Hundreds of students gathered today outside the President’s Office to call for the reestablishment of a “pocket money” grant scheme and have vowed to continue strikes and protests if their aims for free funding are not met.
After sending a petition to President Mohamed Nasheed last Thursday (24 February) over concerns about the end of the pocket money programme for pupils who enrolled in Maldivian higher education institutions during 2010, a large number of students took to the streets today to try and guarantee a monthly grant for their studies.
In light of the protests, prominent education officials in the country have claimed that the pocket money system had been phased out for pupil enrollments in 2010 as part of plans establish a new student loans system.
Some higher education figures claim that the loan, which would be required to be paid back unlike the pocket money, would be more widely available, yet they accepted that a system of means tested benefits and scholarships may be required for protecting the most financially vulnerable and brightest students respectively.
Despite these claims, some student protesters who had gathered outside the President’s Office this afternoon said they were not convinced that the planned student loans system was working in a manner fair to all Maldivians wishing to take part in higher education.
Two of the gathered protesters told Minivan News that the strikes, which were said to have been organised by just a “couple of students”, represented concerns about the government listening to students and the overall cost of education.
The protesters went on to claim that at present, some students appeared to still be getting the pocket money grant, while others were struggling to afford or obtain books required for their studies, with no explanation being given about how the current system of grants and loans were being assigned.
Abdulla Asjad, another student at the gathering currently studying for a BTch (Secondary) in Male’, said that he believed the student loan system bought in to replace pocket money was also not being supplied to everyone.
“They are giving these loans to some, but not to all students. They have not explained the system at all,” he said.
Asjad claimed that as protests continued, he was aware that five or so students had been admitted to the President’s Office to meet Nasheed himself, but he said the outcome of the talks remained uncertain.
When asked though about the students’ next plan to try and seek the return of pocket money, he replied: “We will come back.”
Dr Mustafa Luthfy, a former Education Minister and the Chancellor of the recently opened Maldives National University said that amendments made to higher education funding were bought about in an attempt to make the system fairer for a wider number of students, rather than trying to cut spending.
Recognising the concerns of some students over the changes though, the chancellor said that he had been involved with meetings to discuss the student petition. The meetings were said to be jointly organised between the country’s current Education Minister and the Minister of Human Resources, Youth, and Sports.
“Before 2009, some students were given pocket money of about Rf1,000 by the government for studying certain courses at specific institutions,” he said. “The government decided to change to student loans in 2009. Those students that enrolled in 2010 knew they were getting that. But students who enrolled before this time were still receiving the pocket money.”
According to Luthfy, the replacement student loan system, which provides about Rf2,000 a month to students at an interest rate lower than that being offered by national banks, was designed to be offered to every student in higher education regardless of the course or the institution they were studying.
These loans were then expected to be paid back years later when students had graduated and were in work, he claimed.
Luthfy told Minivan News that he believed there had been some problems with the grants and loan system, such as the case of a number of students who had travelled to study nursing at an institution in India.
After financial difficulties hit the study programme and the local representative in charge was said to have been unable to cover their economic responsibilities, the university chancellor claimed that the government had intervened and brought the students back to the Maldives.
After putting them into a local educational institution – where the students were deemed to be missing some of the requirements needed to study there – the government also took the decision to offer grants to aid the pupils through additional foundation courses after they had already paid money to the Indian institution in question, Luthfy said.
In considering today’s protest, the university chancellor said that although he believed the student loans were open to everyone, some changes to existing education funding would possibly need to be introduced in the future.
“The student loan system is fairer in one way,” he said. “But students do have to pay for this.”
Luthfy claimed that at present, institutions such as the Maldives National University were already using their entire budgets, so the reintroduction of grants like pocket money was not deemed possible by the government.
In looking to further potential changes, the chancellor suggested that systems such as means testing could be used to ascertain where assistance was needed for economically disadvantaged pupils or those suitable for scholarships.
“For the future, we will have to look at methods to help students who have financial difficulties,” he said. “Right now we also don’t have scholarship programmes, but we would have to introduce them in order to attract the brightest students.”