TANZANIA: Students warn of protests over loans

Trouble has been brewing once again at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, after the student loans board announced this month that some 810 students had not met the requirements for funding. Students threatened protests and boycotts if all students who were admitted to universities and had applied for loans, did not receive them.

Hundreds of students from several universities visited the Higher Education Students' Loan Board (HESLB) to check up on their loans and many demanded a relook at the loan 'grades' they had been allocated.

There were complaints that some students who qualified for loans had not been awarded them, while others who did not meet the requirements had nevertheless received loans.

The government's establishment of HESLB, by Act Number 9 of 2004, was intended to help students who secured admission to accredited higher education institutions but could not afford to pay for the costs of their education.

Little did the government realise that the well-intentioned loan scheme would become a major source of hostility with its major higher education stakeholder - students.

Today it is surprising if a year passes without disagreements between students and the authorities over loans. At the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), where student trouble often starts, protests and class boycotts have become a way of life, and the reason is often loans.

Indeed in 2004, UDSM students demonstrated over government plans to set up the board, unhappy that it would not help all students get loans. The government ignored their complaints and used security agencies to restrain them. Some students were locked up while others were suspended, and the government continued with its plans.

In 2006, after what the government claimed to be much deliberation with stakeholders in the education sector, a system was introduced - a cost-sharing loan policy in which all students were to contribute 40% towards higher education fees.

This time, students from across the country protested. The government backed down and introduced a means-testing system that graded students depending on the economic capacity of their parents and-or guardians.

But then another problem emerged: many students claimed they were not content with the grades assigned to them, saying they did not reflect the real situation in their households.

There were also claims that some students from well-off families, especially those of politicians and top government officials, had become beneficiaries of grades that should have only applied to poor students.

The manner in which needy students were selected also became questionable. The process of receiving loans involved filling in forms that were approved by local government officials, but many were reportedly corrupt thus compromising the whole process.

Between 2006 and 2010 the University of Dar es Salaam and other public universities were closed indefinitely three times because of student protests, during which there was destruction of property and security force intervention.

Because of the endless confrontations with students, HESLB has been forced to continually change its operation, especially regarding the way grades are allocated, to ensure that all students achieve the correct evaluation.

However, this has proved extremely difficult, as indicated by the recent confrontation between students and the board. HESLB said that only students who score marks in the top two marks divisions could be eligible for loans, as well as students who achieve third division marks but were admitted into priority education and science courses.

This pronouncement by HESLB's director for communication, education and information, Cosmas Mwaisobwa, was rejected by the Dar es Salaam University Students' Organisation, DARUSO.

While most students had received loans this year, DARUSO wants the loans board to be abolished and the government to fund all students admitted to universities. It warned of protests unless all students received loans this month.

"Most of the students here are from poor families, they went to public schools before coming here and it won't be easier for them to pay for their fees," explained Joseph Silvanus, DARUSO's head of loans.

Some students have complained that although the loan requirements are clear, they are being applied unevenly and unfairly.

One thing the government could do, without abolishing HESLB, would be to make its operations more transparent and hold more consultations with stakeholders before making major decisions on student loans.