Should Christian Universities be Free?

In Nigeria, there’s a belief floating around, that education from Christian private universities should be heavily subsidised or free. The reasoning is, because the schools were presumably built from the tithes and offerings of church members, they should at least be accessible to those members.

I cannot categorically state whether all Christian schools were built from the offerings of church members, as I am not privy to their books. Some churches claim to have financed their schools through standalone charitable foundations, with a starting grant from the mother churches. However, even if a school were built from offerings, it would be difficult to sustain it thereafter. Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, Columbia (or any of the top Ivy League schools founded by Christian platforms), have evolved. Today, they have built massive endowments, while still charging premium fees. Basic education may be free in a country of 200 million, but tertiary education seems to run on another economic model entirely.

I salute the historical contributions of Missionary Schools to Nigeria, but I recognise that many of them are no longer free. We should investigate what changed and also query the failing business model of Nigeria’s ineffective public schools. We should ask why a larger percentage of our education budget goes to public schools which serve the Nigerian minority. Even in those schools, the bulk of funding goes to salaries and not infrastructure or content.

We should examine the best globally run public schools and cross-reference their country population figures. Could it be that those nations can afford free tertiary education, because their citizens are relatively few and their GDP per capita is high?

Fundamental principles of economics tell me that as quality increases, price tends to do so as well. To provide qualitative free education, the institution must not only bear the sunk cost of infrastructure, but the recurrent cost of salaries. Great teachers are rare in Nigeria. Teaching standards have fallen across board for years, as evidenced by reports from the Federal Ministry of Education. Hence, economic laws of scarcity have kicked in. Educationists will tell you it is teachers and curriculum that define quality education, and not infrastructure. Tithes and offerings may pay for initial set up costs. But, who pays for maintenance and recurrent expenditure thereafter? Switzerland, a nation with the world’s highest paid teachers as at the time of writing ($68,000 per annum), has a population that’s 0.0000044% of Nigeria’s. Their GINI Coefficient (the gap between the rich and the poor) is 0.4. Ours is 49. In Nigeria, government is the biggest spender in the economy and its primary income comes from one source, oil. Government cannot afford to pay salaries, talk less of fund education sustainably, yet we miraculously expect offerings and tithes to do so.

As to whether church members should pay to attend schools founded by their home churches… It’s instructive that while military schools in Nigeria subsidise tuition for children of servicemen, civilians pay full fees. Would it be fair to adopt a similar model for Christian schools – charge non-Christians, while subsidising those whose parents pay tithe and insist they deserve a free pass? Would this not go against the Christian value of charity?

I think what is required in the education sector, is innovative economic models that ensure all are educated. Not impassioned pleas for religious institutions to look only to the welfare of their members, because they pay tithes.

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