Will students be forced to pay the utility bills?

The continued expansion of tertiary education around the world presents numerous challenges for governments as they attempt to fund public institutions. This is especially true in developing countries, which are seeing rapid growth in their systems.

In most jurisdictions, funding pressures have resulted in overall budget cuts or the introduction and increase of tuition fees. In Ghana, however, there is a different controversy: who should pay the utility bills at public universities and polytechnics?

The government, administrators and students have all taken a stance on who should pay for institutions' telephone, electricity and water costs. In the end, however, this issue may turn in the students’ favour as they play upon the politics of the upcoming federal election.

An expensive tertiary education model

Ghana’s Anglo-Saxon tertiary system is an expensive operation. Inherited from the British, its emphasis on research-intensive universities and the provision of campus student housing prove costly.

To date, institutions have been funded through a line item budget. This means they do not receive block grants but rather items like faculty salaries and utility bills have dedicated funding streams. There is no guarantee, of course, that the line items equal the costs, and institutions have frequent shortfalls in their utility budgets.

It has been estimated that public tertiary institutions currently owe well over Gh¢1 billion (US$254 million) in unpaid utility bills and it is not uncommon for the Electricity Company of Ghana to threaten to suspend provision of electricity.

Historically, the government has directly picked up the tab for utilities of most public institutions, including universities. However, with the rising cost of utilities on Ghanaian campuses, the government decided to stop directly paying for utilities, sparking a vocal reaction from administrators and student groups.

Uncertainty over utility bills payment

The debate over utility bills started in April 2014 when the Ghanaian Ministry of Finance announced it would stop directly paying for utility costs of ministries, departments and agencies. Universities were included under this group and the ministry argued it would not bear their costs since universities were not using utilities efficiently.

Under the new policy, universities would be forced to use their operational funding allocation, as well as internally generated revenue, to pay their utility bills.

The reaction of students was almost immediate. Students anticipated that the costs would be passed on to them, whether they lived on campus or not. Student groups openly denounced the plan, forcing the government to backtrack within a few weeks. In June of 2014 the Minister of Education promised to introduce an exemption to the new bill for education institutions.

However, the issue resurfaced in March 2015 when the Minister of Education, in a dedicated conference on the issue, urged education institutions to make efficient use of utilities. A few weeks later, the Deputy Minister for Tertiary Education indicated that, starting in the 2015-16 academic year, students would indeed have to pay for utilities, but only those living in campus residence halls.

Unfortunately for the Ministry of Education, the timing of the announcement coincided with the annual automatic increase in electricity rates by the Electricity Company of Ghana, greatly increasing students’ frustration.

Again, student opposition prompted the government to postpone the measure. Students’ main argument against the idea has been that they already experience power shortages and that bearing the cost of utilities will add new costs to their studies. It has been estimated that the additional cost to students would be approximately Gh¢500 (US$127) a year.

As of May, the situation has been locked in a stalemate, although there are subtle indications from the government that the measure would come into effect in 2016–17. In the meantime, many student groups have already indicated that they would vote against the government in the upcoming general elections if the measure were implemented.

As a sign of the current uncertainty, universities are now displaying fees on their websites that include utility costs, pending ministerial approval.

Tensions within government

University students in Ghana already pay some of the highest tuition fees on the continent. Hence the strong reaction to the government imposing additional costs on students and their families.

The utility debates illustrate the tension inside government on this issue, with the constant backtrack and delaying of the measure by the Ministry of Education. Due to significant loss in revenue triggered by low oil and mineral prices, the Ministry of Finance is bent on balancing government books, while the Ministry of Education is faced with the challenge of containing the anger coming from various constituencies inside tertiary education.

Indeed, the initial promise by the Minister of Education to secure an exemption for education institutions appears to be a promise they are unable to keep. The minister’s ill-received lecture encouraging institutions to use utilities efficiently may have less to do with universities’ spending habits and more to do with the Minister of Education’s inability to persuade the Ministry of Finance to exempt universities.

With the general elections coming in November 2016 and the unofficial campaign well underway, it appears unlikely that the government will revisit the issue of utility bills any time soon.

The current president is up for re-election. With his hybrid presidential and parliamentary democracy, many cabinet members, including the Deputy Minister for Tertiary Education, are members of parliament and are up for re-election as well.

It is unlikely that students in residence halls will be paying for utilities at the start of the academic year 2016–17. For better or worse, the government seems to have missed a window of opportunity to offload the payment of utilities.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a doctoral candidate in higher and international education in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. Christian Noumi is a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, conducting research on comparative higher education policy-making in Senegal and Ghana.