High school tuition costs: Rising, yet often exaggerated

Asimiire Ritah Biirabo is the executive director of Equality Mission Uganda.

Asimiire Ritah Biirabo is the executive director of Equality Mission Uganda (PHOTO/Courtesy).

“Soaring tuition fees” is one of those phrases which are trending in Uganda with a save-get key. It’s become conventional wisdom that the cost of attending high school has raised far more than the cost of just about any other major item in family budgets. Expect to hear more of such talks in the commentary at different levels of gatherings ranging from community conversations, family talks, workplaces, and many more.

The cost of attending high school has actually increased more quickly than inflation especially in the past decade so fast more than many people can imagine. The main reason for the misunderstanding is the fact that the list price of schools, especially the list price of elite private schools receives far more attention.

The list price is the one that schools highlight in their brochures and school circulars; these include functional fees, school uniform fees, meals, and development fees, to mention but a few as these range from one item to another for different schools. And these are what have attracted the attention of very many people as it is yet disturbing why these fees have shot above the roof even after one has paid for most of the so-called “must haves” on the price list.

Again, these cost increases stem from a combination of factors, some of which are probably very unnecessary and yet, very avoidable, and some of which different government policies have the potential to change. For years, many school officials have resisted efforts to hold down costs and resisted government efforts to impose more accountability on higher education.

One of the reasons that schools resist is the unreasonable and unrealistic charges imposed on a number of items such as fees charged for uniforms, development fees, and the like.

An example of this is a school in Nakilebe where students are tasked to carry a jerrycan of specific paint and paint brushes every term, yet looking at the status of the school structures, one would yet wonder why then the walls, classes, and other schools buildings are dilapidated. Yet another example of this is the charge of school uniforms for different schools which has also shot above the roof as it is always very unrealistic than it is initially got from the local market at relatively affordable prices. School uniform offered is always a pair of shorts, skirts, shirts, sports uniform,s, and a school sweater, and in some few cases, school stockings and casual uniform for some schools.

In previous years, parents bought these uniforms both at school and outside school and a way cheaper price than it is today where schools are charging very exorbitant prices for the same. This is not to say the price should be as it was almost 6 years ago. It is simply alarming because schools have resorted to finding different ways of extracting a lot of monies from parents and therefore selling school uniforms expensively has been one of the target areas used to exploit parents.

Secondly, why do schools resist being accountable to the government is that most of them have become business centered and this results from the fact that most of these school administrators are also shop owners and so the very many requirements collected from students at the beginning if the term is usually because the same school requirements are eventually taken to the shops of the same school administrators for restock and selling. In reality with this, this means that the students and parents become a source of capital for these school officials’ shops.

Over time, this has become a cause for concern for students and families. This concern has led to a call for attention to government policy to address tuition fee escalation. Multiple reasons have explained the driving factors of tuition fees increase, such as institutional spending on services, facilities, and compensation. Among these, the reduction of government appropriations has been recognized as one of the contributing factors to tuition fees increase, however, shouldn’t be sued as a base factor to impose and oppress parents and students with exorbitant tuition and other fees charges.

In Uganda, lately, the situation is different from in other countries. Fees have risen by more than the inflation rate from 2019 to date. Similarly to other countries, the fee increase has led to parents and students being concerned and becoming the targets of political and social controversy. As tuition price increase has accelerated beyond inflation and family incomes, tuition policy has become a pressing policy issue in higher education. School prices and costs have become a major political issue at the national level. Yet still, with policy concerns about tuition, the academic community seems to be reluctant with efforts to address this issue. Focusing on the tuition setting is yet a complex and ambiguous process.

In the relationship between state and schools or institutions, states are considered to be the principal because the governments delegate the state’s educational goals to these schools and institutions, both public and private.

The agent problem arises when (a) the principal and the agent have conflicting goals and/or (b) there is information asymmetry between them. Schools, especially private schools in this case perform diverse functions, and the organizational goals of private schools are complicated, ambiguous, and dynamic. Moreover, private schools with multiple groups that have different interests reinforce goal conflict within the schools. Information asymmetry arises when the principal lacks information about the agent’s work.

Schools use diverse and complicated mechanisms in their production and are characterized by joint production, in which various outputs are produced at once. Due to this characteristic, the process through which teachers produce and provide knowledge is difficult to monitor and control. These factors lead to information asymmetry.

Goal conflict and information asymmetry activate the possibility of agent problems, such as adverse selection and moral hazard. These problems can be illustrated using the model of revenue theory of cost and the utility-maximizing models which assume that schools /institutions /universities raise as much money as they can and then spend it all.

Finally, considering the effect on prices, the government should put a ceiling on tuition fee increases and revise the Education Act. According to the Education Act, 2008 of Uganda, in my opinion, the government should be able to regulate the tuition fees rates for example; No school should set the rate of increase in tuition fees at a level exceeding 1.5 times the average consumer price inflation for the three preceding years”.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Education should be able to implement a tuition fee control policy for both public and private schools.

This writer, Asimiire Ritah Biirabo, is the executive director of Equality Mission Uganda

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