Paradox of free education as seen from a 'hustler's' view

Learners at DePaul Austin Junior Primary read a newspaper as part of their curriculum in order to improve their vocabulary and grammar. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

On a recent visit to the countryside, an 87-year-old lady told me to my face we should not have free education. 

She never went to school but educated her children, some are even to PhD level.

I was eager to listen to her arguments. She argued persuasively that free education will lead to ‘unserious’ parents. What will they be doing without the pain of educating their children? She observed that since education became free, most parents are spending their money on luxuries from alcohol to clothes. She reckoned that the money should go to investment. 

She argued that educating children was her biggest burden, but she is proud of it. What will the current parents be proud of? She posed. Her other argument left my head spinning as an economist. We do not value free things. Without school fees to worry about, why would children and parents be serious about education?  

Gîthomo nî gîa tûhû,” she said in the local dialect, which has a double meaning. It could be interpreted to mean education is free or it’s not useful at all.

She argued that making education free makes it not useful. I noted the same goes for the Kisii language (amasomo mbosa) and Kiswahili (masomo ya bure). 

Those sentiments got me thinking: Why do we co-pay in healthcare or pay “excess” in motor insurance?  

The pain of this co-payment stops us from visiting the hospital because we sneezed once or because we are bored at home. The excess in car insurance stops us from making claims because a cat sat on the car at night.  

Would co-payment make a difference in education? Would it force parents to be more focused on their children’s education?  Day schools have a copayment in the form of lunch, which one can skip. 

Another curious observation is that some parents prefer to have their good-performing children join local schools because they are free. That denies them exposure, a long-life asset.  What is free should be analysed beyond the lack of the cost factor. We should consider the unintended consequences. A good example is that studying in your locality increases the chances of marrying from the neighbourhood. Beyond not enriching the genetic pool, society gets frozen in traditions and resists change. Noted that in your village? 

Back to the old lady, she seems to believe that no pain, no gain. This is not so surprising; she is a Mau Mau veteran who never got the famous compensation from the British Empire. Want to meet her? Talk to me. Her observation is borne by economic theories. That is why we should pay attention to experience and conventional wisdom. Hustlers might look and sound unsophisticated. They may not quote Keynes, Friedman or other economic laureates, but they have what most of us lack: real-life experience which you can’t beat.