Means Testing: The Dilemma of Targeting Subsidies in African Higher Education
With limited or non-existent information on either incomes or assets; with no cultural tradition of voluntary disclosure of such information; and with little risk of sanctions for underreporting, the difficulties of creating reliable, verifiable and cost-effective systems for means-testing in developing countries are formidable. To some, these difficulties are so formidable as to preclude most forms of subsidy targeting, including means-tested grants and loans for higher education. And the near absence of successful cost-sharing in virtually any African country (with the exception of South Africa, which is an exceptional African country in most ways), seems to support a conclusion that cost-sharing will remain a distant goal, forever frustrated by the combination of political, ideological, and technical obstacles. The paucity of African examples of successful means-testing conforms to the paucity of successful African examples of loan recovery or successful adoption of even a modest general--i.e. applicable to all students--tuition fee (again, with the exception of South Africa).
At the same time, the prospect of meeting the rising costs of the rapidly increasing African demand for higher education with only public revenues seems even more remote— making some cost-sharing and subsidy targeting in African higher education, however limited, an imperative. Thus, we conclude that African (and other developing) countries must continue to work at systems of means-testing and targeting for higher education (and other social services). Because we cannot point to a genuinely successful and generally replicable model in Africa, we offer these summary conclusions based on our understanding of means-testing in the developed world and on the limited experiences with subsidy targeting in Africa. We hope that they might be helpful to countries attempting to devise schemes of means testing and subsidy targeting in pursuit of greater and more equitable access to higher education
First, means-testing in developing countries must combine: (a) voluntary reporting of income and assets, with (b) some stipulated set of verifiable categorical indicators, or attributes both to measure additional capacity to pay and also to corroborate the voluntary reports and other measures of income and asset values, enforced by (3) a system of random sample verification, and (4) appropriate sanctions able to be enforced.
Second, all means-testing schemes--even the ones used in advanced industrialized countries such as the US--involve compromises and imperfections. The means testing schemes that are even conceivable in Africa, particularly at this initial stage—will be imperfect and will involve compromises on both of the essential goals of equity and efficiency. At the same time, experience from developed nations suggests that a thoughtful, comprehensive, and transparent policy, even in the absence of all of the supporting data, traditions, and systems that have existed for decades in many of the OECD countries, can minimize those avoidable imperfections in means testing schemes that emerge simply from the failure to have thought through the kinds of complications we have discussed in this article and to have devised some--any—clear and workable resolution.
For example, the issues surrounding the treatment of home or farm assets have lots of resolutions—all of them technically complex and most of them either politically unpopular or fiscally unworkable (and some both). But the only completely unacceptable and truly costly one is no resolution at all: pretending that it does not matter how assets and incomes can be transformed from one to another, producing an outcome that is unpopular and unfair and unsuccessful in diversifying higher education’s revenue. In other words, targeting schemes that fail to foresee potential perils are not any better than untargeted schemes and are hardly defendable on the grounds of either equity or efficiency.
Third, means-testing and/or need analysis schemes need not be perfect, but they must be clear and predictable. In the end, a truly effective and efficient system of targeting must rely substantially on voluntary participation and compliance. This in turn requires people to believe that the system, however much it may disadvantage them, is (a) essentially fair and (b) unacceptably costly to evade or misrepresent. This calls for systems that are not only predictable and clear but that actually convey confidence and motivation. The inevitably complex and imperfect multiple indicators and verification procedures have the inevitable potential not only to anger the politically powerful, but also to discourage low income and ethnic or linguistic minority parents and students from coming forward and participating in the application procedures (i.e. incomplete take up). Under these circumstances, clarity and predictability are essential. Equally important is providing technical assistance for needy families to fill out the applications. Such assistance will increase the cost, but is justified in helping to assure both the vertical and the horizontal equity of higher educational subsidy targeting.
Fourth, the development and especially the implementation of cost-sharing and targeting schemes require adequate participation with local constituencies, including religious authorities, local governments, community organizations and cultural groups. For example, the determination of the appropriate family unit needs to be sensitive to cultural and religious mores, including the acceptance, for example, of the practice of polygamy. A workable and enforceable scheme for determining expected family contributions, then, must thus go beyond the central government to the grassroots constituencies—both to solidify political acceptance of policies that are almost inherently unpopular and also to appropriate local mechanisms of verification and enforcement.
Fifth, a workable and cost-effective scheme of cost-sharing accompanied by means-tested student financial assistance requires the participation of a host of existing governmental agencies extending far beyond the higher education ministry. These include including ministries and agencies involved in secondary education, tax collection, the census, immigration, the postal service, welfare and other social services, and other agencies at both the central land provincial levels. All of these agencies and their top governmental officials and civil servants have their own, often overwhelming, problems. The formation and successful execution of a scheme of cost sharing and revenue diversification requires a strong and committed government.
The stakes are high: for the institutions of higher education and for the students and the larger society they serve. In the end, cost sharing, revenue diversification, targeting, and means testing are merely devices to serve the much larger goals of higher education itself: the creation and preservation of knowledge, the foundations of a democratic civil society, the training of a productive workforce, the realization of individual potentials, and the assurance of social justice.