Afe for Vanguard

May 8, 2024

2024 Student Loans ACT: Discriminatory and unconstitutional, by Afe Babalola

Afe Babalola

IT was a great relief to many, including students, parents and lovers of education generally when the news broke that President Bola Tinubu signed the Student Loans (Access to  Higher Education) (Repeal and Re-enactment) Act 2024 into law. Those who have been following my antecedents know the very high premium that I put on education. Education is the catalyst to all round development through which one can overcome ignorance, tribalism and poverty. As far back as 2018, I had written series of articles urging the Federal Government of Nigeria to reestablish education bank.

By 1993, the Federal Government had established what was then known as Education Bank. The Education Bank was set-up to provide loans to students. The Bank was designed to replace the former students’ loan board. Regrettably the Bank failed woefully in the discharge of this functions leading to the decision of the Federal Executive Council in 2000 to set up a Ministerial Committee to wind up the Bank. The Committee itself was inaugurated on May 23, 2001. The Committee at the end of its assignment submitted a report, which contained certain recommendations to the government. It is from the resultant White Paper that one can understand just why laudable ideas just do not appear to work in Nigeria.

Firstly, it was revealed that the government which had put in place the legal frame work for the establishment of the Bank, which as stated above, required the composition of the Board of Directors, failed totally to put in place a board right from the inception of the Bank in 1993. This led to the decision of the government to wind it up in 2000.

Thus, the government was mainly responsible for the failure of the bank to carry out its statutory duties. In this respect, the White Paper stated as follows:

“The Edubank had no Governing Board since inception in 1993, so the Minister of Education acted in place of the Board throughout”.

It is, therefore, beyond dispute that government itself, by its failure to set up the Board, allowed the bank to fail. As provided in Section 8, the Board was supposed to carry out its several functions, including managing the affairs of the bank subject to the supervision of the Minister.

Last year the Student Loan (Access to Higher Education) Act 2023 was enacted to provide relief to Nigerian students.  The Students Loans (Access to Higher Education) (Repeal and Re-enactment) Act, 2024 is an Act that repeals the Student Loans (Access to Higher Education) Act 2023, and enacts the Student Loans (Access to Higher Education) Act 2024 to establish the Nigerian Education Loan Fund as a body corporate to receive, manage and invest funds to provide loans to Nigerians for higher education, vocational training and skills acquisition, and for related matters. 

Section 23 of the Act deals with eligibility of applicants and provides as follows:

(1)  An applicant for a loan under this Act must:

(a)  Be a citizen of Nigeria;

(b)  Have secured admission into any university, polytechnic, college of education school established by the Federal Government or State Government, or a vocational or skills acquisition school licensed by the Federal Government; and 

(c)  Shall apply in such from and such manner as prescribed by guidelines to be issued by the Board from time to time.

In other words, students in private universities are excluded from obtaining loans for education under this law. For avoidance of doubt, the interpretation Section (S.36) makes definitions that clearly exclude Nigerian students and citizens who have been validly admitted into private universities in Nigeria from enjoying the same rights as those admitted into “Federal Institutions”. 

It defines “institutions of higher learning” to mean: public universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and vocational schools approved by the Board. Then “loan” means loan to be granted to qualified students of Federal institutions of higher learning in Nigeria; and “Student” means an applicant who has a valid admission into a Federal Institution of Higher Learning.

I am of the firm view that student loans should be available to all students to pay for university tuition, books and living expenses. It is to me discriminatory and unjust to exclude students in private higher institutions from benefiting from the loan.

If my own university is used as a benchmark, it would reveal clearly that private universities are licensed, the courses of study are accredited, and admissions are offered to students from all the states of Nigeria and the FCT making them truly Federal in Character. 

Some pertinent questions:

a. Do the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and other relevant laws permit discrimination against persons who want to access tertiary education in Nigeria on any grounds?

b. In what way does a private university different from a “Federal” university as to justify this legislated discrimination? 

c. Would citizens who graduate from private universities not contribute to the development of Nigeria? This week, a student who studied Chinese in ABUAD and who is now a Director of a Chinese Company in Nigeria brought the Consul-General of China in Nigeria and 10 others to discuss vital issues of cooperation between Nigeria and China in Education, Science and Industry.

d. The Loan Act consists of two heads as stated in Section 27 of the Act which provides for loans to cover tuition and other fees payable to the school on the one part; and maintenance allowance payable to the student on the other part. What is the justification for excluding students of private universities from benefitting under both loan heads?

Experiences in Other Climes

In the United States of America, USA, to qualify for Federal student loans, there are fundamental eligibility requirements that must be met, including:

Be a US citizen or eligible non-citizen 

*Have a valid social security number 

*Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a student with an eligible degree or certificate programme, at least half-time 

*Maintain academic progress in college 

*Show you are qualified to obtain a college degree or career school education 

*Are not in default on existing federal student loans 

ANYONE attending school may apply for federal student loans, and so long as the maximum loan amounts are not yet met and eligibility requirements stay in place, federal student loans are still an option.

 In AUSTRALIA, for instance, student loans are generally restricted to Australian citizens, permanent humanitarian visa holders who usually reside in Australia, and New Zealand citizens who meet certain residency criteria. In addition to these categories of people, loan is also available to other permanent visa holders undertaking approved bridging study. 

 In ENGLAND, students of private universities and colleges have access to student loans. There is, however, a maximum loan amount which students can get for tuition fees at a privately-funded university or college per year. Some courses at privately-funded universities and colleges may cost more than this maximum. If a student chooses a course that costs more than this maximum, it is up to the student to pay any difference between the course tuition fees and the amount of tuition fee loan they get.

Students studying an eligible course at a privately-funded university or college can get the same support for living costs as any other student.

 In INDIA, to access the Special Vidya Loan

1. Applicant should be an Indian National

2. Applicant shall have secured admission to professional/technical courses through entrance test/selection process

3. Course and Institution should have necessary approval/recognition

4. Course certificate should be issued by University/Govt.Dept/ a body formed by enactment of Parliament

Vocational training and skill development study courses will not be eligible.

In SINGAPORE, the Tuition Fee Loan is available to Students who are studying full-time subsidised diploma courses in any of the polytechnics and students who are studying full-time subsidised undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the autonomous universities and Singapore citizen students who are studying part-time subsidized undergraduate programmes in the autonomous universities.

It is a painful truism that our economy has not been as healthy as expected. It is therefore no small wonder that Nigeria has not been able to commit 26 per cent of its resources to education as recommended by UNESCO. As a matter of fact, more of the country’s resources have been committed to defence because of the prevailing insecurity in the country as a result of which education is unduly suffering an underserved under-funding. There is endemic and grinding poverty all over the country and this is largely because the government spends a lot on other areas and particularly as Nigeria depends on oil as its sole source of income. For example, there are really not enough industries and so there are reduced opportunities for employment and it is industries that should employ most students coming out of universities and not the government.

The students of private universities are not immune from the harsh economic realities of Nigeria. Indeed, many students of private universities and their parents or sponsors do actually borrow monies from banks, employers, co-operatives, and money lenders to finance undergraduate and graduate study.