large in low income countries, where it totals US$21 billion, and constitutes 42% of annual total costs.

To sum up, therefore, can Africa afford make education free?

From analyzing the extent to which education is truly free on the continent, it's clear that abolishing school fees is only a small part of the movement to guarantee truly free education in Africa. Scaling up education to achieve the SDG agenda is something we have already shown is going to leave a large financing gap every year that external donors are going to have to help fill. Making education free is a large part of that agenda. African governments are not currently providing free education in a real sense at this stage. They will need to devise new ways to cater for the disadvantaged to ensure this core aspect of the target can also be achieved.