At university graduation ceremonies, the Uganda Higher Education Students’ Financing Board (HESFB) is frequently described in positive terms as the single biggest sponsor or ‘parent’ of students. However, recently it has attracted criticism that it has been hijacked by the rich.
At the 20th graduation ceremony of Ndejje University held on 11 October, Professor George Mondo Kagonyera, a politician, academic and former Makerere University chancellor, said it was surprising that students from well-to-do families who can meet their tuition costs were getting student loans while needy Ugandans were being left out.
In the current academic year 2020-21, 1,834 new applicants received loans out of a total of 7,310 applications up from 4,603 who applied in 2018-19 and signifying a growth of 37%
Kagonyera’s criticisms were earlier echoed by Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of the Parliament of Uganda on 1 October during a plenary session.
In response to Rosemary Seninde, state minister for primary education, who was addressing concerns from the floor of parliament regarding low absorption of students who applied for loans, Kadaga had slammed the Ministry of Education and Sports, under which HESFB falls, for failing to secure enough funds to accommodate all eligible students. She said the government had failed to prioritise higher education.
During the same sitting, Ibrahim Ssemujju, the member of parliament for Kira municipality, asked if the student loan scheme was under stress. If not, it ought to accommodate everybody who applies for a loan, he said.
The HESFB, which disburses loans to students on behalf of the government, has grown tenfold to benefit 10,000 students this academic year 2020-21, up from only 1,201 students in when it was formed.
Responding to criticisms of the loans scheme, Bob Nuwagira, a senior communications manager at HESFB, told University World News in an interview that all applicants are subjected to a uniform scorecard which considers proxy indicators such as orphanage status, family income levels, access to medical care, parents’ occupation, previous school history, family size, and others.
The loan scheme pays for tuition, functional and research fees as well learning aids for persons with disabilities
And the indictors are not static. We keep learning and improving these indicators from time to time, Nuwagira told University World News .
Each indicator, equivalent to roughly 10 marks, is processed through an online tool, the Integrated Loan Management Information System (ILMIS), which produces a percentage score to enable a decision to be made about an applicant.
Nuwagira said applicants from schools under the Universal Secondary School (USE) programme score higher marks than those from so-called good schools.
In 2007, Uganda introduced the USE policy, which solicited the participation of private schools to offer fee-free’ education by receiving public assistance, which then created a system of public schools (fee-free for all), public-private partnership (PPP) private schools accepting both fee-free and fee-paying students and private schools.
Asked why some of the so-called good schools produced significant numbers of student loan beneficiaries (20% to 30%) compared with USE schools, he explained that some of these applicants were bright, needy or orphaned and had been identified and sponsored by churches, charities or sponsors.
Nuwagira said in addition to the ILMIS scoring, staff carry out an on-spot verification exercise, visiting the applicant’s home without notice and they truly award loans to “the needy among the needy”.
HESFB staff also verify the information provided through local leaders and head teachers who provide recommendation letters for applicants. Falsified information leads to automatic disqualification.
He said Uganda, unlike Rwanda, had not grouped society into socio-economic strata, based upon occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power (social and political). Hence, the need for the verification exercise.
Over the last five years, the HESFB has awarded loans to 8,190 beneficiaries to pursue 130 degree programmes and 76 undergraduate diplomas, mainly in science, technology, engineering and maths programmes, while learners with special needs have been sponsored to pursue business and humanities courses.
Although the number of female beneficiaries has grown (from 22.3% in 2014 to 34% currently), there are fewer people with disabilities applying. HESFB officials said people with disabilities have many more scholarship opportunities, including those available through district quotas, so they have no reason to apply for loans.
As the numbers of applicants grow, however, more student loan seekers are being left disappointed as the fund, solely funded by the government, fails to provide for as much as 50% of them. Government funding for 2019-20 was (UGX30 billion or US$8 million), up from UGX27.7 billion in 2018-20 for new and continuing students.
Board Chairman Professor Callisto Locheng has in the past said a key challenge lies in meeting a growing need for loans: As the board intensifies publicity measures to reach those in need, the numbers are also rising, he said.
The number of successful loan applicants rose from 1,448 in 2017-18 to 2,950 in 2018-19, representing an increase of 103%.
Bbosa Kizito, the loans and scholarships manager at HESFB, told University World News there was need for a policy shift in higher education which would see funding from government going towards private universities as well as public institutions.
We are growing public higher institutions at the expense of private institutions. We should fund them equally, said Kizito. He recommended that the HESFB should be the one-stop-shop for all funding of higher education, including infrastructure.
We should look at education as a business, he said, arguing that all institutions of higher learning, including private ones, should be given loans rather than grants as a means to improve efficiency, reduce wastage of resources and create ownership.
Kizito suggested more government funding should be available for technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and suggested that Uganda emulate Kenya and give allowances to TVET students in order to motivate them.
In terms of reforms, scholars have long suggested the Ugandan government should stop or cut down altogether on merit scholarships which are allegedly abused and benefit wealthy students.
The government awards 4,000 student scholarships annually (including district bursaries, State House scholarships and those for science courses) which amount to 9% of the 47,000 annual total student admissions. Government spends UGX12 million per year on each of those students, as opposed to UGX4.5 million per year that the student loan scheme spends on each student.