Dar es Salaam/Dodoma. Students hoping to benefit from cheap state loans to finance their university education may now seriously need to consider alternatives as chances of accessing the funds keep shrinking every year, thanks to budgetary constraints and an apparent shift in government priorities.
Undergraduates are likely to be hit the most as the Higher Education Students Loans Board (HESLB) seeks to invest more in diploma students in a fresh bid to create and empower a middle class seen as key to the fifth phase government’s ambitious industrialisation drive.
The Citizen has learnt that government efforts to increase the number of loan beneficiaries to 124,711 last year have been dealt a major blow by a significant surge on the list of those missing out on state education financing, the worst case in the past five years.
At the same time, the number of students applying for the loans, famously known on campuses as ‘boom’, has over the years increasingly surpassed the Tanzania Universities Commission (TCU) annual admission figures.
By and large, it is a sign of growing desperation for state assistance by needy Tanzanians who are seeking tertiary education.
According to an analysis by The Citizen of data from HESLB over a five-year period, by March 31 this year, two out of three students who applied for the loan in 2016/17 missed it, the highest figure to be recorded so far.
But the government says the funds are for needy Tanzanian students only; therefore, it is not given that everyone who applies for the loans gets them. The government insists that education financing is exclusively the responsibility of parents and guardians.
Apparently, the seemingly downward trend in state education financing has forced a significant of students from poor backgrounds to drop out or postpone their studies as they look for other sources of funds.
And an investigation by The Citizen in selected big universities has revealed that those who decided to defy the odds and continue with their studies without a reliable, consistent source of financing are living in dire straits. Some students have been reduced to campus ‘beggars’ depending on their colleagues for food and other basic needs. Stories of young campus girls forced into prostitution have also become common.
Story behind the figures
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology says the current situation is a direct result of the increase in the number of universities and colleges, and the now easy access to tertiary education.
HESLB is overwhelmed by the surge in university enrollment to the extent that it is also increasingly failing to meet the loan demand, even among the needy students who are the intended beneficiaries.
Up to 2012/13, the number of students accessing loans increased almost every year, with an average of three out of 10 applicants missing out. That has since changed.
In 2014/15, the number of those who missed out rose to half.
There was a ray of hope in November 2015 when the then-in-coming President John Magufulu’s administration increased the number of first-year loan beneficiaries to fulfill a campaign pledge that no needy student would be denied a loan under his leadership.
Dr Magufuli’s decision, which HESLB executive director Abdul-razaq Badru said was also meant to increase the number of teachers in line with the free education policy, reduced the number of applicants who missed loans from 51 per cent in 2014/15 to 32 per cent of the applicants.
The fifth phase government set a record in its first year when the number of first-year students who got HESLB loans almost doubled from 29,731 in the previous year to 54,072 in 2015/16.
But that is likely to be overshadowed by the new realities as it emerges that the number of loan beneficiaries sharply dropped in the 2016/17 academic year from 54,072 last year to 28,354 by March 31, this year. Three months are left to the end of the academic year.
According to HESLB, 83,255 students applied for loans, almost twice the number of 2012/13 applicants. Going by this figure, for every 10 students who applied for the loan this financial year, seven got negative responses.
Even if The Citizen analysis was done using TCU admission data in 2016/17, as suggested by Mr Badru, it is still dark and gloom because it translates to 41,185 students missing the loans. This also translates to six out of 10 students admitted to various universities missing the loans. By April 20 this year, TCU says 69,539 first year students had been admitted for studies in this academic year.
And in all the five years under review, it has emerged that the number of first year students admitted to universities and colleges through TCU was less than those who applied for HESLB loans.
The Citizen has learnt that limited government resources, competing priorities and the absence of alternative sources of education financing have put a damper on the dreams of many poor families looking to university and college as a way out of poverty.
Currently, HESLB is the main source of education financing for the majority university students in the country. A few others are under scholarships and pension fund education schemes.
Among those highly affected by the changes are students who attended private schools at secondary levels. These have suddenly found themselves locked out by the HESLB system.
Ms Zakia Hussein was forced to quit her studies after she got a place to study for a bachelor of arts degree in education at the University of Dodoma (Udom) but could not access a government loan since she did her A-levels at a private school.
“Initially, I thought I could get the loan just like the others because I didn’t receive any notification from the loans board that my application had errors,” she says.
“But it didn’t turn out as planned, so I decided to quit university because I couldn’t afford even the registration fee.”
She is now staying with her sister in Area D in Dodoma Municipal, and working for bus fare to return to her home in Bukoba, Kagera.
Her dream was shattered -- just like that. Hoping to help, a relative sent her to a private school for A-level. That has turned out to be the source of her despair. Her case is the tip of an iceberg.
Many others were forced to postpone their studies as it dawned on them there wouldn’t be any shilling coming from state coffers after completing registration formalities at their respective universities. While some are only banking on hope that maybe HESLB will give them loans next year, others are on a desperate search for alternative sources of funds.
At St John University of Tanzania (SJUT) in Dodoma, 72 out of 1,712 students in this academic year have postponed their studies due to financial issues.
Two thirds of those who postponed their studies are bachelor of education in science students. It’s an irony considering that the government is desperately seeking to address crippling shortages of science teachers across the country.
And there are other students like 21-year-old Samuel Kitinya, who was forced to postpone his studies after the HESLB delayed disbursing funds as it battled appeals against its negative response, forcing him to miss a number of exams.
“I went to public schools; my parents who live in Wotta, Mpwapwa District, Dodoma, are very poor. I wondered why I didn’t get the loan in the first place,” he says, “The board officials told me to provide evidence for them to confirm.”
“But by the time the loan was approved and released in February this year, I had already missed the first semester final exam that my colleagues sat in January. I decided to postpone my studies to next year,” says Kitinya, who will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human resource management at the Institute of Accountancy (TIA) in Dar es Salaam.
Aliabadi Salim, a bachelor of education degree student at Udom told The Citizen that though he managed to pay tuition fees, he was living like a beggar and sometimes had to do casual labour to sustain his life on campus.
“There are limited options for students who do not have enough money to meet their basic needs on campus,” he said.
Mujibu Abeid, a student leader at Udom, says they were compelled to ask food vendors in Ujasi, a nearby village, to provide food for free to five students whose situation was more than desperate.
Apparently, there is no clear plan on the part of HESLB to increase the amount of loans, or cater for more needy students.
Mr Badru, the HESLB boss, said the number of loan beneficiaries had been reduced due to changes in resource allocation within the parent ministry in line with the government’s evolving priorities.
Asked whether the institution is suffering from budgetary constraints, he said they have no issues with it because every year their budget is fully funded.
But Mr Badru confirmed that the number of loan beneficiaries was reduced as part of preparations for a pyramid system in education and workforce that will help the rise of the middle class in Tanzania. “We have already changed the law to allow us provide loans to students pursuing diplomas,” he said.
“Now, HESLB will provide loans to all diploma students in fields that are identified by stakeholders as a priority for the growth of an industrial economy; areas like agricultural engineering, irrigation engineering and logistics…this will balance the proportion between degree holders and the lower cadres.”
On students who attended private school at lower levels and now don’t have the means to further their studies, he said the majority of them failed to prove that they were needy. He said the board provided loans to 5,000 such students after they succeeded in proving that they were sent to private school by organisations or government.
“There are some needy students who failed to get loans because they didn’t bring required documents to prove that requires priority and others were rejected because they used fake documents to justify their needs,” he said.
Dr Josiah Katani, a lecturer from Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Morogoro said the biggest mistake the government made was to allow the death of polytechnic colleges in favour of universities knowing that it would not be able to sustain its funding of poor students’ studies.
“Another mistake was allowing children of senior government officials and business persons to access loans. This led to deserving students missing out considering that some of them are not pursuing the priority course,” he said.
Dr Katani is of the view that stakeholders should sit together to plan a new model for cost-sharing in higher education financing. He also believes that the situation can be addressed if the government tightens the loan recovery system.
But Education, Science and Technology deputy minister Stella Manyanya refutes claims that the number of loan beneficiaries has gone down this year, arguing that it is instead the fifth government that has raised the number of loan beneficiaries to 123,000.
The Citizen understands that by March 31 this year, the total number of loan beneficiaries, according to HESLB data, had gone down to 114,621 students from 124,711 in the previous academic year.
The deputy minister says there are other priorities for the ministry. “The budget is not meant for higher education loans only; it is also used to improve other areas, like increasing the number of teachers, infrastructure development and book supplies.”
She says financial institutions can fill in the gap. But Ms Manyanya says parents and guardians should not run away from their responsibility.