Several developing countries have recently introduced policies supporting universal basic free education (UFBE). Experience suggests such policies often fail to increase access and quality of education, and illegal fees are widely prevalent. The literature identifies several reasons including the lack of replacement funding in place of fees and the loss of quality due to overcrowding and subsequent high drop-out rates. This paper, using evidence from Indonesia's experience, argues that the underlying problem is political. We suggest that fee-free education is an attainable goal, but only if pro-UFBE coalitions are empowered to influence policy, demand accountability and seek redress against illegal fees.