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Pry loose the leeches

31 May 2019
Recently, President Hage Geingob met with student leaders at State House and is quoted as saying that not all students accepting NSFAF loans for their education have parents who are without financial options. 
He implied that there are those who could afford to pay for their kids’ education and yet are using up government money that could be used for others in need. 
He was responding to the reality that NSFAF currently only has money for 20 percent of the 15,087 qualified new student applicants.  This leaves over 12,000 potential university freshmen financially high and dry.On the surface, that presidential comment may appear insensitive to the on-the-ground financial reality of everyday life for Namibian households struggling during this economic depression.  People hearing that Geingob comment may think about Marie Antoinette’s famous, “Let them eat cake” statement which is an apocryphal remark that supposedly lit the fuse for revolution in 18th century France. 
However, we looked a bit deeper into the president’s comments and support his point. We recognise that most families in Namibia need financial assistance to provide tertiary education for their children that qualify for university.  The problem is that there are those who accept NSFAF loans who could provide varying levels of support for their college-bound dependents.  They and their families expect the government to provide for their dependents at tertiary levels and are taking short cuts. 
We believe that there is a national illness plaguing us where people believe that government must provide them with anything they decide that they cannot provide for themselves.  This ingrown expectation is a treasury-draining status quo; it is ingrained like a leech sucking deeply in the national vein and it must be pried out. 
With state coffers empty, and the many competing needs of the 2.5 million people in the entire country, all Namibians must look to more of their individual needs on their own.  Those with resources to pay for the latest smart phone, fancy weddings, huge funerals, massive confirmation or baptism parties, new cars and other material things must make new spending priorities.  The President’s point is that if your dependents qualify for university, family spending choices must change.
That said, the regulations and systems at NSFAF fall short.  There is no provision that allows for a partial loan to students based on a proven needs assessment.  We understand that these loans are all or nothing.  The President should look at immediately altering the NSFAF regulations to allow for partial funding packages, which may stretch available funds to cover more students.
There are families who have paid to educate their kids at private secondary schools and still accept NSFAF loans for university studies.  Students coming from private schools, who have the necessary points for university, should be required to pay the same amount paid for their 12th grade towards their university education with an education loan topping up where required.
Top leaders, SOE execs and captains of industry with access to resources sometimes send their kids abroad to bilateral government-funded education programmes in China, Malaysia, India and other countries.  These programmes should rather be available to those with no other funding options for study or to those special cases who qualify at the very highest levels and will bring tested skills back to the Namibian economy.
The amounts disbursed by NSFAF are supposed to be loans.  However, let us all be coldly realistic when debating this issue.  With over N$600 million in unpaid loans, some in arrears for years, if not decades, most of the funds disbursed are as good as grants as they likely will never be repaid.  Therefore, these ‘loans’ are, in effect, donations (at least in the short/medium term).  Those same former students and their families who may be able to repay all or a portion of the loan, or who could cover a larger portion of their child’s education, are quietly praying that government will convert NSFAF loans to grants.  A move that is apparently unaffordable.
In reviewing this issue, we cannot accurately analyse any quantitative estimates because there is no research, lifestyle audits of those receiving loans, or verifiable (no loopholes) regulatory framework that links recipients of government educational support to the income levels of their actual providers. Is the information about who received loans in past years accurate and current with their ID numbers, contact details and employment status?  Data should have been collected and analysed before precipitous regulatory changes were announced.
Now that the state coffers are bare, this issue has taken centre stage. The Minister of Finance correctly points to the massive non-payment of outstanding loans as the reason for the lack of money available to new NSFAF hopefuls and a huge outcry has emerged. 
We believe that the precipitous nature of the ‘cut’ to NSFAF’s budget could have been a phased-in situation or announced now with a grace period to allow those with outstanding loans to reconsider their freeloading behaviour, and families of new university students to prepare to save funds to finance their own children’s education.  As it stands, the crisis is just thrown into 12,000+ family’s faces with no time to find resources (i.e., find a job) elsewhere, even if this is an option. 
Nevertheless, the fact that government can no longer write a blank cheque to educate everyone who passes with the correct number of points, must be driven home.  This expectation must die and the leeches sucking government funds from the system must be plucked out.

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