INTERVIEW: ASUU opposed to student loans for selfish reasons – Rep Ugbor

Elizabeth AtimeJanuary 21, 2024120 min

In the first part of this exclusive interview with OrderPaper, Rep. Terseer Ugbor, representing Kwande/Ushungo federal constituency of Benue State, gave insights on plans by the parliament to ensure a robust implementation of the law on student loans. In this concluding part of the interview, the lawmaker takes a swipe at the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) for advocating for grants instead of student loans.

ASUU...opposed to student loans

EXCERPTS:

Q: ASUU has not hidden its opposition to the student loans scheme. What is your take on this? 

A: Yes you see, unfortunately, an organization like ASUU which should be a partner in progress has decided to be an opposition to change. Change is constant and I think ASUU is used to doing things the same way and they are averse to change because they think that change will not be in their interest as members of ASUU. At the legislative summit we held, ASUU was the only organization and the only stakeholder that came to that event and proposed that the government should not implement the student loans scheme in the country. A sister organization called CONUA, which is a new tertiary education association, got up and opposed ASUU publicly.

ASUU recommended at the summit that the whole idea of student loans should be completely shelved and government should go back to the grants and scholarship system that has not worked for us over the years and has caused the continuous decline in our quality of education. But once ASUU got up to speak they always talked about grants, they just wanted free bills all the time. They want the country to continue to run on subsidies, continue to run on grants, and scholarships that have not worked for us in this country. And even with the N50 billion that has been budgeted for, ASUU is recommending that the money should be shared as grants. So this is not a sustainable model; they have not proposed any alternative model that is viable for the country and we completely reject ASUU’s position on this matter. ASUU should be coming up with recommendations and more intelligent strategies for developing the education sector, not taking us back to the years when they, as lecturers, have contributed grossly and greatly to causing the deterioration of the educational sector. They have been the ones that has risen through the system to become vice chancellor in this country, how well have they done in terms of helping the education sector? So when the government comes up with a proposal to try to improve things, to change things, and to allow students to go to school, ASUU gets up and says that they are opposed to it.

So ASUU is not progressive as far as I am concerned on this issue; they want to reject a proposal that even the Nigerian students themselves have supported, the association of Nigerian students has supported the student loan program wholeheartedly. They were here recently to have a conversation with us, they came to the stakeholder’s summit, they have been to our engagements we have had with other schools when we did our focus groups and they accepted that student loans should be implemented. Parents have accepted it because parents associations were also here, they have accepted it, they like the concept of it, it allows them to finance education without bringing out money upfront out of pocket. So parents have accepted, if the students have accepted, the executive arm of government is on the same page, we in the National Assembly are on the same page, and the general public is in support that student loans scheme is important. Many countries, including Ghana, South Africa, and many other African countries have implemented student loans for years- they have benefited their people and the quality of education is better than ours right now, we are retrogressing and they have made more progress. Many countries around the world including America, Europe, Canada, and China, all operate on student loans systems but in Nigeria, our ASUU which are supposed to be partners in progress are rejecting a very important scheme like this.

It just shows pure selfish interest; they are looking after themselves, and they don’t want the universities to be autonomous. They define autonomy in their term, how they think autonomy should operate, so they want to eat their cake and have it which I think at this point, the government needs to put its foot down on the issue of ASUU and make sure that we implement this student loans scheme very well. The government needs to budget even more for the scheme. The university lecturers’ salaries every year alone it goes over a trillion naira every year; it is a lot of money and that money should be converted and given to the students as student loans and paid directly to the schools, let the schools pay them directly and let schools pay them based on their performance as academics. Not free money every year – collecting salary, whether you work or you don’t work, you go on strike you collect salary. Let the money; the salary that the government has budgeted for paying university lecturers be converted and paid to students as student loans. Let the student pay the monies to the universities, and let the universities have the resources to pay their lecturers based on the competence of these lecturers and based on how much work they put into educating our next generation of students. Not to expect to sit down in their offices and every time there is a new government programme they get up and oppose it without providing reasonable alternatives. We will not accept that and we will continue to stand on the path of justice and the side of students in this country because we know how students suffer to go to school, we know the struggles that are going on in this country, so we will not accept that. So whatever ASUU is hoping that they can achieve by opposing the student loans scheme we will reject it in the National Assembly and I am sure the presidency will also reject it and the scheme will go on. We will budget more for it next year and, hopefully, get support from other developmental institutions that want to support student education and make sure that the education system is transformed once and for all so that the issue of strikes and the quality of education can be able to pick up again and Nigeria can move on the path of sustainable development.

ASUU should be coming up with recommendations and more intelligent strategies for developing the education sector, not taking us back to the years when they as lecturers have contributed grossly and greatly to causing the deterioration of the educational sector…”

Q: Ahead of implementation of the student loans, have you been able to ascertain the number of students in tertiary institutions as of today? 

A: Well, there are a lot of figures about the number of students in institutions. From our last figures, we have at least 10 million students across tertiary institutions in the country. The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) is the biggest tertiary institution in the country. I hear that they have over 500,000 students and then all the private universities and public universities combined also have a few millions. So we know for sure that there are at least two to five million Nigerian students in public and private universities across the country. Polytechnics, colleges of education, and other institutions of higher learning are also there. By the time we put all those figures together, I am sure we will be getting a number that will rise above 10 million students in the country. So if we are talking about an average of N1 million per student for a four-year study and you are talking about 10 million students that is about 1 trillion. So that is the kind of figure that we will be looking at but we do not expect that every single student will need the student loan. So if we assume that 50% of students may need student loans, based on the level of our development and poverty in the country, then we are looking at 5 million students requiring student loans. So if you are looking at N1 Million per student on the average based on the course of study alone, there will be variations, social sciences and medicines and what have you, then we should be talking about at least N500 billion to be able to have an onboarding of students in the country on the programme. That is the kind of figure we should be looking at, that is where we should be going. This Student Loan Scheme is an indirect way of funding the universities because the monies are not paid to the students directly, the money is approved for them but the school fees are paid directly to the institutions where the student has agreed to school and has accepted the admission, then the student loan is sent directly to the school. So the money is a way of funding tertiary institutions indirectly, so it creates a win-win situation for the students, for the institutions, and for our educational system as a whole.

So they talked about the issue of getting a job after school, how will this work when there is so much unemployment but from our analysis, from what we have done in terms of the repayment if we give an average student 10 years to repay the student loan and we look at N1Million, N1.5million as an average for a student in terms of the loans that will be given out. Then a student paying N1 million to N1.5 million in 10 years will come to about N120,000 per year which is between N10,000 to N12,000 maybe N15,000 per month. So if a student graduated from school and what you are required to pay to the government is N10,000 per month for 10 years to repay your loan, how difficult can that be? And of course, the current recommendations that we have made give room for debt forgiveness, for waivers based on performance in school, gives room for all kinds of ways that students can get relief and if for some reason you left school, five, 10 years you have not found a job, so you have not earned a kobo and you have not been able to pay anything, then you can approach the student loan board and make a case that you have finished school several years ago, you are on the student loan program but you have been unable to get a job, you have been unable to have anything to do for a living and you can show evidence of this, then the government can create waivers for you. So there is nothing sacrosanct about how the student loan works, it’s a very intelligent system that we need to adopt in this country. The programme will reduce the number of drop-outs we have in this country. A lot of students drop out of school because of school fees. I know the amount of phone calls every single representative in this chamber gets every day on the issue of school fees, it is one of the biggest requests I receive every single day when I wake up from sleep: school fees, school fees, school fees. If there is a programme that helps children to go to school without having to beg to go to school, children are begging to go to school now which is why are getting so many calls from people every day. So if there is a scheme that helps them go to school seamlessly, I think every student will take the opportunity; when you finish your university and you begin your career and your business, whatever you are going to be doing, then you will know how to pay your student loan. We are not criminalising payment of student loans or default, it is not a criminal offense to default but the government will use the instrumentality of the financial system through the BVN (Bank Verification Number), through the NIN (National Identity Number) to track your progress and to see if you qualify to start paying your student loans and once you qualify government will reach out to you and it is expected that at least every year you pay something as your student loan debt to the government so that other children coming after you can also benefit.

“So we know for sure that there are at least two to five million Nigerian students in public and private universities across the country. Polytechnics, colleges of education, and other institutions of higher learning are also there. By the time we put all those figures together, I am sure we will be getting a number that will rise above 10 million students in the country. So if we are talking about an average of N1 million per student for a four-year study and you are talking about 10 million students that is about 1 trillion.”

Q: Why is the National Assembly not looking into the issue of improved funding for our educational system so that at least we will also stop the issue of mass exodus of students from the country? I think that is ASUU’s position as well.

A: You see, I think that one of the challenges we have is our educational structure in this country. If we had not made some of the u-turns we have made along the line, maybe today we would not be where we are today. The federal government in Nigeria is involved in basic education and also involved in tertiary education and basic education. You talk about primary school, and secondary school before you go to tertiary. The federal government has spread itself too thin in trying to manage education in Nigeria. All federal government unity schools are free, with free tuition for secondary school, and free tuition for university education, Nigeria is the only country in the world apart from maybe the oil-rich Arab countries that at the level of our development has offered free tuition to basic education and tertiary education for 50 years, we are the only country and how has that profited us? When there is no proper incentive for quality education when the education is free. Education is not free, it is a right to go to school, literacy is a right but advanced education is not a right, it is a choice that you make as an individual when the government has supported you to get a basic education which is the basic for every country for intellectual pursuit. For a higher level of education, you choose to study, engineering, medicine, political science, and what have you, and based on the choice you make, you determine how to support yourself through that higher level of education, this is what other countries practice but we practice free tertiary education system for many years since the 70s till date.

So it is about time that the government provides the enabling environment for universities and colleges of higher education to run independently as proper institutions of learning. Where the managers of these schools run these schools efficiently based on the resources that they get, they get more creative in research, breakthroughs, technology, and endowment so that they can support the schools. Nigeria has TETFUND, which was set up to support infrastructures across our universities. Since the 80s we started this thing about you know UBE and the rest of it, we have been doing all these systems, now we have TETFUND that has currently just released a budget of about N190billion or thereabout for funding of education, some of the projects they want to do across. TETFUND has spent trillions supporting tertiary education in Nigeria, infrastructure and what have you. Many universities in the country today are TETFUND universities, they were built with TETFUND money, and they are run on TETFUND money to date. Very few, if any, public institution in Nigeria is running efficiently based on their profit, private universities are achieving it, many private universities are running back on their commercial system where students pay school fees, and the school generates revenue from all legitimate means but they are allowed and they can run their university and they can pay their lecturers as well.

But public universities are not operating efficiently, they are not operating profitably; the government will continue to support public education in Nigeria at any level.  We will continue to support it, which is essential, especially in our level of economic and social development. But something needs to change in the current system, something needs to change in the way our universities are being run, that is why we have this ‘japa’ syndrome, we have lecturers leaving the country, everybody trying to go because our universities are not being run efficiently. So it is not only about pumping more money into the system, we have pumped a lot of money into the university system, and it has not achieved results, it is about the efficiency in that system and creating efficiency in the system that allows the universities to run autonomously. There was a time when they used to brag about UNILAG producing the best lawyers, the Federal University of  Technology Minna had the best engineering department, University of Calabar had the best in this and that but today you do not see that kind of competition anymore because the schools are all relaxed, the management of those schools are all relaxed, every year, every month they just go and get money from the federal government, they pay salaries and they do a few things and they relax. Lecturers go on strike for months and months without caring what those impacts are on the students. We agree that some of their requests are legitimate, the quality of education should be improved, and the United Nations prescribed that about 16 to 20% of our national budget should be spent on education. Nigeria has not been able to achieve that because we have so many challenges that we are trying to solve at the same time but even at that, even if we have not been able to achieve that target of budgeting so much for education, we need to get the system running efficiently. Maybe by running this system efficiently and effectively, we can even stimulate the desire to pump more money into the system so that we can improve the infrastructure of the universities. But before that is done even with the current system we have, no student in the country that wants to go to tertiary education should beg to achieve it.

There should be a system where children can access funding to go to school, it shouldn’t be a grant or a scholarship because those things are not sustainable. You give this year, you may not give next year, a new government comes, they change the policy, they change the system, we have a policy summersault. When you make it a system where that is consistent, it is reliable, the students know that if they finish secondary school, they get good grades in WAEC (WASSCE) and JAMB (UTME), there is an opportunity to get funding to go to school, it gives incentive for the student even coming behind to study harder because they know that if you don’t do well in your WAEC and your JAMB level then you cannot afford to access the student loans. So there is also an incentive for higher performance for better grades by students coming, trying to access this fund to go to school; so it is about the children in this case, it is about the universities too. It is also about the social fabric of our country because if you help the students to go to school through this student loan, you have taken a huge burden off parents. University education is one of the highest expenses on the family income. So if the government can support parents by providing these student loans which can be applied for even by the parents themselves, then a parent can apply for a student loan on behalf of his child or her child. So the student loan by the parents; if it is a parent who is a civil servant or a public servant or works in an organisation, the parent can on behalf of the child apply for a student loan through the student loan system and send the child to school and based on the income of the parent, the parent can be paying gradually until he finishes payment. In that kind of case, the parent may not even need 10 years to pay, the parent can pay that N1.5 million in two years based on the parent’s income, so the burden doesn’t have to be on the child. So it is not in every case that the burden is on the child, the burden could be on the parent who is working but cannot afford to pay the bulk sum for school fees for this child.

There are many flexible ways to do it and everybody becomes beneficiaries. Even the ASUU themselves will be beneficiaries of this student loan, and their children will be beneficiaries of the student loan, so why are they fighting against it? they are used to the free system, they are used to the grant and scholarship, the free money every month they come and collect from the federal government, they sit down in their houses, they go on strike, and the government pays them their salaries. But if the schools were the ones that were paying them directly, if they go on strike maybe those universities will not succumb to that kind of thing because it will run the university down but they don’t want that. But they have to learn and they have to accept change for once in this country so that we can do well by our children, do well by this student loan, and for the benefit of Nigerians.

END

Elizabeth Atime

One comment

  • Orasuur Oliver Orseer

    January 21, 2024 at 11:28 pm

    Students loan and access to higher education would have been a great opportunity for students to acquire their desired choices in academic most especially for some of us that are orphans, It will really help us in acquiring our goals academically, If ASUU had our keen interest at heart I don’t really think opposing this is not in our interests.

    If you can recall what happened during covid 19 grant, most people acquired it twice and up til now so are yet to paid it back.
    Students loan is the best for some of us who are orphans.

    Reply

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