Whether President Uhuru Kenyatta or his main challenger Raila Odinga wins the presidential election on August 8, one thing is certain: Kenya will take more steps towards becoming a welfare state, where basic services – education and health – and sectors, agriculture in particular, are heavily subsidised by the government if not enjoyed by citizens for free.
The Jubilee Party and the opposition National Super Alliance are quarrelling over the pledge of free secondary schooling, which both have pledged to the electorate should they win.
Other promises include free post-natal care for for a year, free health care for senior citizens aged above 70 years and free early childhood education.
Were this to pass, the upkeep — with the exception of shelter, food and clothing — of a child born on August 9 would fall on the state until working age (18). Yet “free” carries dubious meaning in Kenya’s realpolitik.
Although primary school education is considered free (Kenya has won several awards for this) a child whose guardian cannot afford uniform or charges for the many activities not covered under the capitation of Ksh1,200 ($12) per child or Ksh14 billion ($140 million) per year in total is forced out of school. Free appears to mean subsidised.
Health services in public hospitals are officially deemed free, but a patient has to buy the stationery on which their medical history is captured, prescription drugs and diagnostic services like laboratory tests, X-rays and scans.
These services, on average constitute more than 70 per cent of the cost for outpatient care, meaning the only free aspect is consultation, which costs between $5 and $50 in private hospitals. To be fair, that is not a relief to frown at in a country where more than four in 10 citizens live below the international poverty line of $2 per day.
Back to the education sector, the government was in 2011 keen not to be misunderstood when it introduced cost-sharing in secondary schools.
Officials asserted at every opportunity that what was on the table was subsidised rather than free secondary schooling. The government was simply giving Ksh10,500 ($105), which has since increased to Ksh12,870 ($129), for a student in a secondary school.
Going by the recommended annual fee of Ksh53,554 ($536) and Ksh23,975 ($234) for boarding and day secondary school, respectively, the government presently funds between 24 per cent and 53 per cent of secondary school education. Despite what is said during vote hunting, this is what is likely to remain.
The only difference is the promise of 100 per cent transition for all students who qualify for secondary school. This implies expanding the capitation to more beneficiaries.
In 2016 for instance, out of the 942,021 pupils who sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, only 76 per cent or 720,583 qualified to join secondary school. The others did not make the cut (200 marks out of a possible 500) and were siphoned to join vocational training institutions.
Deliver the promise
Of those who qualified, however, 150,943 did not join secondary schools for reasons ranging from lack of facilities, inability and choice. It is this lot that the politicians will target if the goal is full transition.
At current capitation levels, the new beneficiaries would cost Ksh1.94 billion ($19.4 million) per year, a significant but manageable increase above the Ksh32 billion ($320 million) committed to secondary school subsidies already.
This explains why politicians, knowing that secondary schools rarely allow new student transfers in the third term, are saying they can deliver the promise by September this year.
In the current budget, Ksh6.3 billion ($63 million) is set aside for the expansion of secondary schools to create 63,000 spaces next year. To accommodate the annual dropouts, another KSh10 billion may be needed for facilities alone which could require a supplementary budget.
Were secondary school to be truly free, 2.5 million students would be kept in school with an additional budget of between Ksh31.25 billion ($313 million) and Ksh119.1 billion ($1.19 billion) depending on the proportion of students in day and boarding schools. That would take annual government spending on education to nearly Ksh500 billion ($5 billion) or more than a quarter of the annual domestic revenues of $17 billion.
By riding on the easier-to-sell “free”, politicians are glossing over the more urgent needs of the education system. These include the fact that one million children of schoolgoing age are not attending primary school. And one fifth of those who join Standard One do not complete Standard Eight.
Ensuring that children in lower classes join and stay in the education system would create a more equitable foundation for all students to grow into better citizens.
Safety nets such as uniform vouchers, waiver of extra charges and feeding programmes for the needy would keep more children in school and unlock the equalising benefits of education to society. Other essential inputs would be sanitary towels, investments in IT and managerial acumen for school heads.
Building more primary and secondary schools alike would help lay a solid foundation for free secondary education in the future. Even welfare economics should be well targeted and prioritised.