NMDS must find reasons why former students are defaulting

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By Ma’eka Makôkô

I READ with shock a story in the Lesotho Times recently that the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) is planning to chase all those who have not repaid their student loans since 1978.

The story, published on November 10-17, 2011 said the net was closing in on thousands of Basotho who have not repaid their educational loans to the government.

In a country teeming with unemployment this came as a major shock.

From where are the so-called loan dodgers expected to raise the cash to pay?

But then the NMDS is determined to collect the monies and is even planning to make use of debt collectors in that regard.

First, we need to put issues in their perspective.

The bursary scheme was a fund that was set up to help Basotho be a better people, educated and enlightened.

This was a positive undertaking which has been in operation since 1978.

Successive governments in Lesotho all accepted responsibility to train and make Basotho useful for their country.

The idea was that the government would help you so that you could also later help your people.

However, the NMDS should have considered the extent to which the fund would go.

The number of years and numbers of people they would eventually sponsor should also have been carefully planned.

The people trained in the country should have been defined by the needs of the country.

Such individuals would logically be empowered with relevant skills that would help make them useful members of society after their programmes.

With jobs this would have made it easy for them to pay back.

The secretariat itself would then monitor with keen interest to see which skills and knowledge fields the country needed and train or recommend training for such.

The number of people trained each year should have been defined by the recommendations of the secretariat and not by how many candidates had applied for sponsorship from the government.

If this framework was put in place, all those who received sponsorship would have been easy to trace back then when the bursary scheme started and none of this huge backlog should have been there.

Based on the number of students the NMDS sponsors at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) alone it is easy to see why the fund would run dry.

If those who received sponsorship are not working it is clear that there would be a very huge number of loan defaulters.

I am certain that no one in their right frame of mind would request a loan bursary and deliberately go out to cheat the system by ducking payment.

I am confident that those who received the loans would want to give others an opportunity to benefit as well.

But the question the NMDS needs to ask itself is why so many have defaulted?

The answer lies in the huge unemployment levels in Lesotho.

Even those lucky enough to get a job do not earn enough to support their families, let alone think of paying a debt to the NMDS.

Most of those who got the loans have disappeared into the informal sector where they do anything to eke a living.

When students signed the loan agreements there was no provision of a grace period allowing them to start repaying the monies as soon as they got proper jobs.

If it had been made clear to them that they would still be required to repay the loans regardless of whether they had secured quality jobs or not, I am sure many would have opted not to get the sponsorship.

Many students only agreed to be sponsored because they had grand hopes that they would get quality jobs after their training that would pay them enough to enable them to repay the loans.

But we have been training thousands of Basotho to roam the streets with no jobs.

Lesotho has been dishing out loans without putting in place strategies to create jobs to cater for the graduates.

But in spite of these concerns the NMDS appears determined to squeeze money from unemployed former students.

They want to do so without first assessing whether the former students are now gainfully employed or not and whether they are able to pay or not.

The first step should have been a survey to ascertain the reasons why the students defaulted in the first place.

I suggest the NMDS sits down with former students who benefited from the scheme, discuss issues before setting up debt collectors on the hapless “unemployed graduates”.

The debt collection process is unnecessarily expensive for both parties concerned.

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