The Student Loan Bill is Not the Answer to Nigeria’s Tertiary Education Woes

Last week, the Red Chamber of Nigeria’s National Assembly passed the student loan bill. The Bill titled  ‘Bill for an Act to provide for easy access to higher education for Nigerians through interest-free loans from the Nigerian Education Bank’ is designed to ‘provide education for all Nigerians and for other purposes.’ The bill was sponsored by Femi Gbajabiamala, the Speaker of the House of Representatives where it had earlier been passed. It has now been transmitted to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.

According to the publicly available details, the bill is seeking the establishment of the Nigerian Education bank. This bank shall have the power to supervise, coordinate, administer and monitor the management of student loans in Nigeria. It shall also have the power to receive applications for student loans through higher institutions in Nigeria, applying on behalf of the applicants. Lastly, the bank shall reserve the power to screen applications and ensure that all the requirements for the grant of the loan under the Acts are satisfied.

Furthermore, the banks shall have the powers to approve and disburse the loan to qualified applicants; control, monitor and coordinate the students’ loan account; fund and ensure compliance in respect of disbursement. Post-approval powers include monitoring the academic records of grantees to obtain information on their year of graduation, national service, and employment. This – according to the house – would be to ensure that grantees of the loan commence repayment of the loan as at when due, among other functions.

The bill also provides that, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, contained in other enactments, all students seeking higher education in any public institution of higher learning in Nigeria, shall have an equal right to access the loan under this Act, without any discrimination by gender, religion, tribe, position or disability of any kind.

This however begs the question, will this bill truly answer the problems confronting the country’s tertiary education sector? We don’t think so.

To start with, the introduction of a student loan scheme does not present a clear pathway to answering any of the fundamental questions or solving any of the unending problems facing higher education in the country. Poor infrastructure, underfunded laboratories, unpaid salaries, and inadequate research grants. This list is endless, and nothing – neither in the presentation of the bill nor in the argument in its support – draws a direct line between its introduction and solving these problems. However, as students of history, we understand that in most cases, policies like this precede the introduction of tuition fees which do not exist in tertiary institutions in the country. The likelihood of this leads to our next argument that this is a line that the Federal government must not tow. At least, not now.

According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, 133 million Nigerians, representing 63 percent of its population, are currently in poverty. Considering this statistic, the implication of introducing this policy will be the direct shutting out of the majority of young Nigerians from tertiary education – an avenue, which is supposed to be their flight ticket to economic independence. The government might argue that the student loan bill will bridge this accessibility gap and enable students to repay upon graduation. That’s laughable, at the very least. With an employment rate of 33.3 percent, the country does not have enough employment opportunities to engage new University graduates. Essentially, this means that poor Nigerians will be borrowing their way into abject poverty.

A fundamental mistake the Nigerian government is making is that in its bid to reintroduce tuition fees is overlooking the reality that policies – especially ones with far-reaching consequences like this – must be made in line with the prevailing circumstances and realities in the country. Majority of the developed countries that the Nigerian government references have different realities from ours and as such should not define our own policies.

Rather than make poorly-planned moves that will be a bane to education in the country, the government should direct its energy toward improving its investment and attracting newer ones into the sector. Take for instance, the Nigerian government has never come close to meeting the UNESCO recommendation of having at least 15-20 percent of a country’s budget earmarked for education. In the last five years, a meager 6-8 percent of the budget has been allocated for education annually. In fact, the 335.4 billion naira that the government allocated to all 44 federal universities last year represents just a third of the Lagos state budget for the same year.

By regarding education as a means to long-term economic growth rather than an end, the government will realize that it must, as a matter of urgency, geometrically improve its investment in the sector. The tune of there’s no money to spend that they play is not tenable; any country whose lawmakers are among the highest paid in the world has the locus standi to meet this requirement.

The government should cut the over-bloated cost of governance and redirect the extra funds into the education sector. The government, currently ranked one of the most corrupt in the world, should also begin to block the loopholes that allow state funds to find their way into the pockets of state officials. By doing this, funds allocated to the different sectors, education, in this case, can serve their purpose effectively.

In the same vein, the Nigerian elite, especially politicians must not be allowed to continue evading the circumstances of learning at home. To put this into perspective, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that Nigerian elites enroll their own children in foreign universities and contribute more than £30 million GBP to the education sector of the United Kingdom alone. This is a travesty, and it must not be allowed to continue. The Nigerian government should be concerned about how to design deliberate plans to make the sector more efficient so that this level of returns on education will go into the pulse of Nigerian universities.

The government must also prioritize the welfare of lecturers who are the building blocks of successful nations. For context, the salary of university lecturers’ in the country ranges between 95,000 naira ($228) and 332,000 naira ($800), with 416,000 naira ($1,000) being the maximum pay for a professor. This is far from being an appropriate sum for an educated professional’s salary; these sums aren’t sufficient to maintain a household. The base salary of a Nigerian salary, according to a 2018 BBC report is around $400, 000. Compared to the typical Professor’s annual salary, which is about $3,600 – $10,00, everyone can begin to see why it’s very wrong. No serious nation treats its intellectuals this way!

Summarily, while the intent behind these policies may be good, it does not appear well thought out. Rather than avoid the prevalent questions and beat around the bush, lawmakers and policymakers should direct their intellectual energy towards solving fundamental prevalent issues. Policies that can trigger systemic adjustments or overhauls are necessary to set the background, even if policies like student loans will be implemented. Wisdom – as they say – is profitable to direct. For the sake of posterity, policies – as much as possible – should not be made without regard for nuance. We do not want to worsen the situation rather than Ameliorate it.

Aluta Continua!

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