‘NMDS needs govt, students support’

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IT has now become a norm of sorts for students of higher learning institutions to strike over late issuance allowances a few weeks into an academic year. This academic year, the strikes started at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) last week, forcing the institute’s Senate to suspend classes and call for a meeting with parents scheduled for Saturday.

Lerotholi Polytechnic (Fokothi) students followed suit on Thursday last week, resulting in the arrest of two students for vandalising property while two others were hospitalised. Limkokwing School of Creative Technology joined the party on Monday, putting more pressure on the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS). The NMDS is mandated with paying tuition fees, costs of research, book allowances, accommodation and food allowances among other costs for selected students.

In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) Reporter Pascalinah Kabi talks to NMDS Director Flory Rakeketsi on the mandate of the secretariat and efforts taken to ensure the strikes become a thing of the past.

LT: What is manpower?

Rakeketsi: Manpower, which NMDS, is the department of the Ministry of Development Planning mandated with overseeing the loan bursary fund and to ensure that the government of Lesotho puts money in the fund.

The fund was established in 1978 to fund Basotho’s education with the expectation that each learner who got assisted from this fund would pay back the money once they completed their studies and are employed as per their contractual obligations.

The purpose of repaying the money was to ensure that the fund is never short of money and that the repaid money would also be used to fund other aspiring students. Therefore, one of the primary mandates of this secretariat is to ensure that the money is paid back. However, the money loaned to Basotho students is not fully paid back as per the laws governing the fund.

Civil servants are mandated to pay back only 50 percent of the money they got; those working in the private sector or parastatals are demanded to pay 65 percent while those working outside the country must pay the full amount used to finance their education.

I must explain the repayment plans are different because the legal frameworks – Loan Bursary Regulations of 1978 and National Manpower Development Council Act of 1978 – dictate the payment plan for each student. The two legal frameworks are very outdated.

However, one would understand that the expectation of the fund was to empower Basotho with educational skills for the government and the country. Therefore, after completion beneficiaries must work for the government and Lesotho.

Readers will also understand that the government of Lesotho is responsible for educating its own people, hence we have both bursaries and loans; with the expectation that part of the money would be repaid. This is, however, not happening because beneficiaries are not expected to fully pay back the monies, except those working outside the country.

Secondly, a bigger number of beneficiaries are breaching their contractual obligations by not paying back the monies even though they are working while others are unemployed as high unemployment rates increase every year.

Overseeing this fund is a huge responsibility encompassed by facilitating and giving students loans, with contracts renewable every academic year. The renewal terms are that a student must have passed their final end-of-year examinations, clearly showing they are proceeding to the next academic year. The bursary fund does not finance a student repeating a year.

LT: Is there any criteria used to finance Basotho students, like giving those who are underprivileged a priority over those whose parents and guardians can afford to finance their education?

Rakeketsi: When institutions submit their first-year admission lists, there are applicable terms and conditions starting with a quota. For instance, the NUL quota could stand at 1 620 and it is expected that all these students come in the order of merit. As we speak, such an order is only based on academic performance.

So, the first student on the list should be topping the admission list followed by the second to the last person on the list. Even the ones on the waiting list are in order of their academic merits. That is the only criteria we are using to give people loan bursaries. You will realise that we are using a very outdated legal framework. We don’t do a background check; each Mosotho whether rich or not, is entitled for funding based on academic performance.

We are, however, reforming this department. As we speak, a consultant has been engaged and once they have completed their work, they will give recommendations and I hope it will address this issue.

LT: In an effort to ensure that the loan bursary fund evolves, the government engaged a consultant to collect the monies owed by defaulting beneficiaries. How far along is this?

Rakeketsi: After realising that the money was not being paid back as expected and that government was financially strained, it was realised that the secretariat did not have enough manpower to chase after the defaulters. It, therefore, engaged a consultant whose primary mandate was to specifically target those working outside the country because we are recovering the monies from those employed by the government.

It is easier to collect from civil servants because of proper coordination but it has always been a challenge to recover the monies from those working outside the country. The consultancy came to an end at the beginning of 2015 after the consultant failed dismally to collect monies from those working outside the country.

As we speak now, there is no one helping us with the recovery of the loans. It means all Basotho working outside the country are not repaying their loans as they should and we don’t have the means to chase them.

I believe the government will visit this matter and come up with options on how to move on from here. Right now, we can only appeal to all beneficiaries to repay the loans. The repayments will make a huge difference and ensure that the government spends less on funding tertiary education.

Most of the beneficiaries only start repaying the money when they want to further their studies and our recovery records show a better repayment trend during an application period.

LT: One of the strategies the secretariat used was to catch defaulters when their siblings applied for the loan bursary. What are some of the reasons for Basotho failing to repay the monies voluntarily?

Rakeketsi: I might not be able to answer this because I always ask myself that same question. However, I should state that siblings will no longer stand in the way of their brothers and sisters’ education.

We used to apply this strategy in the past but we realised that even legally, one’s sibling’s failure to repay the money should not influence a decision not to fund another. The defaulter is the one who signed the contract and no one should be punished for their sibling’s failure to repay the loans.

You own loan will prevent you from getting financed, not your siblings. Some parents have actually come to us and made a special arrangement to help repay the loans.

LT: It has become a tradition for tertiary students to embark on strikes over allowances at the beginning of every academic year. What is wrong?

Rakeketsi: Looking into history, the strikes were more prevalent in the beginning as compared to now. Government with all relevant ministries – Finance, Education, and Health – and other tertiary institutions met over this and realised that there was no proper hand-over processes while working on the bursary funds.

The hand-over problem was between the NMDS and the tertiary institutions. One must first appreciate that facilitating a loan bursary is a delicate process. The process of requesting funds, by the NMDS Council, can only happen after students have been admitted by higher learning institutions and for those students already on our database, we cannot renew their contracts unless we have their end-of-year results slips.

When the results slips are finally handed over to us, it becomes a challenge to process them on time because some students do not come on the scheduled dates because we can never administer allowances unless contracts are signed.

Now after the signing of contracts, we can only process the payments after we have a proof of registration from the schools to ensure that we do not fund fraudsters pretending to be students.

It was realised that submission of proof of registration took longer, and as we speak, none of these tertiary institutions have submitted a proof of registration. If we were to wait for it, no student would have received money from us.

So we opted for a special arrangement where the NMDS would advance the tertiary institutions monies for students’ accommodation, books and allowances for two months. Under this special arrangement, students are being given even monies for September. The schools administer the payments for August and September and we take over from October.

This arrangement was done in order to address the challenges of strikes but despite all these efforts, we are still unable to find a long-lasting solution because that hand-over process has not been entirely eliminated.

We have very limited time between issuance of results, contract renewals and reopening of schools and the unfortunate part is that all these institutions’ academic years begin at the same time.

You will also appreciate that not all results are submitted to us at the same time as some get straight passes while others must write supplementary tests. Some results we get two weeks before academic year. For instance, we had about 5 400 students from NUL in the last academic year, minus 1 600 first-year students and that means we have thousands of contracts to renew in two weeks.

Limkokwing, on the other hand, has about 3 000 students, Fokothi about 2 500 and other institutions which we do not give allowances but should renew contracts for tuition fees. That is where the challenge is. This year, we had a meeting with Student Representative Unions (SRCs) to see how best we can address this problem so they can explain this same process to students.

So what is causing problems now is that the lists are submitted in batches and for instance, the NUL students’ last contract renewal was two weeks ago. Students need to appreciate what really happens in the first two months for them to be able to get their monies.

For us to be able to win this, we need to ensure that all contracts are signed before the start of the academic year because the minute students step in the school campuses, they start demanding allowances.

LT: Is the NMDS working on a plan B to ensure that this situation is addressed and finally put to bed?

Rakeketsi: We hold meetings to discuss these challenges including the submission of admission lists from schools. This late submission of admission lists means that we are forced to deal with first-year students contracts at the same time we are doing contract renewal for seniors and this hampers progress.

Promises to submit lists on time have been made but this seems to be a serious challenge for us.

LT: What are some of the key challenges you feel the government should step in and help to address?

Rakeketsi: We are expected to do our job to our full capacity and even beyond expectation, yet since the establishment of NMDS we have been operating manually.

Secondly, when this loan bursary fund was established, the secretariat only offered services to a limited number of beneficiaries. But the numbers have drastically gone up, yet issues of labour capacity and equipment were never addressed.

The other challenge is poor loan bursary recovery, drastically causing fund degradation and with the increasing high unemployment rate, it is even worse.

There is an urgent need for better working relations between government ministries to ensure that all civil servants pay back their loans.

We also need to move towards offering online services and ensure that students do not come to our offices for every single service they might need. For example, students need to have access to their loans online and even use modern technology for inquiries so that we can respond without having them to travel to our offices.

To address these challenges, the government has already made arrangements to reform this department and ensure that old legal frameworks are amended.

As NMDS, we are here to serve Basotho and it is our desire to ensure that we give them the best services they deserve but we seem to be having challenges; with the key one being the issue of strikes which have become a tradition.

It is not our desire to see this happening and we are working tirelessly to find a long-lasting solution to this problem. We will get to the root cause of this and ensure that this becomes a thing of the past. Students should help us by observing set renewal dates and we are pleading with them to always come to our offices if things are not running smoothly. Unfortunately this year, no SRC of the institutions’ has approached us to discuss their concerns. Time is of the essence as we serve over 10 000 students.

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