March 11, 2024

Students Loan: Inventing a problem where none exists, by Owei Lakemfa

Students Loan: Inventing a problem where none exists, by Owei Lakemfa

THE Students Loan scheme, planned to be floated in the next few weeks, is an ingenious creation of a problem that does not exist. I explained this as the Lead Discussant at the Federal University of Technology, FUTA, Branch of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, SSANU, Colloquium on Wednesday, March 6, 2024 in Akure. I had begun my submission by enquiring if a citizen has a fundamental right to be an illiterate. I did not think so, but argued that even if he does, the collective rights of society supersedes such an individual right.

I pointed out that it is in realisation of the indispensability of education to society, that Chapter Two of the Constitution directs that: “Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy and to this end, Government shall as and when practicable provide free, compulsory and universal primary education; free secondary education; free university education; and free adult literacy programme.”

So, if education is so fundamental to human existence, and if societies need an educated citizenry to run, why should it not invest in education? Why should the citizen take a loan to be educated?

I took the audience through the trajectory of the loan and my observations. The Students Loans (Access to Higher Education) Act 2023, was signed by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu on June 12, 2023, exactly 14 days after he came into office. This gives the impression that the bill was signed in a hurry. On the other hand, it might have been signed on trust since it was introduced by former House of Representatives Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, the Chief of Staff to the new administration.

The June 12 date was also Democracy Day, marking the commemoration of the June 12, 1993 annulment of the presidential election by the military regime led by General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. So, did President Tinubu, who played a role in the de-annulment struggle, see a correlation between democracy and the Students Loan Bill?

The title of the new law, ‘The Students Loans (Access to Higher Education) Act 2023’, gives the impression that it is meant to grant ‘Access to Higher Education’ in the country, which is not the case.

Nigerians access to tertiary education is limited primarily by available admission spaces. This led to the 1978 establishment of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB, to manage the admission process. So, the introduction of the loan scheme would not lead to increased admission slots.

Given the fact that, generally, tuition fees are not paid in public tertiary institutions, coupled with the reality that nearly all those who send their wards to tuition fee-paying private universities can afford to do so, it is curious why the Student Loan Scheme is being introduced. This is more so when Section 3 of the Act states that the loan is “only for payment of tuition fees”.

My conclusion was that the Tinubu administration intends to introduce tuition fees into public tertiary institutions through the backdoor. I also pointed out that the challenge students face in our tertiary institutions is primarily upkeep. More so with hyperinflation. But the Act forbids students from accessing the loan for anything other than payment of tuition fees that do not exist in public schools.

If the loan is for only tuition, how will indigent students feed and accommodate themselves in the campuses? How would they buy books and other materials for their studies? How would they carry out necessary research? So, I submitted that the interests of the students and the government do not coincide. Also, the Act disqualifies a loan applicant if “any of the parents had defaulted in respect of students loan or any loan granted the person”. This is like visiting the sins of the parents on the children.

Another aspect is that the new law grants beneficiaries a two-year post National Youth Service Corps moratorium before the repayment begins. Working beneficiaries who dodge repayment risk a N500, 000 fine or two-year jail or both fine and imprisonment.

I pointed out that given the reality of mass unemployment , many beneficiaries are likely to default as unemployed graduates will be unable to repay the loans. I pointed that in the United States, students loan has become like an albatross. The outstanding debts in 2021 stood at $1.7 trillion. Secondly, some youths are not getting married because of the burden of the students loan. The sociological implications of this include the promotion of depopulation, burden of single motherhood and increase in absentee fathers. Also, some American youths do not go to college because they want to avoid the loan trap. This partly informs why some developed countries are seeking professionals from the underdeveloped countries to run their system.

I concluded that the scheme may endanger the future of the students and, by extension, society. As alternative, I submitted that government should live up to its responsibility of funding education. This I pointed out it can do, amongst other ways, by restoring the scholarship and bursary awards to students which used to be provided by all tiers of government.

Professor Bayo Aborishade while also opposing the scheme, narrated his experience in the scheme in the country before it was abolished in the late 1970s.

“I took a students’ loan scheme in 1974.It was N400 per annum. I paid back to the last Kobo, but most students never paid back a Kobo. Many of them were children of rich Nigerians who had the means, but saw the scheme as free money. On the loans form, they filled fake guarantors, the state never checked, and the loans were never repaid.

“In my days, the loan was for upkeep. There was no tuition fee, nor is there tuition fee today. The intention of the government is quite obvious: that it is going to introduce tuition fees. But there are enough funds in Nigeria to fund education in a country where a single minister could within weeks of being in office, have access to billions of Naira. The politicians know how to take care of themselves. It is a class issue; if you don’t belong, you are finished.”

Dr Olawale Bello, concurred that government is trying to introduce tuition fees, adding that it has commenced the process by pushing the universities to increase sundry fees.

FUTA Vice Chancellor, Professor Adenike Oladiji, said government should not be judged by what people assume are its intentions. She is confident that the Act will be revisited in line with the intentions of government.

The FUTA SSSANU led by Comrade Felix Adunbi conferred ‘Labour Friendly Award’ on Ondo State Governor, Lucky Orimisan Aiyedatiwa, who was represented by Head of Service, Bayo Philip. The union also conferred the Labour Activist Award on me.