A systematic review of the evidence of the impact of eliminating school user fees in low-income developing countries

Systematic review, including link to the protocol


A systematic review of studies of interventions in low-income developing countries that evaluated the elimination of school user fees paid by households – including the five fee categories identified by the World Bank (tuition, uniforms, textbooks, PTA contributions, other materials/activities) was conducted.

Through extensive literature searches and contact with experts in the field, five rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental evaluations were identified, as well as 31 quantitative and qualitative studies that did not meet the criteria for inclusion in effect size estimates but which were examined to map the extent, types and quality of the evidence base in the topic area and to shed light on possible theory, implementation and context issues. Given the small number of studies that met the inclusion criteria and the variation amongst the studies, the results are provided in a narrative fashion, rather than through meta-analysis. Each of the five included interventions took place in sub-Saharan Africa. Three evaluations took place in Kenya, one in Uganda and one in Malawi.

The findings of this systematic review highlight the need for more rigorous empirical research to investigate the effects of various types of school fees elimination policies in low-income developing nations – particularly on the effectiveness of targeting policies to the most vulnerable groups – accompanying trade offs in education quality, and the extent to which fees abolition policies can be sustained over time without undue donor dependency. Research in this area is complicated by the fact that many countries have already implemented universal free school tuition policies for all primary children, so an appropriate control group is difficult to identify and include in an evaluation. One possible solution to this challenge may involve utilising an interrupted time series design involving a single group. In addition, because UPE policies often do not eliminate all household contributions to schooling, additional impact evaluations of nongovernmental or government-supported programmes targeting fees elimination for specific groups can shed more light on the true costs of education for households and the degree to which eliminating these costs can improve schooling and other outcomes for the most vulnerable groups. Longitudinal studies are needed to elucidate the longer-term impacts of fees elimination, including whether initial surges in enrolment are sustained over time and what the policies mean for future educational attainment, employment and other outcomes.

Research to determine the full household costs of education (including opportunity costs for boys and girls) for different socio-economic groups is key, as well as determining how much of the full cost of education households are willing and able to bear, given an acceptable level of education quality. Experimentation with different innovations, such as user fees on a sliding scale based on household ability to pay would be informative and could be researched empirically. Studies such as these can provide valuable information to countries that are considering abolishing school fees and can inform strategies for advance planning and targeting of reforms, including planning for efficient allocation of resources at the local level.

There is a protocol for this review


Morgan, C.; Petrosino, A.; Fronius, A. A systematic review of the evidence of the impact of eliminating school user fees in low-income developing countries. EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK (2012) 116 pp. ISBN 978-1-907345-30-2

A systematic review of the evidence of the impact of eliminating school user fees in low-income developing countries.

Published 1 January 2012