The access to the provision of free education is a worthy goal but it should not come at the expense of quality.
This is the view of Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen, whose appointment to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child was announced this week. A professor at the University of the Western Cape, she was nominated for the position by the South African government.
The committee lobbies African Union member states to ratify the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and monitors their implementation of the charter’s provisions.
“The charter deals extensively with access to schooling, but education on the continent, particularly free education, is a complex issue,” Sloth-Nielsen told the Mail & Guardian.
Sloth-Nielsen recently wrote a report on “the meaning of free education” for the government of South Sudan. This argued that, because of the social differences across the continent, a one-size-fits-all approach to free education would not work.
“In a country like Sudan where the entire country is resource-starved, free education is basically your only option because everyone is in the same boat. But in South Africa, for instance, where there are wealthier families who can afford better schools, there is no easy answer as to whether free education would work.
“Speaking now in my capacity as the dean of law at the University of the Western Cape, there is concern among academics about the quality of students coming through our system. There is all this investment in the schooling system but we are not seeing the quality in results.”
Sloth-Nielsen will take up her five-year voluntary appointment with the commission in March. Along with the 10 other members, she will be responsible for ensuring all 45 signatories to the charter adhere to it.
“Each state is expected to submit a report to the committee regarding the children"s rights situations in their country, so our main task will be reviewing these reports and making recommendations to the member states,” she explained.
“Unfortunately South Africa has not yet submitted its report more than eight years since the committee was established, so I will be tasking myself with ensuring they do it soon.”
Sloth-Nielsen told the M&G that it was disappointing that South Africa had not yet submitted the report despite having some of the most progressive children’s rights laws in the world.
The committee is the only regional body of its kind and can also hear complaints—by way of its country reporting structures—lodged by individuals against African states that have allegedly violated the provisions of the charter. All but five of the African Union’s member states have ratified the charter.