The Effect of Tax Laws on Quality Education in Kenya

Although the government has introduced and implemented free primary education and free secondary education for children in public primary and day secondary schools, the costs for other education related essentials high. Going to school often comes with a large price tag in the form of explicit and hidden fees eg, on tuition, textbooks, uniforms, supplies and exam fees. This poses a major hindrance to access to education for children. Research shows that the average Kenyan households are paying various tuition fees or contributions to public (32 billion KES or $308 million) educational institutions. They also pay boarding and user fees in the amount of 17 billion KES ($164 million) and spend 24 billion KES ($231million) on the purchase of uniforms, school supplies, transport services or extra-tuition.[1]

The privatisation of education has also exponentially increased these costs. Considering the abandonment of the infrastructure in public schools and the low quality of education compared to private schools, many parents are more inclined take their children to private schools. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on the 4th of March 2016 published Concluding Observations (OHCHR, 2016) regarding the right to education and expressed its concern that: “the state party has not dedicated sufficient resources to finance school facilities and qualified teachers, to ensure effective enjoyment of the right to free primary education for all”. It further took issue with the fact that “inadequacies in the public schooling system have led to the proliferation of so-called ‘low-cost private schools’ and sub-standard schools funded by development aid which have led to segregation or discriminatory access to education particularly for disadvantaged and marginalised children, including children living in informal settlements and arid and semi-arid areas”.[2]

A research conducted by Action Aid between 2015 and 2017 shows that families are paying paying an average of Kshs. 1,655 ($16) per term per child in public schools and Kshs. 4,834 ($48) per term per child in private schools. According to the sampled respondents the most common school related fees charged in public schools were identified as examination fees, admission and uniform, and sports fees, in this order. In private primary school the charges included: examination fees, uniform and sports clothes, and admissions.[3]

Data from a 2015 household survey in Kenya (KNBS, 2015) shows that half of the households in Kenya earn KSh. 7,000 ($70) per month or less, so paying the average cost of education in public school for only one child would require 5.9% of the household income whereas it would require 17.3% of the household income to send them to private schools.[4] Interestingly, from the same research, 20.4% of respondents said financial constraints was the main factor for parents not sending their children to school (as they could not pay the school related fees (uniforms, feeding etc.)) and 14.6% of respondents said tuition fees were the main factor.[5] Eliminating hidden user fees would have a significant impact in reducing poverty and, to some extent, inequality in access to education.

A focus on Textbooks

Textbooks have always been at the very heart of the expenses to be incurred by parents when enrolling their children in school. At the beginning of every academic year, there is an outcry on the high prices of textbooks by parents. The implementation of the Competency-based Curriculum (CBC) has increased the burden on parents with children as young as Grade one being required to buy 10 or more books from specific publishers, reams of printing papers and encyclopaedias, among other stationery.[6]

Prior to September 2013, the government had zero -rated the supply of exercise books, dictionaries, encyclopaedias and other printed books. However, due to the desire by the government to expand the Value Added Tax (VAT) net, through the current VAT Act, 2013 it introduced VAT at the standard rate of 16 per cent on the supply of text books, exercise books and other printed books.[7] Consequently, the price of text books has been on the rise. Worse still, a further increase in the prices is inevitable in the 2023 academic year as early this year, the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) wrote to the Treasury and Ministry of Education seeking price adjustment. This is owing to the high costs of printing paper pursuant to the implementation by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) of the 25% import duty on printing paper from the previous 10% early this year.[8]

Comparative Study

Across Europe

Countries across Europe have incorporated various incentives with the ultimate goal of using tax policies to make learning a lifelong reality. Some countries adopt an approach of reduced VAT on books while others exempt books completely. In Austria while the normal VAT is books benefit from a reduced rate of 10%. A similar approach is seen in Netherlands, France, Germany, and Finland whereby books are subject to reduced VAT rates at 6%, 5.5%, 7%, and 8% respectively.[9] Fewer countries adopt a complete tax exemption approach. In Ireland for instance, the VAT rate for books is 0 %.


Closer home, with the exception of a few countries like Kenya and South Africa learning materials are not subject to VAT.[10] In countries like Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda among others, school books are completely exempt from VAT.[11] Kenya was among these until 2013 when it decided to take a step back in the opposite direction. This move has been highly frowned upon globally as studies show that in the first year alone, the sales of school books are estimated to have risen by about 40%.[12]


In February 27 1865, while considering a bill to amend the Internal Revenue Act to remove taxation on books Mr. Sumner (the then Senator from Massachussetts), stated that[13]: –

‘A tax on books is a tax on knowledge. It is a further boast for this country that we supply education for all at the public cost but books are indispensable in this benefaction. Every tax upon books, therefore, is an impediment to that education which is the pride of our country.’

Although, Kenya has made significant milestones towards achieving Vision 2030 in terms of introducing free primary and secondary education, the cost of school books and other learning materials is an impediment to the quality of such education. The 16% VAT on books results in discrimination among the poor and marginalised children in terms of access to quality

[1] Actionaid, ‘Tax,. Privatisation and the Right to Education: Influencing Education Financing and Tax Policy to Transform Children’s Lives’ (September 2017) < > (Accessed 25/5/2022)

[2] Ibid, 24

[3] Ibid, 33

[4] Ibid, 33

[5] Ibid, 33

[6] People Daily, ‘Spare Parents the Burden of Books KICD tells Schools’ (Accessed 26/5/2022)

[7] Jediel Kimathi, ‘VAT on Books is Hurting the Education Sector’ (16 December 2015) (Accessed 26/5/2022)

[8] Lynet Igadwah, ‘Publishers seek 12pc Textbooks Price Rise’ (16 February 2022) (Accessed 26/5/2022)

[9] European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, ‘Using Tax Incentives to Promote Education and Training’ (2009) Page 88 < > (Accessed 27/5/22)

[10] Dennis Abrams, ‘Kenyan Publishers Call for Zero VAT on Books’ (22/8/2016, Publishing Perspectives) (Accessed 27/5.2022)

[11] International Publishers Association and the Federation of European Publishers, ‘VAT on Books: The IPA-FEP Annual Global Report 2018’ (2018) Page 7 (Accessed 27/5/2022)

[12] Ibid, 4

[13] Lee and Shepherd Charles Sumner; his Complete Works Volume XII (1ST Ed, Outlook 2020) Page 122