Worlds of Education

Photo: GPE/Alexandra Humme
Photo: GPE/Alexandra Humme

The impact of IMF policies on the public service wage bill in Zambia

published 22 April 2022 updated 17 June 2024
written by:

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the International Monetary Fund austerity measures have the potential to negatively affect Zambian ability to attain SDG 4. It is a paradox that the global system encourages investment in access to quality education for all, while putting obstacles along the path to the access envisaged.

In 2013, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) advised the Zambian Government to maintain its public wage bill within 35 per cent of domestic revenue over the medium term and not more than eight per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The Government responded by freezing or decreasing pay salary scales, consolidating some allowances into basic pay. This also led to wage ‘caps’, limiting the capacity of the teacher unions to negotiate for better and improved salaries and conditions of service.

The IMF’s advice also resulted in a reduction in recruitment and deployment of public service staff, including teachers. In addition, some of the allowances, such as extra duty, recruitment and retention were withdrawn. For quite some time, the Government has not created new positions, instead recruiting to replace those who exited public service through retirement, resignation, or death.

The impact of such stringent measures demotivated many teachers and led to a decline in morale and commitment to work. It also increased workload as teachers have been required to teach more hours without compensation due to a high pupil-teacher ratio.

Teachers overworked, underpaid and undervalued

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education sets targets to be achieved by 2030. Although Zambia has made significant progress towards attaining some of the SDGs, such as improved enrolment rates at primary level and gender parity, providing access to quality education for all by 2030 remains unlikely.

Based on analysis of examination results and discussions with some learners at both primary and secondary levels, and staff during the study: “Public Wage Bill Constraints- Stories from the frontline”, it is evident how learning outcomes and, to some extent, progression, have been negatively affected by the lack of teachers. While there are many factors that affect quality of education, the recent study revealed overwhelming evidence that a lack of qualified teachers and poor motivation have a significant impact on quality of education as measured through availability of well-qualified educators (pupil-teacher ratio) and its impact on learning outcomes.

A motivated and committed teacher is able to improvise to produce learning materials and seeks creative ways of dealing with inadequacies or a shortage in learning and teaching resources. For example, during the evaluation of the “Quality of Early Childhood Education and Decent Employment in Zambia” Project, the early childhood education (ECE) teachers demonstrated their ability to create learning and teaching materials from locally sourced raw materials. This creativity has been reduced across all levels of education. Teachers are no longer motivated to apply themselves fully. They do not find any value as they are no rewards for exercising creativity. During the early years of independence (after 1964), becoming a teacher was an achievement because of the value society attached to teaching. Teaching was considered a noble career and educators invested in developing teaching and learning materials from local resources and taught with pride. Today, teaching is regarded as just another livelihood for those who fail to secure employment elsewhere.

IMF policies undermine quality education

The Zambian government has made significant investment in infrastructure, i.e., additional schools, classroom space, and so on, as well as progressive and affirmative policies such as ‘return to school’ policies. Nevertheless, access to quality education, especially in rural and among the poorest in peri-urban areas, still remains a challenge, mainly due to school fees. However, the new government’s declaration of free education from early childhood to secondary school level has, to some extent, increased school attendance at all levels, adding extra workload to already overstretched Zambian teachers. It is estimated that, after this declaration of free education, the pupil-teacher ratio, especially in rural schools, has increased to just above 110:1.

In terms of school budgets, school fees allowed management to raise additional funding. This income was, among other uses, given to help teachers who found themselves in difficult circumstance and therefore provided some level of motivation. During field research on wage bill constraints, it was noted that insufficient numbers of teachers, low salaries, and high pupil-teacher ratios affected the performance of teachers and, subsequently, the quality of education. It is reasonable to conclude that, given the current situation, Zambia may face challenges in attaining the SDG 4 indicators, especially those focusing on quality of education and learning outcomes.

As a result of the IMF advice to the Government, the ECE sub-sector has suffered the most in terms of the number of and quality of teachers. For example, in schools visited during field research, ECE activities were minimal. In addition, some schools had no teachers and children were being taught by volunteers, some of whom were not even qualified. Such teachers were often remunerated through community generated funding by local parent teachers’ committees. In some instances, these teachers would go without pay for as long as six months – and they were expected to provide quality instructions in to learners.

While it is reasonable to argue that IMF advice on the public wage bill has contributed to low teacher recruitment and motivation, the Government has significantly contributed to the situation through poor planning and inadequate use of public resources. The Auditor General has identified or highlighted gross misuses or misappropriation of public funds which could have been channelled towards teacher recruitment and motivation measures.

Teacher unions have intensified their lobbying for increased funding to the education sector to cover recruitment and improved conditions of service. They should also shift their attention to budget tracking and monitoring of government expenditure to ensure that allocated resources are prudently utilised and reach the intend targets. Otherwise, the future of the teaching profession is at risk and quality education could suffer irreparably.

The lack of qualified and motivated teachers has been identified as one of the biggest challenges to the attainment of SDG 4. The role of a teacher in the provision of quality education will, undoubtedly, play a major role if Zambia is likely to meet its SDG 4 targets by 2030.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.