Universities respond to ‘ghost’ student ultimatum

Following the suspension of student loans and the imposition of a week-long ultimatum, 15 universities in Tanzania have responded to a ministerial directive to pay back loans issued to them for thousands of so-called ‘ghost’ students.

Dr Simon Msanjila, deputy permanent secretary for the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, has reportedly confirmed that the government has started to receive the money in accordance with the directive issued by Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Vocational Training Joyce Ndalichako, but he did not disclose the amounts received thus far.

The directive was issued after a recent verification exercise revealed that about 2,192 students receiving loans at 31 universities may not even exist. Ndalichako gave the universities seven days to recover and return the money, estimated to be over TZS3.8 billion (US$1.7 million).

According to media reports, some individuals have also stepped forward voluntarily to pay back their loans to the board.

They have been issued with the relevant certificates by newly-appointed Higher Education Students' Loan Board – HESLB – Executive Director Abdul-Razaq Badru, who said the repayments would add to the funds available for the next round of student loans.

By late last week it was reported that TZS1 billion had been paid back to the board since the crackdown.

Increased applicants

This year, 88,000 students applied for student loans, up from 55,000 last year. Badru said if more loan defaulters paid up there would be enough resources to make loans available to students who meet the required criteria.

Despite the positive response to the government’s ultimatum, HESLB is also employing other measures to recoup money from defaulters, such as sending their names to the immigration department, banks and other major government service providers in a move sources say is aimed at catching the defaulters once they seek services from these entities.

Meanwhile, some of the implicated universities have threatened to de-register students who failed to show up at a verification exercise that was meant to prove their existence.

Failing to show resulted in the students being labelled ‘ghosts’, which means universities must repay their loans.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary public accounts committee session sitting in Dodoma has reviewed the HESLB’s financial statements and criticised the high operational expenditure incurred during the 2014-15 fiscal year.

High administrative costs

Reports say that HESLB spent TZS15.7 billion (US$7 million) on administration, the bulk of which went to hefty salaries and allowances instead of student loans. The board was also criticised for hiring collection agents and for having 13 bank accounts at six different banks, which escalated administration costs.

In response, Badru has undertaken to reduce running costs through restructuring, the suspension of special allowances and the termination of rentals for unused space. He has also promised training in efficiency and management for HESLB staff. In addition, some bank accounts would be closed.

In an article published in The Conversation, Simon Ngalomba, a lecturer in educational management at the University of Dar es Salaam, suggested that improving information flow between organisations would help to minimise the phenomenon of ‘ghosts’.

He said the loan application system should be linked to Tanzania’s national identification database, which is hosted by the National Identification Authority and contains personal details that can be used to verify loan applicants' identities.

Another useful link would be to Tanzania’s national examination council, which holds secondary education results, he wrote.

Academic progress reports

“Once a loan has been issued, students should submit proof of registration to the loan authority. At the moment, it’s up to universities to report back to the loan board about how many students have been admitted to a particular institution.

“Beneficiaries should also be obliged to produce academic progress reports every semester to qualify for subsequent tranches of money,” said Ngalomba.

He also made suggestions around how to cut down on the numerous higher education regulatory bodies that have duplicated efforts and lack coordination.

“Merging them into a single manageable institution that can monitor and supervise universities is another way to improve oversight of the loans process.”