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Student Loans Law: Tinubu’s Populist And Half-baked Policy -By Olu Fasan

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Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s new president, was determined to hit the ground running from his first day in office. He was haunted by the ghost of his somnolent predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, who sat desultorily on his hands, doing nothing for the first six months of his administration in 2015. Unlike Buhari, who was called, and relished being called, “Baba Go Slow”, Tinubu has been called, and enjoys being called,“Baba Go Fast”! But, in governance, going fast can be as bad as, even worse than, going slow.

This is because good government depends on good policy making, and good policy making requires thoughtfulness, proper planning and a comprehensive analysis of the problem. However, Tinubu has shown a penchant for populist and half-baked policies. Populist, because they’re eye-catching and intended to show he cares about ordinary people; half-baked, because they’re poorly thought through, and defy basic rules of good policymaking.

Recently, I criticised Tinubu’s arbitrary withdrawal of the fuel subsidy without proper planning and consultation. The subsidy removal has not only affected the “rich”, but, more so, the poor, who bear the brunt of the pass-through costs through sky-rocketing inflation that will further immiserate them. But what did Tinubu do? Last week, he announced a N500 billion “palliatives” to give N8,000 to 12 million people monthly for six months.

First, how did Tinubu arrive at the 12 million figure when 133 million Nigerians are multidimensionally poor? Second, what would N8,000 per month do for a poor Nigerian, with an ever-rising cost of living? And third, why six months? The fuel subsidy removal would save the government $10bn, over N8 trillion, per year. But Tinubu wants to give 12 million Nigerians a measly N8,000 per month for six months. Faced with a backlash, he’s now reportedly reviewing the palliatives. It’s a damning indictment of his rash governing style.

Which brings us to the student loans policy. Tinubu signed the Student Loans (Access to Higher Education) Bill into law on June 12. In a four-part article in this newspaper, entitled “Education loan for students by President Tinubu”, the legal icon and renowned educationist Chief Afe Babalola, SAN, founder of Afe Babalola University, extensively examined the new law and gave it the thumbs down! Chief Babalola’s analysis is unassailable.

For me, the act confirms a pattern of deceptive populism and half-baked policy making. Indeed, Tinubu, who has long been part of Nigeria’s problem, and whose party has misruled Nigeria since 2015, is now insulting Nigerians with deceptive invocations of populism. Recently, he said he would “recover Nigeria from vested interests”, citing the student loans act as evidence of how he’s doing so.

But if the student-loans law is, indeed, intended to support indigent students, then it’s a bad law and an ill-conceived, harebrained policy. Yet, Dele Alake, Tinubu’s special adviser on “special duty, media, communication and strategy”, said: “This is how it is done in other developed climes.” Really? How many student-loans laws in other countries did the Tinubu administration study before introducing its own flawed legislation?

First, there’s no evidence of a comprehensive analysis of the problem. Giving loans to poor students in a tertiary education system that lacks the resources and capacity to produce employable graduates is misguided. With graduate unemployment ranging between 40 and 60 per cent, depending on whether the qualification is a degree or an HND, poor students would be saddled with huge debts with little prospects of getting a proper job after graduation to pay them back.

In the UK, the student loans scheme was linked to raising the tuition fee to £9,250 per year, allowing universities to generate more income. And as they generated more income, they spent it on enhancing teaching, research and the student experience, resulting in better qualified and employable graduates. So, giving loans to poor students without significantly resourcing and improving Nigeria’s tertiary institutions would simply increase student population and graduate unemployment. Furthermore, a student loan that covers only tuition, as the act says, and not maintenance, as in the UK, doesn’t really help the poor!

Then, there’s the utter deception. The act says its aim is to “provide easy access to higher education for indigent students”. Yet, it puts major obstacles in their way. First, an applicant’s family annual income must be less than N500,000. Every good policy is inclusive, excluding no sections of society from its benefit. But Tinubu’s student loans policy excludes millions of poor families: a family is now considered rich in Nigeria if its annual income is N500,000 ($650)!

Ridiculously, every applicant must also produce two guarantors. Tell me, in a country where getting anything virtually depends on connections or palm-greasing, why should an indigent parent or student be burdened with looking for a senior civil servant, a senior lawyer, a judicial officer or a justice of peace as guarantors?

What’s more, if an applicant has a parent who has defaulted in respect of a student loan or any other loan, he or she would be disqualified. Thus, Tinubu visits the sins of parents on their children. Furthermore, an applicant would be disqualified if he or she has been convicted of drug offences. How ironic, given that Tinubu himself was entangled in a drug related matter in the US.

Here’s the point. The eligibility and disqualification conditions in the act negate the so-called aim “to provide easy access to higher education for indigent Nigerians.” So is the exclusion of students in private tertiary institutions from benefitting from the loan. In the UK, tuition fee loans are for all students, while maintenance loans and grants are means tested. If the Tinubu government cannot afford a universal student loans scheme, it shouldn’t create such a discriminatory scheme that excludes large sections of society. That’s bad policy and may be even unconstitutional, as some senior lawyers argue!

Outrageously, the act provides that a student-loan defaulter “shall be liable to imprisonment for two years or a fine of N500,000”. How many of the politically-connected farmers who defaulted in their Anchor Borrowers’ Programme loans are in jail? No civilised society treats student-loan default as a jailable offence. Besides, student loans are not conventional loans, hence many governments make provisions for cancellation. Yet, Tinubu trumpets his perverse student loans act as an achievement. It betrays his deceptive populism and penchant for capricious, ill-judged policymaking. Call it bad governance!

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