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Alumni-managed fund answer to bursaries headache

SHEM SIKOMBE
THERE has been so much debate on the student bursaries and government inability to sponsor a significant number of allegedly deserving students at tertiary education level.
For those who may not be aware, this is not a new story; it has been there for quite some time.
The question is: what is the problem and what are the pragmatic solutions to this problem?
Bursaries Committee
The Bursaries Committee administers students’ scholarships on behalf of the government.
There has been so much discontent on the work of the committee by the main stakeholders – the students, most of them citing corruption and unfairness on how such scholarships are awarded.
However, it is understandable that administering scarce resources to so many students with various financial challenges is equally a daunting task for the committee.
The question is, what are the criteria to get these scholarships? As someone who has benefitted from the scholarship, I think the criteria are well outlined.
The major challenge is how this is communicated to prospective students. To the best of my knowledge, the following are paramount:
1. Deserving students should be unable to pay for themselves; that is, they must come from poor families. This prioritises two groups: orphans whose guardians are unable to pay for them and students coming from rural set-ups as attested by their addresses.
2. Students from any background who have been recommended by the social welfare department.
However, the major challenge to students is the evidence they provide to convince the committee.
Without convincing evidence, even those from the poorest families may be left out of these scholarships.
What’s the way forward? The committee’s major stakeholder is the student. I stand to be corrected, is there any student representative on this committee?
If not, I propose that student’s union leadership – the presidents and their secretaries-general should be incorporated into this committee immediately.
These leaders are answerable to their fellow students almost on any matter that affects them. This may also address the issue of transparency and fairness to some extent.
Grants or loans?
It is imperative that the solutions we propose to any problem are evaluated using three criteria: suitability, acceptability and feasibility.
It is obvious that the provision of grants by government is and will remain very limited. However, the loan scheme is not the answer either.
The levels of graduate unemployment are still relatively high in Zambia.
This is compounded by the fact that the few graduates who manage to get jobs earn very little money that cannot even support their immediate families in the first five years of employment, with a few exceptions of course.
Therefore, subjecting such students to paying back government loans is unreasonable. Further, such graduates contribute to the treasury in form of taxes, which I feel is sufficient.
What is the solution then?
Alumni managed fund is the solution.
Both the University of Zambia (UNZA) and Copperbelt University (CBU) boast of so many graduates, some of whom have taken up highly competitive jobs both in the public and private sectors, within and outside Zambia.
Such alumni can significantly supplement the grants offered by the government. Therefore, each university alumni may raise and manage its own funds, part of which may support deserving students who may not be awarded government scholarships.
For me, this is more pragmatic than setting up student banks or trust funds which may be far from addressing students’ specific needs.
I wish to emphasise that access to education is a right and it is Government’s responsibility to educate its citizens and provide them with decent jobs.
There can never be meaningful development without education!
Therefore, the government must step up its efforts to ensure that more students, if not all of them, access such scholarships.
The author is a lecturer in operations and supply chain management at CBU, Kitwe. Email-shemsikombe@live.c.uk

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