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Chasing student loans

By Julius Businge & Nicole Namubiru

This year’s university hopefuls are torn between hope and despair

Fortunate Natukunda should be celebrating her luck. She has just passed her pre-university entry exams; a rare feat in her rural village in Isingiro district in western Uganda. Her achievement is even more momentous because she is a science student; the coveted academic path being promoted by President Yoweri Museveni’s government, especially for girls. Only an estimated 23,000 – about 20% – of the 115,380 students who sat the A’level exams studied sciences.

Of these, only about 10,000 passed. Natukunda was one of the few girls who passed.  Her success is partly a result of her parents’ determination. As soon as results showed she had passed her lower secondary school exams at the nearby Aisha Girl’s School in Isingiro district, they decided she needed to attend a better school to improve her chances of passing. They settled on St. Mary’s College Rushuruza in nearby Kabale district.

Natukunda studied biology, chemistry, agriculture, and sub-math and when the results were announced in March, she had obtained 8 points out of a total of 19 points. Under a government affirmative action programme for girls, she gets an additional 1.5 points. Still, although her performance was quite good for her rural school, it was not enough to guarantee her a government scholarship.

But with her passes in two principle subjects, she qualifies for any university, and has already secured admission to Uganda Christian University in Kampala to study for a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science and Entrepreneurship. Only one hurdle remains; she must find the fees.

High tuition

Natukunda is one of many needy students who cannot afford tuition of between Shs 600, 000- Shs2.2 million for a course at university in addition to accommodation and other costs.

The 2009 Uganda National Household Survey (UNHS) that covered 80 districts and 6800 households found that only 6% of respondents had post-secondary education. This is largely because of cost and lack of opportunities.  Her father, a smallholder farmer, and shopkeeper mother, have another seven children they are struggling to push through lower, upper primary, and secondary school.  Natukunda recalls vividly how they struggled to raise Shs480, 000 which she paid per term during her ‘O’ Level and Shs790, 000 for her ‘A’ Level per term.

“I was always defaulting on my fees payment,” she says.

Now, Natukunda knows, they will not be able to pay the University fees which are higher. She needs about Shs7 million per year for tuition alone. But she also needs about Shs2 million per year for hostel fees, and more money for meals and upkeep. So she is praying she gets the newly introduced student loan and has already applied to the Higher Education Students’ Financing Board (HESFB).

“If I get the slot, I will thank God,” she says, “The burden on my parents will reduce.”

Loan scheme jitters

The official in charge of the student loans is HESFB Executive Director Michael Wanyama. A warm and welcoming man with an easy smile, Wanyama oozes optimism about the chances of students like Natukunda getting loans this academic year which starts in September.

“I am highly optimistic the scheme will be successful,” he beams when we meet him at his office in Lourdel Towers in the upmarket Nakasero area of Kampala city.

Wanyama says the success of the scheme will depend on three main factors: the presence of the legal framework, the institutional framework, and sufficient funds to support the scheme.  “All these are in place,” he told us, “what we need is your support and the support of all Ugandans.”

Wanyama is referring to the Higher Education Students Financing Bill, 2013 passed in December last year.

But in our interview, he refused to say how many students have applied so far. That is ominous because such opaqueness in government projects has in the past led to allegations of corruption and favouritism.  Even Wanyama’s optimism appears to be grounded in his wishes rather than in reality.  A few days after we spoke, his boss, the Minister of Education, Jessica Alupo, was sent away empty handed when she sought parliamentary approval for the Shs6 billion required to kick-start the project.

The MPs on the Education Committee wanted her to explain how Shs6 billion that was released to her ministry for the same purpose was spent. Initially, Alupo told the MPs that Shs5 billion was spent on the current admission of students who applied for the loans. The deadline is August 15. But then the ministry permanent secretary, Doreen Katusiime, told the MPs that some of the money had been diverted to other “pressing needs” of the ministry and an unspent balance sent back to the government account. Both actions are irregular and appear contradictory to the objectives of the loan scheme. So the MPs asked the minister to return to the committee with a clear explanation.  Such unpreparedness has in the past led to failure of the student loan scheme, which was first mooted about a decade ago. The idea received a boost when it was noted in President Yoweri Museveni’s 2011 election campaign manifesto.

Loan scheme politics

NRM government enthusiasts like Usher Wilson Owere, the chairman general of the National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU), have since sought to exploit the loan scheme for political advantage.

“The government has many priorities for its small resource envelope,” Owere told The Independent, “but the student loan scheme shows you that government is valuing education as the key to socio-economic transformation of this country.”

Through the scheme, the government seeks to support highly qualified Ugandan students who may not afford higher education. This could ensure regional balance in access to higher education services and support courses critical to national development.  Higher education in Uganda was originally free with the government paying for tuition and living allowance. But the growth of student numbers has meant that the government can no longer afford to pay tuition and personal needs for all the students that qualify to join tertiary/ higher institutions.

Today, the government pays tuition in public universities for a limited number of about 4000 best performers. Another batch of students gets support directly from President Museveni under the State House scholarship programmes. However, this has been criticised for lack of eligibility criteria, opaque processes, and appearing to favour only politically connected individuals.

Under pressure, Museveni has said he is scrapping it and moving all benefits to the Student Loan Scheme.

This scheme, whenever it starts, is envisaged to have 1000 pioneer students offering science courses in public and private accredited universities; Makerere, Kyambogo, Mbarara University, Gulu University, Busitema, Muni, Kampala International,  Nkumba, Bugema, Ndejje, Uganda Christian, and Islamic (IUIU).

At full implementation the scheme will support students basing on the 3:2 ratio; with 3 representing science courses and 2 representing non-science courses.

Selection process

Uganda is not alone in grappling with the rising cost of university education. Student loan schemes exist in many countries including Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. Without a doubt, if implemented, the Loan Scheme will ensure that many students get university education.  However, even experts in the education sector, including Maria Goretti Nakabugo, the country coordinator of Uwezo; an NGO that monitor academic performance, have unanswered queries.  How are the 1000 students going to be selected?  Where are they going to work? How about its implementation?

Nakabugo fears that if the beneficiaries successfully graduate but fail to get jobs and repay the loan, tax payers’ money will be lost.

“With the current high unemployment levels in the country, I can’t be sure about the sustainability of the scheme,” she said.

She adds that government has to ensure it remits the money to participating universities in time so as not to put pressure on money paid by private students as it is the case in most universities today.

Other observers say starting with only 1,000 students is not worthy celebrating given that thousands of students leave ‘A’ level every year. It also means the scheme will be too competitive.

The Shs6 billion is budgeted to cater for both the loans and the day-to-day running of the board. Each students will get Shs4 million two-semester per year, barely enough to cover fees for one semester. The money is meant to cater for the basics; tuition, functional fees, and research. The students must still find money for other costs.  In the future, the government plans to increase the budget to Shs 16 billion and the number of beneficiaries to at least 5,000 students.

Lawrence Bategeka, an economist and former lecturer at Makerere University says 60% of graduates in Uganda today fail to get jobs. But he is more concerned that giving loans to only science student will, in fact, favour the rich.

“Most students who qualify for science courses usually come from rich families and top notch schools, he says, “There is a mismatch there.”

Then he adds:  “I don’t see any worked out mechanism to implement the scheme. It is likely to be a handout.”

Bategeka would have preferred the government to partner with commercial banks in implementing the scheme.

“They [banks] have the experience in that area of financing,” he says, “There can be a line of credit designed to meet the objectives of the scheme.”

Amidst all the uncertainty, Wanyama’s optimism remains unfazed.

He concedes that there might be no automatic jobs in government agencies or ministries for the beneficiaries of the scheme, but he says beneficiaries will be given ample time to repay the loan. “You cannot be unemployed permanently,” Wanyama says philosophically.

Employed beneficiaries will surrender 30% of their earnings until the loan is cleared.  “We are emphasising early repayment,” Wanyama says.

The official repayment period is double the number of years spent on the course. Interest on the loans will also be pegged on annual inflation trends but not exceeding 10%.

He says all beneficiaries will be listed in the Credit Reference Bureau to ensure they do not access any loan facilities from any financial institutions until they clear the loan. The Loan Scheme will also coordinate with existing departments like the private workers savings fund, NSSF, and the National Security Information System/National ID Project to track information on the students after their graduation.

Interested students pick an application form from any participating university, Centenary Bank or from the HESFB website, fill it and then return it to the bank with Shs 20, 000 and wait for a call from the HESFB.

Wanyama says students will be selected from families with financial challenges.

To carefully select the students to benefit from the scheme, the board will for a period of 21 days verify the information submitted by the applicant basing on their education back ground, parents’ occupation, the household burden, cases of orphanage, and income of the family among other factors.

The board will liaise with local authorities to verify the information submitted to the board by the applicant.

Names of successful student loan applicants will be published in all print media so the public can help in scrutinising them, Wanyama says.   Natukunda is praying she will be on that list.

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