FREE education from primary to university level in Zambia is a heated topic being debated in various circles including Parliament. The debate arises out of the promise made by the UPND during the campaigns for the August 12, 2021 elections.

The topic has become an issue of national concern because UPND is now in government. The expectation is whether free education is the policy direction education will take.

Stakeholders, especially opposition political parties are capitalising on this topic even before the dust of election campaign settles down.


Educationists do understand and believe that politics is more than elections and the strategies necessary to win. Rather, it is about the current and next generation and the policy directions that should be instituted to create opportunities for a better life for them.This is the POLITICAL WILL view of education policy.

Realism dictates that when political actors change, it is important to observe and understand what the new team of political leadership perceive to be the vexing challenges of society and the changes they wish to effect to address them.

The changes however take a bit of time because they require the input of expert strategic analysis and planning. This needs sober minds. “GREAT LEADERS MAKE GREAT DECISIONS NOT ONLY FOR THIS GENERATION BUT FOR SEVEN GENERATIONS AHEAD.

“It is always important to allow new political leaders to settle down and see what policy decisions they establish.

Since free education is now a topical issue, it is important to devote time on it and contribute to the debate.

A few questions beg answers: Is free education a desirable policy direction? Is it affordable? What problems is it intended to solve? Is it an equitable policy direction? Is it a solution to the internal inefficiencies of the education system such as low participation and achievement levels across gender, between urban and rural areas, high dropout rates among marginalised and vulnerable children?  Will it be a solution to such vexing problems in the wider society like high poverty levels, widening income disparities between the rich and poor, and youth unemployment?

These questions touch on the pertinent education policy issues of:

–              Access to education

–              Equity in educational opportunities

–              Quality of education

–              Efficiency of the educational system and

–              Outcomes of education provision.

 Honest objective answers to these and other questions surrounding free education will indicate whether it is a realistic policy direction to take.

Our focus for now is whether free university education is a realistic policy direction in Zambia.  A historical background is a good starting point because the topic is new in our country.



The policy debate on whether education should be free or paid for by the beneficiaries is not a new subject. This was a policy question that occupied the minds of the nationalist leaders at independence.

The political and social economic realities at the time dictated that education had to be free. First, the majority of the two and half million Africans were in abject poverty.

If the University of Zambia (UNZA) which opened its doors to the first year students in 1966 was to be a fee paying institution very few students could afford entry to it.

The manpower (human resources) condition of the country was extremely pathetic. Independence came to Zambia with only 100 university graduates and 1, 200 individuals who completed secondary education.

Such a small number of university graduates was expected to shoulder the immense responsibility of national development. The number of university graduates was not enough to run the civil service let alone other sectors.

The post-independence leaders relied heavily on the services of expatriates from other countries. For example the secondary schools that were opened in the sixties and seventies had teachers of mixed races from various countries across the world.

High poverty levels among the Africans and the critical shortage of manpower were sufficient grounds to justify a State centred university education system. Free university education was a reasonable and realistic policy direction to take.

This was the only way of ensuring that capable and qualified students from poor families could enter the gates of the university, stay in it and participate actively and come out with qualifications they hoped to obtain.

The free university education adopted at independence was in line with Horace Mann’s (1848) seminal view of education namely “education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin is the great equaliser of the conditions of men…the balancing wheel of the social machinery.”

In other words education is a powerful instrument that can either widen the inequalities existing in society or create opportunities for all. The direction education takes reflects the mind, heart and soul of the political leaderships’ view of what type of society they wish to see coming out of their opportunity to be on the platform of political leadership.

The truth of the realities Zambia was in is not farfetched. The author of this article and many others is one of the good examples. He completed secondary education in 1971 and was admitted at UNZA in 1972. The letter of admission stated that the fees were K400 per year. When this information on the fees was read to the parents they were astounded and very shocked because it was unaffordable.

“Where will the money to pay such high fees come from?” they remarked. Even if cattle had to be sold and a head of cattle was selling at K2 it would entail selling 200 cattle to raise K400. This was unattainable.

The K400 per year at UNZA at the time was a barrier to entry for many children who came from no income families. Free university education adopted by the government was a big incentive for students from poor families to go to the university, work hard, and complete the university education.

The government did not only shoulder the burden of paying tuition fees. Rather, it paid for the students’ other expenses like accommodation, books, and food.  Out of pocket allowances were paid to students to meet other requisities like soap, transport and clothing. The student allowance was K27 per term and it was enough to meet the needs of a student from a no-income family like this author.


Free university education adopted at independence was not just a public good in human resources development terms but it was a great equaliser as observed by Horace Mann way back 1848. It was because of the free university education policy that children of peasants in villages or ordinary workers in urban areas rose to positions of prominence in society like Directors of Companies, Senior Civil Servants, Republican Presidents, Medical Doctors, University Professors, Mine Captains to mention but a few.

Free university education was indeed a power instrument of social mobility. Most of those who benefitted from free university education, this author included, pay resounding gratitude to that policy decision taken by the founding fathers and mothers of the nation.

Free university education went through several reforms in the 1980s as the country’s economic situation deteriorated. Meal allowances were scrapped and replaced by meal coupons causing a lot of instability in the institution through student riots.

The 1990s witnessed further revisions to the free education policy of funding university education giving way to the market-centred model.


The market-centred model in funding university education was sparked by the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) dictated by the World Bank and other donor agencies. One of the strongest conditionalities of SAP was reduction or total removal of subsidies on certain services provided by the government. University education was specifically targeted in the way it was funded from public resources.

The economic argument at the time was that university education was an investment with both social and private returns to society and the individual.

The cost benefit analysis to investments in education influenced by Rate of Return calculations contended that while investments in university education had social benefits to society in form of human capital required for economic development, taxes paid to the government, opportunities of having a critical mass of educated and informed citizenry necessary for effective participation in national affairs, it equally had private returns which accrued to the individual beneficiary.

These private returns included rising incomes over one’s working life which benefitted the family. The life earnings profiles analysis showed that the incomes earned by a university graduate over a working period outweighed the fees paid during the period of study.

This, therefore, justified the arguments for cost sharing in university education. Government bursaries for students shifted from being 100 percent cover to scaled grant system of 100 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent and 25 percent.

Even grants to the institution for its operation were scaled down to pave way for the university to innovate in areas of income generation and cost saving.

 Those who are familiar with the operations at UNZA, in particular, can recall that this was the period of cost saving measures. Some categories of support staff lost their jobs through redundancies.

Certain services which were run by the institution itself like the bookshop, the cafeteria, security, horticulture and cleaning services were outsourced to independent business entities.

Some academic programmes were run on parallel lines to generate income. Business ventures were established to enable the university generate income for its operations. The abundant land at UNZA was replanned to allow for private investments through Public, Private, Participation (PPP).

The author of this article as Deputy Vice Chancellor chaired the committee that relooked at the best ways of utilising the university land and made recommendations to the University Council. This subsequently resulted in investments like the East Park Mall which is situated on the University of Zambia land.

The market centred model of running public universities which took strong roots since the 1990s significantly changed the notion of free university education. The student bursary scheme was transformed into student loans scheme in 2004.

The Bursaries Committee at the Ministry of Education changed its name to the Higher Education Loans and Scholarships Board in 2016. It’s mandate being to source for funds, allocate and disburse the funds to students as loans and recover the loans that matured since 2004.

The student loan schemes are practiced in many countries both developed and developing. The justification for student loans is that it is an equitable way of financing university education. That, even students from poor families can access loans to finance university education and pay later when they are in employment.

The debate now is whether Zambia should go back to the free university education policy or not.


The point of departure in discussion of free university education is an understanding of the student population. A close look at the student population indicate that it is highly heterogeneous. It is not a homogeneous grouping. University populations are of different characteristics and the following being the major ones:

. Males and Females

. Able bodied and Physically challenged

. From urban and rural families

. From no income, low income, middle income and high income families

. From different types of schools namely, government schools, private schools and grant aided schools

. School leavers that are of young age and mature age students

.Undergraduate and Postgraduate students

.  Single or doubled orphaned

Any meaningful and realistic debate of free education at the university level should seriously and critically take these characteristics of the student population into account.

Honest answers have to be given to such questions as: Is it realistic to provide free university education to students who spent most of their education in very expensive private nurseries and schools paid for by their parents without subsidy from the government? Are students from very poor families to be treated the same when it comes to access to public resources as those from well to do families?

Will free university education be sustainable in the ever rising population of students entering the universities? Can the public budget sustain it? Is free university education an equitable way of financing university education given the diversity in the socio economic backgrounds of the student population and the increase in the number of public universities?

These are not easy questions to answer.  Such questions have led to different policy options in the way university education is funded. The American model is based on a combination of different financial aid options for students such as: external scholarships, student loans, tuition waivers, work study programmes like teaching or research assistantship and merit awards. Most of the student financial aid schemes are need-based.

The Association of African Higher Education Financing Agencies (AAHEFA) reports that many African countries are adopting the student loans model to respond to the rising numbers of demand for entry into the universities in the midst of significant stress and strain on public resources.

A number of African countries are adopting the access-equity-cost sharing model to finance university students guided by transparency and accountability. Higher education specialists contend that free university education is good if a government can afford it.

However, it is not sustainable in the long run.  Zambia is not different from other sister countries on the African continent. Free university education for all students is

certainly not sustainable in the long term and by enlarge a very problematic option for financing higher education. The guiding policy principle should however be that no student that is eligible to enter the university, that is access, will be barred from doing so on account of cost.

A second guiding principle is that students from economically deprived homes should be motivated to enter the university knowing that there are funding options that specifically target them by virtue of their socio-economic status.

The guiding principle is that students from economically advantaged homes should understand and appreciate the necessity of paying for university education through the resources of their families.

A combination of student funding opportunities which include bursaries, scholarships, student loans, student

waivers and work study programmes should be availed to students on the basis of need or ability to pay with cost-sharing on the part of those who can afford to pay as a guide.

Such a model fits well with the diversity of student populations obtaining in the universities and it is also equitable.  To effectively implement this model the following will have to be addressed in earnest:

i) Considerations should be a focus on how to broaden ways of financial aid to students in the universities bearing in mind that student loans are just one of the options.

ii) Reforming the Higher Education Loans Board by making it an institution that can innovatively mobilise resources to support students in universities.

iii) Establishing student financial aid departments in the universities and deploying staff with knowledge and skills of how to mobilise financial aid for students and manage them prudently.

iv) Improving the personal student data systems in education right from primary level to the university.

v) Establishing strong tracer systems for university graduates that provides data on their employment status.

vi) Conducting national awareness campaigns especially in rural and poor urban communities about financial aid programs in the universities

vii) Establishing strong partnerships between universities, industry and other organisations directed at financial aid to students.

viii) Devising relevant academic programmes which have the magnetic pull to attract employers who can sponsor students.

ix) University managements should be re-oriented towards developing academic environments that develop a culture of broadening student financial aid systems.

x) Improving the quality of university education and establishing realistic affordable fees which can pull students from well to do families in neighbouring countries. That is making Zambia the hub of affordable quality university education in the Southern Africa region.

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