Higher Education Minister Dr Itah Kandjii-Murangi has clarified that tertiary education in Namibia is not yet free, despite the decision last week to allow university students to register without having to pay a fee.
That decision, which followed protests at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) last week, created the impression in some quarters that government will offer free education at public institutions of higher learning.
The minister further elucidated that government loans offered through the Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF) will also not be phased out as some thought.
Such misinterpretation came after the minister, in consultation with the NUST vice-chancellor, Professor Tjama Tjivikua, gave in to students’ protests on Thursday over exorbitant registration and tuition fees.
President Hage Geingob, who declared a war against poverty last October, said Namibia should move away from a study loan system, whereby students have to pay back loans, to a grant system that will enable students to, after graduation, immediately build up wealth portfolios instead of graduating into debt.
“Going forward, we should move away from a loan to a grant system. It was not there, it was introduced by someone. We should move away and give children grants so that they don’t graduate in debt,” he directed then.
Currently all courses at Namibia’s tertiary institutions are offered at a cost in terms of tuition and other fees.
Many students who enter tertiary institutions with good grades of 25 points and above have a high chance of being awarded loans and scholarships through NSFAF. Loans are paid back upon completion of studies.
As a result of the Thursday protests by students, the government temporarily scrapped the registration fee at NUST, meaning students are now allowed to register irrespective of whether they can afford the N$3 500 upfront or not.
“We are not phasing out the loan arrangement. There is nothing like phasing out loans or free tertiary education. We are redefining the old NSFAF programme to establish different categories that would be legible for the fund,” Kandjii-Murangi said.
“We are also engaging different stakeholders to help us refine this further in terms of criteria and so many other things and only then can we talk about abolishment or not (of the loans) once we have done all this,” she clarified to New Era after her address at NBC on Friday.
According to her, the ministry cannot “just jump the gun” to phase out the loan scheme without proper evaluation.
Asked whether the temporary measure to abolish registration fees is only applicable for this year or will also apply next year, she said: “We should not call this abolishment, it’s rather access.”
She said every student who meets the requirements and has been admitted to a public tertiary institution should not be barred from registering because they do not have registration fees upfront.
Further, she noted that for those students who have debts but passed and their results are withheld by the institutions and need to go to the next level, their debts will be cleared by NSFAF this year.
“The aspect of registration fee not being required to be paid upfront is only for this year. It must be known that higher education is partly government’s responsibility but it is also of the parents of those who access tertiary education. So both parties should meet each other halfway and assist those who qualify,” Kandjii-Murangi said.
According to her, the cost of education in Namibia is relatively and reasonably cost-effective compared to other neighbouring countries and elsewhere on the African continent.
Moreover, she said, the issue of student debts for the University of Namibia (Unam) which currently stand at N$70 million, and NUST’s N$50 million, is not new to the ministry, as it was already discussed last year between government and the two vice-chancellors of the public institutions.
Asked how government plans to pay off such huge debt, she said: “Even if NSFAF will pay it off, we still have to sit down and see how best we can arrive at a solution that is sustainable and long-term especially on the debt aspect.”
On the long dragging issue of students previously funded by NSFAF now owing government millions of dollars, the minister said: “We are dealing with the current situation and for now our focus is on the current problem. Anything else has to be looked at as and when it’s appropriate for us to do that.”
Meanwhile, the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) has also revealed that the much-awaited funding framework through the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) will be realised during this financial year, as they have completed the data collection from all tertiary institutions for computing of the estimated subsidies.
The funding framework comes after a study on the uneven funding of higher education institutions, especially the discrepancies between the funding of Unam and NUST.