Government outlines student loan funding amidst wider education criticisms

The government has moved ahead with a Rf50 million student loan programme in an attempt to support a larger number of local people in further education, replacing the “pocket money” grant scheme that previously supplied limited study funding free of charge.

The funding switch has raised concerns among some students and opposition figures, who claim that not enough is being done to support and prepare young people for the challenges of a more diverse Maldives job market.

Aminath Ali, Deputy Minister of Human Resources, Youth and Sports, told Minivan News that 340 students currently studying in higher or further education institutions in the Maldives were now able to claim an equal share of the government supplied funding, which was expected to be paid back once courses were over.

“Out of 367 existing students who applied for the loans, 27 were rejected as they were not currently studying in the Maldives,” she said.

The switch from the previous “pocket money” system has not been without controversy, with some local students demonstrating outside the President’s Office back in March in order to try and reinstate charge-free grants for those in higher education.

Student protesters claimed at the time that some of their peers appeared to still be getting the pocket money grant, while others were struggling to afford or obtain books required for their studies in light of the student loan switch.

A spokesperson for the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) this week also criticised the government’s implementation of the student loan system, as well as its overall commitments to education in the country, claiming that both the funding and the range of courses currently on offer were “not sufficient” for their own needs – or those of the job market that will one day employ them.

Aminath Ali said she accepted that a number of students had become concerned about the change towards providing loans instead of the free grants previously offered.  However, the minister claimed the new system was in place to try to ensure that both the country and citizens could afford further education on a more sustainable basis in the long-term.

“Under the current budget we cannot provide free learning and funding for students at higher education institutions.  The [student loans] are similar to mechanisms in place in countries all over the world,” she said.  “Say a student has a total loan amount of Rf24,000 over their studies, they will have to pay back this amount and a five percent administration charge to cover the role of their bank over an agreed period of time.”

According to Ali, once a student had completed their studies, they are then given six months to find a job before having to begin paying back the funding.

The deputy human resources minister claimed that sufficient mechanisms were in place to allow student to pay back their loans to the government over a maximum of ten years depending on their revenue.  Ali added that in consultations with the Employment Ministry, she was confident that graduates would be able find jobs within this six month period that offer long-term career prospects for those willing to work.

The loan system is also said to be backed by 100 percent scholarship programmes for students studying abroad in areas such as medical sciences and technology, according to the ministry.  Ali claimed that 180 scholarships, based on educational performance, had been offered between January and May of this year.

Separate funding had also been put aside by the Ministry of Human Resources for students to apply for when entering into further education during the present academic year.

The Ministry of Education claimed that the move towards student loans reflected the need for funding at a wider number of institutions in the country that now offer higher education courses to students across different fields of expertise.

DRP Spokesperson Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef said that while the opposition party welcomed measures to financially support students in higher education, he believed the new loan system had failed to take into account hardships faced by the young, particularly those coming from islands to Male’ to live.

According to Shareef, while previous systems had provided a pocket money allowance and even some forms of salary to fund study from the government’s purse, he claimed the new loans were insufficient to cover the expenses of moving to Male’.

“From the complaints we have received from students, [the student loans] are not a popular initiative.  Government must reconsider this system, changes are expected to be for the better,” he said.  “If the government was replacing [student funding] with a better system, it would be welcomed.”

When addressing the government’s own need to reduce national spending and its own budget deficits amidst commitments to organisations such as the International Monetary fund (IMF), Shareef said that the government would have been better served by “gradually” phasing out the “pocket money” system as opposed to replacing it completely.

“In a country, no matter how rich it is, education is not an area where funding should be cut,” he said.

In addition to concerns over the student loan system, Shareef claimed that he also believed that the current higher education curriculum was out of synch with the demands of the modern Maldives job market.

“The whole education system does not match up with the job openings currently being offered,” he claimed. “Until the 1980’s, we had limited [job] openings available , so the purpose of education and training was to get people ready for working the civil service,” he said.

With the advent and growth of the country’s the tourist industry along with the emergence of regional and multinational businesses moving into the Maldivian economy, Shareef claimed that the education system had failed to move with the times in making people ready for this changing workplace.

“There are not enough professionals available that are trained to work in management positions within the tourism, fisheries and even construction industries.  Education is simply not meeting these requirements,” he said


Students take to President’s Office over “pocket money” funding concerns

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.”

Education challenges

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.

Scholarship considerations

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.”