Bursary cut-back hits poor students

MASERU — Two weeks ago, Makhejane Taoli (in the picture) was literally over the moon.

He had just received what he considered the best piece of news in years.

This was in the form of an admission letter to study at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), Lesotho’s prestigious institution of higher learning.

Taoli says when he received the offer letter dated May 14, 2010, he was simply elated.

He says he felt his dream of pursuing further studies – to unlock a secure future — was now within reach.

Taoli says his first choice was an engineering degree.

The university had given him the Bachelor of Science (BSc) Agriculture degree.

All the same, Taoli says he was too happy to turn the offer down.

But he soon realised there was a problem.

His name was not on the list of students who were eligible to receive sponsorship from the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS).

He at first thought this was a typographical error.

But a visit to the NMDS offices soon confirmed his worst fears.

The admission letter from NUL stated that he would need to fork out M3 390 for tuition for the Pre-Entry Science Programme (PESP), a compulsory programme for all undergraduate students.

He would also be expected to pay M10 740 in tuition fee in the first year as well as M1 430 for accommodation during the PESP phase.

The accommodation fee for his first year programme was pegged at M6 200.

Besides these costs, he would also be expected to foot bills for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Breakfast was pegged at M15, while lunch and dinner would cost M20 every day.

The letter also indicated that each student would be expected to bring their own bedding linen, pillow and toiletries.

For Taoli, this was a tall order.

Taoli says he realised that his dream of pursuing higher education had been shattered.

He says without support from the NMDS, it was clear that he would not afford to pay his own tuition fees.

Taoli says he went down on his knees begging NMDS officials to reverse their decision.

The appeal was rejected.

The decision was final and could not be reversed, he was told.

Taoli says he cannot even start to imagine raising the M10 740 tuition fee that is required for the 2010/11 academic year.

On average, he would need to raise a further the more than M11 500 for accommodation, key deposit, identification documents, caution and acceptance fees.

A student would also need M65 for meals.

When the Pre-Entry Science Programme began on May 17, he did not bother to attend the lectures.

“My parents cannot afford to pay that much money. My father is just a shoe repairer and my unemployed mother is sick with cancer.

“There is just too much going on in my family but I have not yet lost hope. We are as a family still seeking help,” Taoli says.

“I am not going to lose hope. If I fail to raise the money I might have to wait for the next academic year.”

The decision to force students to pay their own tuition has wreaked havoc at NUL.

Of the 670 students who had applied for the BSc programme only about 340 turned up for the Pre-Entry Science Programme that began on May 17.

Taoli is certainly not alone.

There are hundreds of other students who have been caught up in the same net.

Lebohang Lichaba, 20, is also holding his fingers crossed that the NMDS will respond in his favour.

He has since the beginning of May been pleading with the NMDS to reconsider his application for funding.

Lichaba told the Lesotho Times that after his application was rejected he went to the NMDS offices again to plead his case.

He believed his case was special and merited a second opinion.

“I went back and pleaded with the NMDS officers to help me get scholarship. I am orphaned and cannot manage to pay for my fees.

“I am holding my fingers closed hoping for the best,” Lichaba said.

Lichaba says his uncle who took him in after his parents’ death was too poor to afford paying for his education.

“I need to get educated so that I can have a better future. I cannot depend on my uncle for the rest of my life.

“If the NMDS reconsiders my application, it would be the best thing that would ever happen to me,” Lichaba says.

Presenting his 2010/11 budget speech in February, Finance Minister Timothy Thahane said the government was experiencing problems with the national scholarship programme.

“The cost to government of supporting tertiary education has grown at an alarming rate in the last three years,” Thahane said.

The finance minister also complained that students were reluctant to repay their loans after completing their studies.

This, he said, had contributed to problems in running the scholarship scheme.

“At its inception the scheme was designed to be a revolving fund where new scholarships would be financed out of recoveries of previous loans.

“However, recovery has not been as expected largely because we are unable to track some of the students who eventually get employed in South Africa.”

Thahane then promised to implement concrete and sustainable strategies to recover the outstanding funds.

Addressing a press conference two weeks ago, Thahane said the government was cutting the number of students who received government scholarships.

Thahane said the government which is facing a severe financial squeeze, would sponsor a limited number of students studying for the BSc degree for the 2010/11 academic year.

“We are sponsoring 11 020 students at NUL who are doing different courses, 300 of them are studying for a BSc,” Thahane said.

“Those who are doing BSc are given the first priority as they are doing a course that will benefit the country economically.”

Thahane said the funding cut had been necessitated by the need to tighten and control government finances.

“We had a meeting with the educational institutions in the country to let them know about the status of the budget of the NMDS.

“It is very tight and we will only be able to sponsor a limited number of students. “We will not be restricting these institutions from admitting more numbers as long as those students are self-sponsored or get other sponsors who are not the NMDS,” Thahane said.

He said the ministry will increase the NMDS budget when there is more money available in state coffers.

“If those who owe NMDS pay their debts we would be able to increase the numbers because that money is meant to sponsor Basotho children at higher institutions.

“We have seen that most students have passed and we are impressed. But the government is not in a position to sponsor all students who have passed.”

He said the government would also consider vulnerable students who are orphans and who cannot pay their own fees.

“The criteria that is going to be used is that orphaned and vulnerable children will be given priority based on their performance and the field of study they have applied for.”

He said there were other degree courses that were important but would not be prioritised because they did not contribute much to the country’s economy.

“I will not mention the courses that are going to be given less priority for sponsorship. We are hurt that the children were given the admissions letters by NUL but they cannot be granted scholarships.

“Their hopes and expectations were high when they got the admission letters from NUL but we have to stick to numbers that were budgeted for.”

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