In the heat and noise of all the goings on in the whole world today, with the cost of living ever rising and the struggle to sustain businesses growing harder, and government increasingly finding it tougher to sustain the meagre tax revenues it collects, the great and noble vision of the UPND of a Zambia which guarantees high quality education fully funded by the state must not recede in the background, and die!

No matter what, IMF or no IMF, coronavirus pandemic and war in Ukraine and the severe hardships for all of us ahead: we must hold on to the dream and great vision of a country ever learning, always in school, college and university, especially for all our children whatever their social circumstances at birth.

Education, good, high-quality education from birth to death, funded collectively by all citizens of Zambia through the public purse, resonant with our vision of a truly free Zambia in which the majority of its people are their own social and economic liberators is perhaps the noblest vision we must not allow the UPND government to give up. It is the only solution to all our crises. Armed with quality education and knowledge, no skilled population can be defeated by any social and economic crises.

There are massive challenges ahead for government and millions of Zambian households in which an extra child or two suddenly has the opportunity to go to school, college or university. There are challenges the free education policy has unleashed in the entire education system. In many cases, chaos and the threat of ruining the existing education seems to be the order of the day.

Nellie Lungu, a News Diggers reader, has taken the trouble of writing me directly to ask me to make the case for families struggling with “free education”. She says, “As much as we appreciate to have free education in Zambia, at same point it’s not making sense, classes are over enrolled, ratio between teacher and student does not gel. The cost of living has become very expensive, transport is worse, in a home of 4 children going to school one need not less than a K1200,a month, how does one manage to take 4 children at the expense of free education, it can’t work! Economy, food wise is a non-starter. Families are fighting to have a meal or two a day, that is by chance and God’s Mercy. Whatever the government of the day is trying to do it’s fixing its own people. God help us to be fully and more human to one another.”

Nellie ends by beseeching those who write about these things, saying, “You people that have a gift of writing, help people to read between the lines, make them became accountable, honest and transparent.”

Nellie Lungu makes an excellent summary of the crises the free education policy has created in millions of Zambian homes. Happy that finally all the children can go to school, but the domestic costs of taking extra children to school amidst the rising cost of living takes away the joy from those who must foot the bills.

We Zambians must think together about how families with children they need to see in school can be assisted, even in the short term. To reduce transport costs, for example, an opportunity now exists for a viable school transport system. Such a system, if we so decide, could be partly funded from the public purse. This would in fact solve several problems at once including provision of affordable, quality, reliable and safe transport for learners and students. In the long term, such school integration in the transport system would contribute to elevating the school to its proper position in our communities – as a centre of social and cultural activities.

Perhaps time has come to use progressive taxation to give relief to families with school going children, and for a special education tax, especially for big businesses. A general education levy should be considered, perhaps on all commercial transactions in Zambia. This way the levy would be shared and would not be a big deal, for individuals and businesses.

Then there is the overcrowding in class rooms; teachers suddenly find themselves confronting political mass rallies in class rooms instead of the required number of leaners. This inevitably stetches all the other school infrastructure and education resources including water, toilets, sports facilities, libraries (if they are there at all), books, laboratories and everything else. School management and discipline may collapse and the quality of learning is reduced drastically. Teacher morale suffers, especially considering the low pay teachers have suffered for decades. Free education must not kill education.

Schools struggling to survive without the resources they used to have before the free education policy must have their needs met, urgently. Disastrous situations are unfolding especially in poor rural schools now deprived of their sources of money before the free education policy was implemented. We must have no illusions about how horrible the situation could be, especially in rural boarding schools. Over enrolment when government is not regularly funding boarding schools could lead to starving children and all the consequences this entails.

The school is faced with the same existential challenge the family confronts: to soldier on and do the best in the circumstances hoping improvements in management and resources will come soon to alleviate the problems and acute crisis. For, it should never be a choice which children to deprive of their human right to learn both at home and in schools. All children are born equal and are endowed, at birth, with the inalienable right to full education, from birth to death, if they must live full lives, actualising their human potential. Education is human dignity; it is not just about getting employed.

There is the ever-present danger of the government stalling at the primary and secondary school levels, now that we are getting some idea of the mammoth challenges providing free education creates. Donors, creditors, foreign investors and the IMF will not push us to accelerate and apply this noble policy to college and university education. We Zambians must insist that we cannot be cut off from developing by being reduced to a country with the bulk of its population without quality tertiary education and skills. Colleges and universities are essential for industrialisation, advanced development and culture.

The UPND government must be prodded to provide the country with its plans for how the free education policy will be rolled out, fully, to college and university education. This obviously requires a whole lot of things including continuously building the capacity for the state to monitor, regulate and enforce standards in the tertiary sector of education.

With the IMF and Zambia’s creditors breathing on the neck of the UPND to slash social spending and start paying interest on our mountain of debt, it is a tough call to expect many in the UPND government to fight to defend expanded funding of our education system. And yet it is during these very historic moments that Zambia must act to arm its children and young people with the highest possible quality education to confront the new, tough and cruel world we are entering.

It has become necessary for the UPND government to mobilise the country behind a coherent vision and plan of how it intends to resolve the many content, social, systemic, structural, resource and delivery challenges the policy of public funded education (free education) has generated. The nation needs to learn how the UPND plans to ensure that free education at all levels becomes a reality in Zambia, and by when.

The UPND must lead us in visioning a country in which the material and cultural lives of the majority of Zambians will have improved, poverty eliminated, mass unemployment consigned to the economic dustbin and inequalities abolished. Education holds the key to such a future, for Zambia.

Thanks Nellie Lungu.

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