Clarify policy on student loans

5

WE are grateful that the government has reversed its decision and granted loan-bursaries to all categories of deserving students wishing to receive tertiary education.

However, it is remains unclear whether this reversal is for this year only.

If it is, this is the time for the government and the ministry of finance to tell Basotho what their intentions are regarding funding of their children’s tertiary education from 2012 onwards.

In part, uncertainty emanates from the performance of the Minister of Education, on the one hand, and the Minister of Finance, on the other, when they announced the decision to reverse the decision to fund only a certain number of students.

The finance minister seemed to suggest that the government had done nothing wrong in denying loan-bursaries to some children.

On the other hand the education minister seemed to suggest the government’s policy was to provide bursaries to all Basotho children admitted at tertiary education institutions.

These two divergent positions need to be reconciled urgently and Basotho must be told which is which.

This lack of clarity and the finance ministry’s policy flip-flop will continue to play havoc on the hopes of parents and their children.

The reason for the contradictory utterances by ministers from the same cabinet, on a very important national policy matter, seems to be that cabinet and parliament exercise very little influence on the decisions of the ministry of finance.

Once the positions of the ministries of finance and education have been reconciled, the government must consult parliament.

More importantly, ministers must hold rallies throughout the country to consult the nation.

This is particularly important in a case where government decides to adopt the policy to deny funding to some students.

To their credit, the ministry of youth has adopted this practice — holding rallies to inform the youth and the public about changes in the law that will affect the youth and gender relations.

This is what needs to be done regarding decisions on the future of government’s funding of tertiary education in Lesotho.

If the ministries of finance and education do not announce any change now, very soon, in March 2011, parents will be expecting government to once again provide tertiary education bursaries to their children.

They should not be taken by unpleasant surprises at that point. If there is any change, or some reminder of change in policy that needs to be announced, let it be now.

However, such change must be supported by good reasons.

In the past, the government complained that not enough graduates repay their loans after completing tertiary education and that this impacted on its ability to fund more students.

There must be at least two reasons for the poor repayment rate.

First, the government has probably been incompetent in its efforts to recover debts from those who have completed their studies.

Clearly this is not good enough reason for the government to reduce budgetary allocations for bursaries.

It amounts to government punishing parents and students for its own failures.

Secondly, many graduates are unemployed and therefore cannot pay their loans.

This is also the government’s fault since failure to generate jobs can be blamed partly on bad government policies and partly on structural issues which, together with the dramatically falling Sacu receipts (another government’s explanation for budgetary cuts), bring us face to face with the debate about the future of our country and the welfare of its people.

If the ministry of finance decides that Basotho should pay for their children’s tertiary education, let them first conduct a needs assessment or ability-to-pay investigation to find out how many Basotho can pay tertiary education fees.

If the ministry proceeds with their “prioritisation” policy without these investigations, it is the children of the most economically vulnerable Basotho who are likely to be denied an opportunity to receive tertiary education.

At the very least, the “prioritisation” policy is short-sighted and presumptuous.

We are all entitled to our own definitions of what is priority but I would be dead wrong to deny deserving Basotho children tertiary education bursaries just because their choices do not fit my view of what is priority.

Acquisition of knowledge — any knowledge — is a right which the state must recognise, protect, and support.

Students choose study programmes basing on their interest, academic ability, career prospects, talents, etc.

They do not always make the “right” choices that fit anyone’s definition of priority, but all of them deserve state support.

Our country is led by a linguist, and it would be wrong to ascribe all his successes (and failures) to his tertiary and higher educational qualifications.

It is probably not true that we will address challenges facing this country by providing bursaries for acquisition of skills only in fields prioritised by the ministry of finance.

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