My parents run a private school in Makindye. It’s been 22 years. The school has never turned a profit of more than sh1 million in any given term. What happens more often is that it runs out of cash before the term is out and my dad, poor Baba, digs into his pocket to sail it through. It always manages to pay him back but it also always needs to come back for more sooner or later. When the school needs to make big investments, my dad, poor Baba, takes out loans for it, because small business loan rates in Uganda are so high they would sink the school. The canteen that my parents run at the school turns a far higher margin than the school itself. I suspect the canteen is why they have kept that school open to this day. That, and the fact that it is a community institution now. If they closed it, all my brothers and their peers would probably never speak to them again. Like me, they would not have a primary school to name as their old school. The one I went to was, a few years ago, turned into a more profitable venture — a bar and car washing bay.
Why does my parents’ and other less known private schools turn so little in profit? Providing education is frustratingly expensive, and for all that talk about how much Ugandans value education, they will only pay so much in school fees. In fact, as the school administrators who manage to charge a decent amount will tell you, once Ugandan parents pay over 400k for a three months term, they become unreasonably demanding. They then want the school to provide a pool table for their kids, the headteacher to participate in the sac race on sports day and free lunch be provided.
|Photo via @mumakeith on twitter|
When you drop a child off at St Lawrence next year, you will see a new classroom block and think, “ha, kyoka Mukiibi has made money out of us!” The truth maybe that Mukiibi probably would not have been able to admit your child if he hadn’t chosen to plough last year’s surplus into that new classroom block.
Providing education really is frustratingly expensive. I think that’s why it is left to government in most parts of the world. Unfortunately for Uganda, government falls far short of that responsibility. There are well over 30 primary schools in my part of Makindye but only one of them, and the poorest of them is government owned — Kibuye Primary School. If we all had to try and get our kids into Kibuye Primary, a) I would quit my job and home school mine because aint no way she’s getting that kind of education b) there would be riots as parents queue for miles outside the school gate. But we have private schools and it is quite easy to be petty and deploy URA to go get some of our money back without remembering the service gap they fill.
If you are unhappy about the amount of money you are paying at the private school you took your child to, find another one. Take them to my mama’s school. We pay sh280k a term and our kids count and read just as fine as yours (Trust me, my nine year old is reading Charles Dickens). You don’t need a government tax regime to settle your vendetta with Sudhir. What that would do instead is allow government to profit from the fact that it isn’t providing adequate education in the first place. And, to the regular parent in Bwaise, URA skimming off schools' surplus income will mean that, their neighborhood school will a) hike fees to make it up, b) not accept fees in installments anymore because it can’t afford to.
Dear journalists, instead of fanning the fire between URA and schools with antagonistic quotes and anecdotes, why don’t you actually look at the financial books of a good sample of private schools and tell us how much they are actually making vis-à-vis the proprietors' investment. How does that compare to say a bar and washing bay business? Maybe we can make more school proprietors see the light and go into bars for themselves, like my old teachers did.
Related fact: I am attending a private university in the US that collects $63,000 a year from each student (in my program anyway) and raises three times its tuition revenue from donors & its endowment. It is tax exempt. In fact, it is registered as a non-profit. Maybe that is what we need to do for our private schools. Donate generously to them and lobby for them to be made non-profits so that we feel better about our money. Many private schools would jump at being publicly subsidized even if that meant they were going to be legally non-profit. They are practically non-profit. Many are.