Will new policy shift keep students loan scheme afloat?

That Rwanda’s education loan scheme is a novelty cannot be downplayed. That it was designed to help students get access to university education is also a fact. But nothing is ever taken for granted...
Graduates during a recent ceremony. The government intends to ‘revamp’ the students’ loan scheme. The New Times/ File
Graduates during a recent ceremony. The government intends to ‘revamp’ the students’ loan scheme. The New Times/ File

That Rwanda’s education loan scheme is a novelty cannot be downplayed. That it was designed to help students get access to university education is also a fact. But nothing is ever taken for granted...

Official figures indicate that the average amount spent by government under the old scheme is Rwf26bn for 7154 students. 

By and large, the scheme is delivering its mission and has indeed been pro-students as designed. But one cannot deny the fact that many Rwandans who are increasingly studying in private universities today pay their own tuition.

The scheme is being confronted with a number of challenges, which government needs to act fast to address. Some of the challenges relate to financial sustainability of the scheme and attitude problem.

Statistics show that only 17 per cent of loan beneficiaries have paid back from 1980-2012. But government projects that 80 per cent of loan beneficiaries will pay back by 2022/23. The grants scheme is expected to be self-sustaining by 2023.

If changes announced by the Ministry of Education (Mineduc), last week, take effect as planned in September, about 75 per cent of varsity students on government sponsorship will pay half of their tuition fees and meet their own living costs.

The students come from families that have been classified in categories 3 and 4 of the poverty level barometer Ubudehe and only half of their tuition fees will be paid for by the government in study loans.

Policy shift

The government says the new students’ financing scheme is a policy shift that Rwandans should understand as critical towards sustainability.

Mineduc officials say the 100 per cent of total tuition and living allowances that government pays for students will be a “loan fully repayable” by the beneficiary and will be channelled through a bank to ensure easier recovery in the future.

Under the current government loan scheme, only 25 per cent and 50 per cent of the funds was a loan portion repayable for sciences and non-science students, respectively, the rest being a grant.

The government has cancelled tuition fees loans for students in category five and six of poverty level barometer, Ubudehe, and scrapped eligibility for living allowance for the students, except the poorest in category one and two of Ubudehe.

These changes will take effect come the next academic year 2013/2014 and will also affect continuing students.

The government says the changes are part of a larger philosophy to make parents more responsible for their children’s higher education and leave the government with the main responsibility for the 12-year basic education.

Education minister Vincent Biruta told journalists while announcing the changes, last week, that Rwandans will have to understand they will have to pay more for higher education, because post-secondary education is an extra personal investment in themselves for future careers.

“We can’t continue to consider university as basic education that is accessible for every Rwandan. We have to change this mentality,” Dr Biruta said. “We should appreciate that not all students have to join public universities because it’s not happening. Many Rwandans who are increasingly studying in private universities pay for themselves and they are not necessarily better off financially than those studying in public universities.”

About 60 per cent of Rwandans pursuing post-secondary education are in private institutions of higher learning and pay their own fees, Mineduc officials estimate.

As citizens join hand to seek solutions to the financial sustainability of tertiary education, nothing is expected in return other than quality. Never the less, some Rwandans think some beneficiaries may not afford to take their children through university with the current shift.

“You may find someone in category four of Ubudehe, who can’t afford to pay even Rwf100,000,” said Medard Runyange, a former lecturer and Dean of Students at the National University of Rwanda.

Under the proposed classifications for eligibility, 75 per cent of students on the next government tuition loan scheme will need to part with Rwf415,000 from their own pocket to pay the rest of Rwf830,000 in annual tuition fees, and about Rwf250,000 to cater for their living costs.

Runyange says it was challenging for some varsity students when government first introduced cost-sharing in its policy to sponsor students a few years ago.

He said Ubudehe classification method of comparing poor people [with other poor people] has created a large margin of error and many people in category three and four may still be too poor to afford the fees required for their children to attend a public university.

“I don’t think peasants who are just farmers should be in these categories [three and four],” he said, adding that the classification should only include business people and professionals.

Frank Barigye, a student at the National University of Rwanda, who is in charge of students’ social affairs, said students may not mind having to pay 100 per cent of the loan after graduation, but cutting their living allowance poses a challenge.

“Students use the allowance for most of their daily basic needs starting from meals, photocopying notes, and buying any other things. But things will be very difficult if the allowance money is cut,” Barigye said.

The Chairperson of Transparency Rwanda, Marie Immaculée Ingabire, said government should pick a smaller number of students that it would be able to loan funds for both living costs and tuition fees.

The rights activist also suggested that the use of Ubudehe to measure poverty levels is ineffective, saying  government should allow a grace period of at least three years before implementing the changes.

“Rwandans need to accustom with the change, but government should also allow them time to prepare,” Ingabire said.

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