Last week the Rwandan cabinet approved a decision to cancel bursary loans used to support government-assisted students through their academic life. There is also talk of terminating merit-based college scholarships.
The 250,000 Rwandan francs (about US$400) bursary loan, granted by the government in partnership with the Social Security Fund of Rwanda and the Student Financing Agency for Rwanda, or SFAR, covers students' accommodation and living expenses and is repayable once graduates find employment.
The latest development threatens the academic future of the many students who are dependent on government financial assistance. It also looks set to undermine Rwanda's widely perceived position as role model for the implementation of Unesco's Education for All initiative.
But the Rwandan government is arguing that the funds are simply being reallocated.
Minister of Education Dr Charles Murigande was at the campus of the National University of Rwanda in Butare last weekend to justify the government's plan. He said the money saved on student loans will be channelled into newly implemented strategic domains.
"The education budget has been shortened and the government decided that students, from next year, must accommodate on their own. The money they were given by SFAR must develop newly implemented education policies like Nine Years Basic Education and technical education training, to give a chance to those who did not attend university," said the minister.
The minister insisted the bursary loan was not being completely abolished, simply reduced. He said government will continue to support students financially, but for shorter periods, with the student being required eventually to carry 100% of their university costs on their own.
The education minister also announced that from the 2011 academic year there will no longer be merit scholarships for university students based on excellent secondary school results. In a BBC (Rwandan language) interview he explained that government plans to channel the money used for scholarships into primary education.
Nowadays Rwanda has free primary education up to the third year of secondary school, amounting to nine years of free instruction (called Nine Years Basic Education). For that reason Rwanda's primary school enrolment is elevated and the highest in the region, according to the Rwandan government newspaper, the New Times.
Rwanda is among the African countries that has put much effort into developing higher education, including developing its information and communication technology sector and Internet infrastructure towards a better economy in the region.
Now students and parents have expressed concern about the latest developments, including the costs of university, fears of lowered levels of education, and puzzlement at the lack of consultation.
"It will be a big challenge for us; university education here is very expensive according to people's incomes," said Aimable Butera, parent of one of the National University of Rwanda students set to lose their scholarship next year.
For example, the National University of Rwanda, a state university, charges a minimum of around US$1,200 in annual tuition, although fees vary per programme. And some private higher education institutions can cost as much as US$2,000 per year, excluding accommodation and living expenses.
Many students who spoke to University World News said they were not sure of their academic future, and were worried about levels of education dropping. Some said the latest proposition had not been thoroughly researched, while others said they were planning to request an appointment with the country's president to discuss their plight.
"Why didn't they undertake research to find out students' means, how they will suffer, and advantages and disadvantages?" said Theogene Ruti, a student at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. "They should go slowly-slowly, not a direct cut."
"I do not have rich parents to support me. I strongly believe that once this decision is implemented, I would quit the university as I cannot live without food and accommodation," said Isimbi Gaella, a student at the School of Finance and Banking, a leading business college.
Although the new system is set to kick off at the beginning of the 2011 academic year, students said they were not ready for self-funding.
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