Analysis: EDGAR CHIBUTA
THE scaling down of user fees by the Ministry of General Education could not have come at a better time than this when the country needs an elite and versatile citizenry to accelerate its development agenda.
The core duty of the Ministry of Education, and as enshrined in the Educating Our Future (1996) policy, is to provide quality education. From the outset, let me make it very clear that I am not against user fees but I’m of the idea that user fees need to be reasonable and, above all, regulated by the Ministry of General Education (MoGE). I therefore welcome the reduction putting into consideration a number of factors that even work to the advantage of some of the head teachers who are resisting the move as noted in the Zambia Daily Mail dated May 6, 2019.
People resist change for a number of reasons. However, one that stands out is the fact that the longer people stay in one station as civil servants, the more they erode the internal financial management control systems and thus take advantage of the status quo to enrich themselves at the expense of the organisation. Mr Amos Malupenga, in the Zambia Daily Mail dated May 3, 2019, bemoaned the ‘higher levels of weak internal controls in many local authorities’, a creature of the law pursuant to Article 152 (1) of the laws of Zambia, whose functions include administering the district, among others.
In supporting the move to lower the termly school fees, I wish to cite weak internal controls, if at all they are in place in the school establishments.
This is the main reason why reduction of school fees must be supported so as to protect the head teachers from possible prosecution or being cited in the Auditor General’s annual reports.
Many secondary schools, including those in Lusaka and other affluent places, do not have the capacity – in all areas one can think of – to levy the pupils such higher perks, plan for them and, above all, expend the monies in compliance with the pieces of legislation such as the Public Finance Management Act (2018) and the Public Procurement Act (2012), and this, unfortunate to say, explains why MoGE has been incurring a lot of audit queries.
Just like the local authorities, secondary schools, which levy higher termly perks, have the capacity to realise more monies amid weaker or non-existent internal controls, and come up with extremely ambitious plans. In compliance with the Public Procurement Act (2012), schools are not exempted from complying with the legal provisions, so the absence of the procurement experts at secondary school level, to give legal advice on issues related to procurement, will certainly attract an audit query no matter how noble the intentions of that institution may be. We have noted secondary schools being cited for procuring second- hand computers in sharp contrast with the government norms, a clear indication that Circular number 1 of 2013, dealing with the internal controls, was not complied with. It is therefore important that schools be made to concentrate on their core duties rather than let them operate like money-spinning ventures. This, in the long run, has potential to disadvantage the poorest of the poor in addition to landing the head teachers and the Ministry of General Education into serious audit queries. User fees need to be reasonable according to the factors such as the economic activities of the people in a particular area.
Unlike the local government, which has corporate governance, schools do not have in place the needed human resource to advise the school management on the need to foster best accounting and procurement practices.
In fact being on the ground, I can safely say that we do not have in place the office of the procurement assistant, at the district education board secretary’s office, to offer advice on issues related to procurement of goods and services.
That being the case, schools with the financial capacity to buy goods such as a large number of computers or even a school bus have gone ahead to acquire these, and in most cases they have breached the Public Procurement Act.
The move by the Ministry of General Education has therefore come at the right time to save the poorest of the poor and ensure that they access quality education from public institutions.
Let me hasten to say that the move is also the right step in the right direction just to save some non-legal complying head teachers from being cited in the annual Auditor General’s report
Prof Nessan J Ronnan (in The Accountant 2003) sadly notes the prevalence of lack of accountability in many public institutions, secondary schools inclusive, and that being the case, we have noted how audit queries have engulfed the Ministry of Education and the need to curtail them is now when the sun is shining.
The author is procurement assistant at Chavuma DEBS.
Analysis: EDGAR CHIBUTA