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We Aspire for the Promised Land, Yet Our Education System Sets Us Back

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On December 3rd, 2021, I listened to Minister Ummy Mwalimu bemoan the education status of our country with both sadness and bemusement. Why sadness? Because she contradicted herself, her quasi-senior minister of education, Dr Joyce Ndalichako, issued a notice to ban all tuition activities for all public school kids in Tanzania. At the same time, she admits that these public schools are under-resourced, from science and math teachers to even sufficient classes.

She explains that poor kids are overworked. Why should they remain back in school for extra tuition classes while we have this comprehensive syllabus showing what children are supposed to cover each semester? She missed the difference between having the syllabus and implementing it. They are not the same thing. Get your facts right, minister!

She further bemoans the commercialization of education as a source of the problem, not the results of the problem in the education sector. Incentives matter—Madam Minister, “Show me the incentives, and I will show you the outcomes.”

Also, read Tanzania’s Ban on Local Dollar Payments Amidst Currency Shortages.

The honourable Minister said her kids do not pay all this extra tuition but did not care to tell us whether the school they attend has sufficient teachers or is under-resourced, as most of these institutions are nationwide. The moderators recoiled to question or contradict the minister; after all, it is ill manners in my country’s tradition to question your guest speaker in any material sense. Unless ‘Udaku’ is breaking!

I asked the Moderator of the Jamii Forum session my questions through the backchannel. My questions were as follows:

  1. What happens to freedom of choice?
  2. Why should the government have a say on private choice- parent choosing to get tuition for their kids?
  3. Why is the line between the government and individual sovereignty?
  4. Should the citizen have choices besides those given by the government?
  5. Since the government bans extra classes [tuitions], how can it be held accountable for the outcome? Can citizens sue the government for their kids’ underperformance?
  6. If I hire a tutor for my child, will Ummy come arrest me? Using what law?

Well, none of my questions were asked, apart from being acknowledged. As you might know, acknowledgement is the best you can get. Even the responses often rhyme with, “That is a very good question,” followed by an actionable response or pure diversion. We are cautioned not to ire respectful pleasantries. The rest of the responses were, at best, knee-jerked, which pass unsuspectingly.

The results are already abysmal in public schools in Tanzania, but Ummy said publically firing head teachers and ward councillors is illegal. Remove all accountability? What outcome is she honestly trying to get?

Okay, here’s a little economic lesson: if you impose a ban on a service, you get not only deadweight loss, which adversely affects consumer welfare, but you also give all these other incentives for the inception of black markets. People will not take your instructions as religious, nor will they take you seriously ever again. Credibility damage? Go figure.

People will devise their new form of getting what you ban, from Zoom tutoring to all forms of clever methods, which will require Ummy to quit her ministerial job, run a special operation of getting these lawbreakers, and deploy more resources of the already lean government. However, naah it cannot be that serious, Ummy will realize the impracticability of her proposal and will ignore it over time and more on to issue other “Matamko” — of course, life must go and the newsmakers need catchy new headings.

Read related: Strategies to embrace Tanzanian Education with AI-Powered Tech.

Worst-case scenario: The minority few will take up my line of thinking above, ignore Ummy, and get their kids all the support they can get in a failing system to get ahead. The majority will take her world as gospel and even take it to heart and put it into practice, doing chores for their kids as the ministers suggested. “Watoto watajifunza lini kupika?

As if these kids aspire to become kitchen girls or garden boys? When the chickens come to roost, I bet Ummy will be a minister of [choose your department], and we won’t remember she ordered the current outcome in yesteryears. Okay, is there any law to hold her accountable? Actually, no—plus, she explicitly said she was executing her senior instructions without questioning them. Fall in line, or you fall out! The political animal turned policy animal?

The true victims of not bad policy –but political ‘matamko’ are the citizens, especially when ‘matamko’ becomes the order of the day. They tend to impinge clear thinking, if there is any thinking at all. It creates chaos! Nevertheless, even it demoralizes actors in the sector. Our education system has the red queen effect in the opposite direction. Run at the same pace in giving ‘matamko’ to remain in the same place when it comes to outcomes which matter for upward mobility.

If I were to be asked, given the conditions of our public school, Minister Ummy and Ndalichako have their plate full. They should focus on getting sufficient teachers to schools, building enough schools and all other necessary infrastructure and staying out of private citizens’ choices. After all, they never have the right to determine what happens to people’s children after school, as we don’t have a say in our kids. Everyone should stick to their task.

Suppose education is the greater equalizer that ensures upward mobility, and Ummy has opinions about it. However, there is no material way of holding her accountable for those opinions. Why should I take her seriously in her pleasantries in public exchange about education? On the other hand, why should anyone else?

Suppose the most important source of wealth in any economy is human capital. Have we done a brilliant job investing in our human capital to the point that warrants limiting it? From the economic point of view, which values human capital above all else as the most fundamental source of national wealth, I am less optimistic when I look at Tanzania’s future accounting for Ndalichako and Ummy’s comments. Their statements limit Tanzanian youth’s energy, talent, and ambition, so they should not be taken seriously.

Dear parent, if you have to be named the tiger parent of the year, be it. Make sure your loved one gets the best education money can offer. Free things are rare in this world — probably the only free thing I noticed lately is Ummy’s statement. Nothing else is. Ummy advice is not to over-study, the advice to your child is not to under study for education is the only good thing and plenty in this world-so when it is passed around, you don’t want to be bashful, but reach out and take a big helping every time.

You will find that education is the only thing lying around loose in this world and that it is the only thing a fellow can have as much as he/she is willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight, and the screwdriver is lost.

My ending quote today is from Piggy’s letters, as usual: “The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education.” Remember this as you plan for your child’s education.

Ezekiel Lengaram is a Researcher in Economics at Wits University. My teaching and research focus are on the theory of Macroeconomics, Computational Economics and Applied Computational Mathematics

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