When President Bola Ahmed Tinubu ratified the Students Loans, Act on June 12, 2023, his action seemingly aimed to enhance access to higher education by providing tuition-free loans to indigent Nigerian students in government higher institutions, a goal clearly reflected in the legislation’s purpose statement. Yet the provisions of the legislation presented several restrictive, discriminatory, and concerning requirements for potential beneficiaries of the loan such that it undermined the supposed objective of the policy, consequently provoking a storm of mixed reactions from the public.
In response to this development, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) convened a multistakeholder symposium on July 21st, 2023. The hybrid meeting assembled an eclectic mix of over sixty (60) key players in Nigeria’s education sector, including representatives from the National Parents Teachers Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and the Education Writers Association of Nigeria (EWAN). The Lagos State Scholarship Board, media, and other civic groups focused on education—such as the Education Rights Campaign, TakeitBack Movement, and Joint Action Front—were also in attendance. including other concerned civil society organizations and members of the public also participated in this meeting to discuss the viability of the student loans scheme. Other civil society organizations and concerned members of the public also joined this gathering to discuss the viability of the students loans policy and its potential to improve access to education in Nigeria.
In recent decades, Nigeria’s public higher education has faced relentless scrutiny due to a myriad of challenges that have precipitated a sharp decline in both the quality of the country’s university education and overall academic infrastructure. ‘‘While the objectives of post-secondary education in Nigeria, according to the country’s education policy document, aim among other things to contribute to national development through high-level manpower training and to develop the intellectual and physical capacities of individuals to understand their environments, a stream of problems continue to undermine these objectives. These problems and their attendant consequences on university education in Nigeria have continued to limit opportunities for citizens to receive proper value orientation necessary for their survival in a fast-paced world’’. Akinbode Oluwafemi, the executive director of CAPPA observed in his opening remarks at the meeting.
From dilapidated learning structures, insufficient research facilities, corruption at administrative levels, abysmal budget allocation, brain drain, and non-payment of staff allowances to persistent labour disputes, the issues that plague university education in Nigeria are unending. ‘‘But the answers to them are not rocket science. The solutions lie in a firm political commitment to prioritize education as a necessary condition for societal and economic development.’’ Akinbode further reflected.
Is the Student Loans Act a Valid Solution?
While the students’ loans policy appears to be a commendable step towards addressing the constraints of tertiary education in Nigeria, many stakeholders present at the symposium expressed skepticism about the policy’s potential effectiveness, citing various drawbacks. In analyzing the provisions, Zikora Ibeh, the Policy and Research Officer of CAPPA, raised critical concerns about the policy’s restrictive loan conditions, arguing that they paradoxically exclude the very demographic they aim to assist, thereby solidifying existing societal inequalities.
Under the Act’s provisions, prospective loan applicants must secure at least two guarantors. The guarantors must either be civil servants (minimum grade 12), lawyers with at least 10 years post-call experience, judicial officers, or justices of peace. This prerequisite raises the question of how many poor families could realistically meet this requirement, given their limited access to such professional networks.
Moreover, the policy only provides loans for tuition fees. This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, it contradicts Nigeria’s standing policy on education, which guarantees tuition-free higher education. Secondly, a loan limited to tuition fees is markedly inadequate, considering the broader costs associated with tertiary education. Amid an economic downturn and a sharp fall in living standards, many potential beneficiaries lack the financial means to meet the diverse costs associated with tertiary education. Only a few weeks before the passage of the loans policy, Nigeria’s President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, during his inauguration announced the removal of the fuel subsidy in an unprecedented move that sent the economy into a tailspin, drastically inflating the cost of living and adding further pressure on already strained households.
Raising additional concerns, Gideon Adeyeni, the Spokesperson of the Education Rights Campaign, pointed out that the loan condition requiring an individual or family income of no more than N500,000 per annum for prospective beneficiaries was established without proper stakeholder engagement or an empirical understanding of the country’s chaotic economic and social realities. Adeyeni noted that this arbitrary financial threshold does not reflect the fact that an income above the loan cap does not necessarily translate into prosperity in the current economic context.
Will the Loan Solve Existing Issues?
Chronic issues such as woeful budgetary allocations to education, poor educational infrastructure and learning facilities, and staff remuneration have historically beleaguered public university education in Nigeria. These persistent challenges have triggered a worrisome brain drain in Nigerian universities, as highlighted by Professor Adelaja Odukoya. Adelaja, a Zonal Coordinator, of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) lamented this trend, noting that it was detrimental to the country’s national development.
Chairman of Joint Action Front (JAF), Achike Chude, recalled that Nigeria had pledged years ago at an African regional summit in Abuja to commit 15 percent of its national budget to education yet had consistently failed to honour it despite the depreciating standards of the sector.
A suggestion by a representative of Abdur-Rahman Lekki, the Executive Secretary of the Lagos State Scholarship Board sparked controversy in the room. The representative, Babatunde Tijani proposed for stakeholders to allow the implementation of the student loans policy to gauge its merits and demerits. However, the proposal was met with robust disagreement, as stakeholders emphasized the urgent need to address the underlying issues hampering the quality of public education in the country. They contended that besides the policy’s restrictive provisions, the loan scheme would ultimately prove futile unless these systemic challenges are prioritized and effectively addressed. Above all, the participants strongly reiterated that funding public education is a social responsibility of the government, and categorically rejected any moves towards further commercialization of education in Nigeria.
The gathering also noted the inadvertent side-effect of the loan scheme — a noticeable increase in tuition costs across public educational institutions in the country. They urgently called on the government to stem this unhealthy trend, which they cautioned would further impede access to affordable and quality education.
Emerging from the symposium, stakeholders urged the government to repeal the students’ loans policy and convert its funding mechanisms to a special intervention vehicle for dispensing grants and bursaries to indigent yet high-performing students in public tertiary institutions. They proposed that these grants could also be allocated towards supporting prospective undergraduates pursuing studies in fields with a significant shortage of professionals in the country. Stakeholders also recommended the government utilize funds drawn from various economic purses to increase budgetary allocation to education as well as ensure greater accountability and efficient utilization of existing interventionist programmes such as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). among other recommendations.
Days following the symposium, the federal government released a public statement reiterating the tuition-free status of federal universities in the country. It further directed authorities of federal higher learning institutions to desist from arbitrarily hiking sundry charges. In addition, the statement disclosed President Tinubu’s decision to lift restrictions on student loans, extending their availability to all students.
While these actions are evidently responsive to the concerns voiced by stakeholders, there remains significant scope for improvement in the realm of higher education accessibility. As per the consensus drawn from the stakeholders’ review, the student loans policy, despite the government’s intention to commence its implementation towards the end of the year, remains an impracticable solution to the myriad challenges besieging higher education in Nigeria.