SUMKAR MP Ken Fairweather is advocating, privately for now, that the Value Added Tax be increased by a further 5 % to 15 %.
The businessman-cum-politician wants this extra burden placed upon the long-suffering consumer for a cause far worthier than we might be led to believe at first hearing.
He wants the extra 5% to be placed in a trust account to be kept exclusively to pay tuition fees so that parents and guardians are not burdened with school fees for students from elementary school to Grade 12. He argues the present system makes education a privilege that is enjoyed by those who can afford school fees and discriminates against those who cannot pay.
In a country where as much as 70% of the population is unemployed or self-employed, with most living on less than K300 a year, this makes our underprivileged children in the majority.
Education, especially basic education, is a right that should be enjoyed by every citizen regardless of situation or status. It should be every government’s duty to ensure this happens.
The present school fee subsidy scheme has not worked well for most schools, especially those in rural settings. Either the subsidies are not released or they do not arrive on time. Often, they are released but the money gets stolen or misdirected in the system.
Education Minister James Marape agrees that education of every Papua New Guinean is the Government’s “number one” priority and no effort be spared to achieve his goal to have universal basic education by 2015.
That goal is only a few years away and perhaps overly ambitious given his own figure that to achieve such a goal the country would have to pour some K12 billion into education alone.
Education secretary Dr Joseph Pagelio claims that 2.5 million of the country’s approximate 6.2 million people are illiterate and that 67 out of every 100 of those are women.
While we cannot attest for the accuracy of Dr Pagelio’s numbers, that numbers in the millions are being bandied around is most sobering. Indeed, these statistics must make decision makers like Mr Marape and his Cabinet colleagues sit up and rethink the whole matter of education and how to fund education.
Education is expensive and Mr Marape has himself put the figure at K12 billion if this country were to achieve one of the Millennium Development Goals of universal basic education by the 2015 deadline.
That is where Mr Fairweather’s suggestion might become a policy option, however unpalatable it is to customers.
While PNG’s friends from the outside in bilateral and multi-lateral donors will always come to its aid, basic services are the responsibility of every self-respecting government. Education and health are among these services.
No country worth its salt can call itself truly independent until and unless it is able to support its people with the provision of basic services such as education, health, law and order, food and water security. That means funding these basic services out of internal revenue.
Donor funds can then be used to add value to education through funding of tertiary education in-country or overseas, through the provision of quality specialist health services and through training of security force members in specialist anti-terrorist or anti-drug operations abroad.
To the question: What would it take to ensure that every child in PNG from age six to 18 receives a good quality education, we can answer: Whatever it takes.
That means delving deeper and thinking harder.
How important is universal education compared to other development objectives such as health, nutrition, income and physical security?
Examples elsewhere indicate that there is a direct co-relation between improved education and improved living standards and economic growth.
Everywhere in the developing world, where the education standards of the people have improved, poverty levels have dropped and living standards have increased.
Countries like neighbouring Indonesia have had staggering successes in this area where education standards have improved by half from what they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Much more remains to be done but the direct correlation between improved education and improved living standards in that country is worthy of note and emulation.
From funding to the quality of the curriculum offered, education in PNG requires the joint effort of everyone – from the experts to ministers and politicians to friends of PNG.