Student Loans: We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay

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The National Assembly passed a students’ loan bill in the second half of November. The bill, sponsored by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila purportedly seeks to ease access to public education by providing loans to students whose families’ annual incomes fall below N500,000.00 to pay tuition fees. Over 133 million Nigerians are in this income category.

Students who are eligible for this tuition loan are to apply to a National Education Bank, through their respective tertiary institutions. The federal government will then pay the tuition fees directly into the account of the applicant’s institution of learning.

Beneficiaries of this Students’ loan are to begin repayment two years after participating in the one-year National Youth Service Scheme.

While the speaker of the House of Reps argued the bill is in the interest of the students and the people of Nigeria, critical analysis of the loan bill reveals the contrary.

Aside from the fact that experiences from other countries have persistently shown how a student loan program has turned out to be synonymous with offering a poisoned chalice to the “beneficiaries” of such a program, we also note that this bill is a deliberate ploy by the irresponsible Nigerian state to distract the public from the real issues of education underfunding.

Against the background of many attempts to institutionalize the commercialization of public education in Nigeria, the government at different instances has developed various initiatives targeted at placing the burden of education funding on the shoulders of Nigerian students and their poor parents.

One of the most recent of such attempts is the Steve Oransaye Committee, inaugurated in 2012 by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

The committee recommended the introduction of a very high tuition, to the tune of N400,000 to N500,000 and N550,000 to N1,000,000 for students in the disciplines of arts, humanities, social science and the physical sciences, respectively, starting with the first-generation Universities.

The committee argued that tuition fees of such magnitude are necessary for our universities to stand a chance to compete minimally with the rest of the World. In short, the committee’s recommendation was that the federal (and state) government hands off education funding to students and their families to bear the burden of mobilizing the resources needed to fund tertiary education.

Upon emergence in 2015, the Buhari regime built on this neoliberal foundation of the Jonathan administration by inaugurating a 16-person committee headed by former University of Lagos Pro-Chancellor, Professor Wale Babalakin.

This committee, like Oransaye’s, proposed an astronomical increment in tuition, this time to the tune of one million naira. Besides very high tuition, Babalakin also argued for the establishment of an education bank that will grant loans to students to pay for this high tuition.

Commendably, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU rejected this recommendation, describing it as an attempt to hand over public universities to private interests.

We recall that in 2009, ASUU had once again made a case for increased funding of public education, starting with the immediate injection of N1.3 trillion into public universities. In the collective agreement it reached with the federal government in 2009 agreement, ASUU won a commitment from the federal government to pay these funds to the universities in three tranches.

But it took the union’s going on another 6-month strike action in 2013 to compel the government to release the first tranche of N220 billion in the latter part of 2014. The federal government has paid no further tranche to date. 

Meanwhile, the Nigerian state, which found it difficult to bail out public education with N1.3 trillion in 2009, had bailed out capitalists in the banking sector with a whopping sum of N3 trillion in 2007.

The student loan bill represents an institutionalization of education commercialization with an overall aim to effectively consolidate the ongoing neoliberal siege against public education in Nigeria.

 It is on record that in places like the United States of America, where this kind of policy operates, beneficiaries of such loans spend their entire adult life repaying loans. In fact, President Obama couldn’t complete his repayment until he became America’s President.

Millions of American citizens are living with heavy debts accrued from this sort of draconian policy, with 45 million Americans owing a combined sum of $1.7 trillion in student loans. The implications in Nigeria are bound to be much worse.

Besides the problem of mass unemployment and massive de-industrialization, the working people in Nigeria also struggle with increasing poverty. Over 133 million Nigerians are living in abject poverty.

Whereas the bill states that beneficiaries of this loan must begin repayment two years after completion of Youth Service, it fails to put into consideration the obvious reality that most Nigerian graduates cannot find jobs years after leaving school. And those with the initiative to start small businesses are not availed of an enabling environment for a thriving business.

It is rather unfortunate that of many education sector policies from other climes, Nigerian leaders have always opted for the ones that have proven to be monumental disasters.

It remains a wonder that the government has ignored examples of countries like Germany, Switzerland, Finland, and many Scandinavian countries that have a culture of making qualitative education universally accessible.

The problem we face is not that the Nigerian state is incapable of funding free and qualitative education. It is that Nigerian leaders are unwilling to commit to massive investment in public education.

Monies that should have been used to fund public education are looted or committed to white elephant projects. It is in this same country that MDAs could not account for a whopping sum of N 1.2 trillion.

We have seen how the accountant general of the federation stole N150billion. These are just a few of many cases of mindless looting in the country. This is besides unremitted taxes from big corporations running to several billions of dollars.

The passing of the Students Loan Bill by the Senate in November signals dangerous years ahead for working-class families and their wards who aspire to have tertiary education. It confirms our fears after the Academic Staff of Universities (ASUU) was made to end its strike, without the government making any significant concession.

We commend the education sector unions, especially the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU for rejecting this Greek gift, and insisting that the Nigerian government must abandon this distraction and genuinely commit to funding education.

It is very important to call public attention to the urgency of resisting the cruel attempt to place an unfair burden of external debts on the strained shoulders of over 133 million poor Nigerians, who are already finding it difficult to even afford to eat, with this Bill and its twin. 

It is imperative that the working class resists the further commodification of education that this Bill heralds. The trade unions should mobilize Nigerians from all walks of life, young and old, to campaign against the Bill. We must take a collective stand together to say NO to the Bill and stop it from securing presidential assent. It is a generational task that we must fulfill.

by Juwon SANYAOLU & Lekan A.S. SONEYE

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