The beginning of the end of “free education” in PNG?

Central Province high school students, May 2016 (image: Grant Walton)

The O’Neill government has done its best to protect its flagship Tuition Fee Free (TFF) policy during the current fiscal crunch in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Despite substantial funding cuts to many core government services in recent years, government funding of around 600 million kina for the TFF policy has been maintained in the 2017 budget at much the same level (in nominal terms) since its introduction in 2012. But there is a difference between budget allocations and actual release of government funds in a timely matter, as is becoming increasingly apparent in PNG.

Cash flow problems have meant that salary payments to public servants have been late, teacher holiday leave fares unpaid, road funding delayed, and payments of MP funds delayed. TFF payments to schools have not been immune; for example the Department of Treasury only released the warrants for the release of the last quarterly TFF payment of 2016 in December, only days before the end of the school year (see also here and here). The problem is that schools in PNG have been directed by the National Department of Education (NDoE) to not charge school fees, and so delayed TFF payments to schools have resulted in reports of schools closing and students sent home.

In May 2016, one of us – Grant – witnessed the impacts of problems with school funding first hand in Central province. On the way back from fieldwork in Gulf province, he and other researchers came across a throng of young people clutching bags and slowly walking along the Hiritano highway, which links Port Moresby to the capital of Gulf province, Kerema (see photo above). In response to questions about why they weren’t in school, students said that their teachers had sent them home to collect money for school fees from their parents. Students in lower secondary school were asked to bring back 50 kina, and those in higher grades were to return with 100 kina. According to the students, the school had run out of money; this, it was suggested, was likely due to late payment and poor management of TFF subsidies.

Recent research in Gulf and East New Britain provinces showed that some schools are also quietly charging fees, including school and project fees.

In expectation of TFF payment delays continuing, the Education Board in PNG’s largest province, Morobe, has now announced that all schools in the province will be required to impose school fees in 2017 to make up for shortfalls in TFF funding.

This decision certainly makes sense as a short-term solution to ensure that schools are able to access resources (such as water, classroom materials, and electricity) to keep them functioning. The question now is whether other provincial administrations will come out and defy the national government’s official position and reinstate school fees. If more provinces join Morobe then this will likely result in a broader unravelling of the TFF policy.

There is some dispute about the ability of provinces to themselves set school fees independent from the national government. A letter contesting NDoE’s ban on any imposition of schools fees was published in the Post-Courier newspaper by the Catholic Church in May this year. The letter – addressed to the prime minister and signed by the President of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of PNG, Bishop Arnold Orowae – argued that NDoE’s order transgressed the national Education Act, and Provincial Education Acts in the 13 provinces where these are in place.

With the NDoE’s 2016 TFF policy promising to redirect 60 per cent of school payments to districts and national administrators, it is likely that many more schools will feel a need to charge school fees (if they are not already). There are also reports that some are finding other ways to make up for lost revenue through unofficial transfers. The school fees imposed by Morobe’s administration is just another indication that parents are increasingly being expected to pay for the cost of schooling, whether the charges are official or not.

To some degree, sorting out the problems associated with TFF payments will fall to the NDoE. The department’s bureaucrats should be directly engaging with Morobe’s administrators as well as Treasury officials, and looking for ways they can help ensure payments get to schools on time. The decision earlier this year to disperse TFF payments on a quarterly basis is a step in the right direction but, on its own, not enough.

While bureaucrats explore potential fixes, there are likely to be broader consequences for the current government. With the 2017 national election looming large, an unravelling of the TFF policy could result in significant reputational damage, and hamper some MPs’ chances of re-election. In addition, it may result in instability amongst the large coalition of MPs in government.

The TFF policy’s unravelling would likely impact on post-election wheeling and dealing associated with forming a coalition government. The current TFF policy was a key part of the government’s 2012 Alotau Accord [pdf] (which laid out the priority areas for the new then government), and was a likely (but certainly not the only) factor in current Prime Minister Peter O’Neill securing a strong coalition of MPs to form government in 2012. The TFF policy also helped O’Neill differentiate himself from his predecessor, Sir Michael Somare. If the TFF policy is seen to be failing, this may give MPs one more reason not to back O’Neill to head the government after the 2017 election.

Previous governments in PNG have lived and died on their ability (and subsequent inability) to sustain “free education”. Will this fourth attempt at free education go the same way as the previous three failed attempts? For now, we will just have to wait and see.

Anthony Swan and Grant Walton are Research Fellows at the Development Policy Centre.

Anthony Swan

Anthony Swan is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre and lecturer in the Master of International and Development Economics program. He managed the PEPE PNG project at the National Research Institute of PNG, and was also a lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea. Now at the ANU, he continues his work at the PEPE project. He has a PhD in economics from the ANU and has a background in economic policy formulation and consulting.

Grant Walton

Grant Walton is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. He received his PhD from the University of Melbourne. His thesis compared anti-corruption actors and citizen perspectives on corruption in PNG. Over the past decade Grant has conducted research in PNG, Liberia and Afghanistan. In 2015 Grant was appointed Deputy Director of the Transnational Research Institute on Corruption, a Research Associate of the University of Birmingham’s Developmental Leadership Program, and an ANU University House Early Career Academic Fellow.

7 Comments

  • The fallacy with free education and free health care is that those programs are not free – the tax payer is the one burdened with funding this government policy. The government has never felt accountable to the tax payer and therefore does not feel obliged to ensure that these programs are devlivered in the most transparent and cost efficient manner to justify why the tax payer should continue funding those policies.
    Furthermore, the government has not clearly identified and developed through investment other sources of revenue in the econony to fund such programs.
    Lastly there is one view that free education and free health care have severe consequences on the budget as people become careless about proper family planning and also fail to practise proper personal hygene that the public education system does not have enough classrooms to fit the number of children such that the teacher-student ratio is greatly imbalanced such that the children do not receive the quality supervision and assistance from the teacher and this also contributes to the poor quality of spoken and written english. Free health care causes people to not take personal hygene seriously and this results in outbreak of TB and other preventable diseases which compounds the pressure on the public hospital system where there is accute shortage of drugs and other important but basic medical equipment and facilities.

    • Hi Richard, thanks for leaving a comment. Education is not my area so I will leave that to others to respond to. I have to disagree with your comment on the relationship between free health care and the outbreak of disease, though — there is evidence that suggests that making health care free of charge makes it more likely for people to take up services, especially among those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum. When it comes to communicable diseases (such as TB), if people are able to access services more easily then they are more likely to get treated quickly, and so the disease is actually less likely to spread. Of course cost is just one factor among many when it comes to access to health care, but it’s often an important one.

    • Richard
      You are correct in your comment. Not a government minister would really identify what should be free in a school for students and what drug or treatment would be free at the rural aid post for patients. (You ask a current minister and she/he will not give you the answer, simple because they don’t understand their own policy). The fallacy of “free education or health services” is the burden faced by tax payers like us the ordinary who becomes the beneficieries anywhere at the end results. The current free education and health care policy lacked transparency and accountability as well as unsustainability in the long run and ita tantamount to political gimmick of the current government.

  • “I’m of the view that this initiative – TFF – is not a political gimmick. And these include vast investment in Health, Law & Order and Infrastructure. These to me are economic enablers! Such investments in these critical areas should be maintained and improved. Any one country should have an educated and healthy citizen who have access to essential services and are safe. Only then, the economy will be sound and development will be evident! Issues raised and are of concern are more operational / procedural.”

    • Hi John

      Any good policy can be brought down by poor implementation and so, as you pointed out, these latest developments will be a concern to many. The issue here is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The PNG government’s fiscal crunch means that trade offs will need to be made between competing expenditure priorities. Why is it that certain expenditure items that are highly discretionary or subjected to few accountability mechanisms are prioratised ahead of TFF payments (or, more importantly, activities that strengthen education and health systems more broadly)? At the end of the day it is unfair on children, families, schools and the nation to miss out on education because basic service delivery is not funded as intended and other opportunities to raise funds at the school level are banned.

      Best
      Anthony

    • Hi John

      TFF was a pure political gimmick of PNC led coalition adopted from a current governor’s political agenda. You can not say its an investment in education or health when there is no sustainability plan working along side it but only bending to the cash flow ability of the public accounts. We call a policy good investment when it can sustain itself and generate the intended outcome over time, what about one that work on had hoc basis depending on cash flow situation of the country (good or bad), TFF released school opened, TFF not released school closed, is it a viable investment? Educated population is the ultimate option right down the line under this TFF policy, but a viable investment that sustain the TFFpolicy is what the country needs.

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