We need to consider these questions right from the onset: In what context did the Free Senior High School come into effect? What are the considerations and ramifications of the policy? Why the need for a reform at all? Why the need to review the Free SHS policy at this point in the face of the numerous challenges bedeviling the economy?
Formal education might mean different things to different people: some may require education for self-fulfilment; others may need its empowerment to enable them contribute to society’s advancement through enlightening debates, whilst others may seek education for the mundane purpose of securing a rewarding job.
In the article, “Challenging the Skills Fetish”, Wheelahan et al. (2022) argue that education policy discourse is based on skills. The extraordinary policy enthusiasm for skills is premised on an unwavering belief that skills are the solution to all social, economic and personal ills.
For nations, more and better skills will lead to economic prosperity, increased productivity, higher labour market participation rates, increased global economic competitiveness and higher levels of social inclusion. For companies, the acquisition and retention of skills are crucial to their profitability. For individuals, more and better skills will result in a good job, better pay and the potential for promotion, the capacity to participate fully in society and with the right kind of skills, the ability to move jobs and careers and the attainment of personal transformation.
In the same disposition, this is also true: if a nation does not have the right, and adequate, combined skills, it will fail. Same with companies that do not have the right quantity and mix of skills; they risk going out of business. Likewise, if individuals do not have the right skills, they, and their families, will suffer because they have not made wise investments in their skill development.
Nevertheless, many studies have pointed to severe conceptual deficiencies in the notion of this argument (human capital), as well as severe difficulties in actually measuring the “capital” through education and the rates of return obtained from it.
The claim that individuals’ lack of skills is the primary determinant of their unemployment and the fact that resolving a ‘mismatch’ between education and work will solve the problem of graduate and youth unemployment cannot be entirely factual.
On the contrary, it is a continuous change in the structure of the labour market as well as a broader social policy that determines quality of vocational and professional education. In backing this claim, Mark Levine, drew our attention to the period of the Great Depression when aggregate demand and the country’s job creation machinery had collapsed and therefore workers were described as ‘unadaptable and untrained’ and do not match up to industry’s skill demand.
However, the skills of the same group of workers became relevant and employable a few years later just before the Second World War when the economy was given a massive boost and like magic, the ‘skills gap’ vanished.
Have we ever paused to find out why migrants from Africa, and particularly Ghana, who might have been unemployed back home, easily get a job in Europe or America and are capable of remitting their families back in Ghana?
I argue that as much as education is important to a country’s socioeconomic development, government’s ability to create jobs in an integrated economic developmental planning is key to reducing youth and graduate unemployment and not necessarily making education free at one level of the educational system.
We were made to believe that ‘Free Senior High School’ was to give the poor and vulnerable in the Ghanaian society, at least secondary education. But then what after they attain secondary education? What are the measurable impact assessment criteria? What are the country’s needs in terms of skills provision in our development at this point? Is the reform ‘talking’ to the labour market?
The Ghanaian economic context is characterized by high informality, a weak manufacturing and industrial base and a complex labour market. This unfortunate cocktail presents a unique challenge to the human capital theory for understanding the relationship between the knowledge and skills supplied by general education provision and the knowledge and skills demand by the labour market.
Again, I would like to draw attention to how the Free SHS policy (which policy document, is still not accessible to the general public) was birthed. From a campaign promise to its implementation at the beginning of his Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s government in 2017 with little consultation amongst stakeholders. Fast-forward to September 2022, in the midst of an economic crisis, and after several calls for a review of the policy, the President reluctantly calls for a conversation on the programme. In a publication titled “I am aware ‘powerful forces’ are against Free SHS”, “President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo says, he is aware some powerful forces in the country are working against the Free SHS policy” (Citinewsroom, September 2, 2022).
This in my view is a call in the right direction since those calling for a review of the programme surely represent the citizens the President had urged to stand up and right the wrongs in our society such as reforming our shambolic educational system the way the Free SHS is been implemented.
In conclusion however, I would like to emphasise that merely reforming the educational system with the sole aim of providing secondary education, especially to the vulnerable would not necessarily solve the problem of youth and graduate unemployment. It could rather compound the problem if the reform is not critically thought through, and integrated into a long-term economic plan. Skills planning is essential but difficult to fix and must not be sacrificed on the “campaign platform”.
Above all, we need to find the right mix between general on the one hand, and vocational education and training education on the other to effectively resolve youth and graduate unemployment to propel economic development. This should be a function of the labour market because investing in skills is so vital to a country’s economic growth and competitiveness. In particular, education systems must be oriented towards producing youth who have both strong foundational skills as well as specific skills for jobs in a rapidly changing world of work.
The sustainability of the Free SHS policy should be premised on a continuous funding mechanism available to governments. I, therefore, urge the ‘forces’ the president would invite to the ‘conversation’ on the Free SHS, to consider the policy in relation to labour market dynamics, vocational education and make provision for professional institutions that form the requirement for employment by industry. Strategies targeting the needy must be more focused to ensure they continue to enjoy the full benefits of the programme.
Finally, it appears policymakers always find it convenient to use ‘educational reform’ as an opportunity to redress youth unemployment and challenges in the economy. I believe on the contrary that boosting the job-creation instruments in the national economy rather holds the golden key to the world of work and opportunity.