Columnists Features

Why bursaries should be administered by varsities

IT is one of the legacies of the Kaunda era that in order to give citizens equal opportunity (not equality) the state used tax revenues to pay for school fees of children of the rich as well as children of the poor.

In hindsight we can safely say Dr Kaunda meant well but he made a serious mistake in paying for the children of the wealthy.
In line with the St Mathew principle (to those that have shall more be given) we have now created a strong sense of entitlement among the rich and powerful that they shall take their pick of the Commonwealth and other scholarships offered by foreign governments, grab the best University of Zambia  and other local university classroom and lodgings.
In South Africa and many other countries, bursaries are offered by the universities not the Ministry of Education. The thing about a bursary is that it is not free. Recipients are supposed to work in the university library, kitchen, college farm or even cleaning toilets. This is a very important internship scheme for further improving chances of students from poor families.
Let me put it bluntly: the Bursaries Committee at the Ministry of Education is an old thing from the days of Humanism and should be shut down forthwith. The funding of student loans should be decentralised to the commercial banks and bursaries for children of the poor should be managed by the universities, which are best placed to advise and monitor the progress of such students.
Scholarships for the outstanding athletes or academic high flyers should also be administered by the host university. Just as Oxford takes the Rhodes Scholars so too should students on government, Mopani, Zambeef or Zamtel scholarships be managed by relevant universities.
There is no reason why the Bursaries Committee should be involved in awarding scholarships. If the Air force needs to send pilots or engineers to Italy, that is a Zambia Air force matter and if the Ministry of Agriculture needs to send soil scientists to Canada or cassava researchers to Nigeria, they should do so in line with their strategic plans.
You will of course have realised already that what prompted me to write on this topic is the tragic death of Musanka Makwamba, who could not take the rejection slip from the Bursaries Committee and instead took her own life. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, the prominent Canadian based lawyer, in a letter to the online publication Pambazuka <> wrote:
“…for some of us from poor families, education is the only pathway to a different future. During my time at UNZA everybody got a bursary. Of course those were different times. of fewer students and plenty of money in government coffers. There was also a government policy to fund education. I also put it as a proposition that there was less corruption.
There was the Leadership Code. It was not a solution to all ills but it was something. Where are our priorities if they do not include the future welfare of our children? I am very distressed by this death.”
I, too, am distressed by this death because it could have been avoided. Scholarships are for the top students while bursaries are for the needy.  Even parents of the low-income households make what contribution they can as tax-payers but beyond that it is the duty of the state to educate the next generation and facilitate their upward social mobility. In any case, educated populations are healthier, wealthier and drive the economies of our current information age.
It is thus quite wrong for the Bursaries Committee to pay for the education of the children of the wealthy because that only reinforces social inequalities by reducing the amount of financial aid available to the poor students and by keeping the numbers of educated people low.
Unfortunately this is yet another fine mess we have gotten ourselves into by not thinking strategically. Musanka Makwamba of Kalingalinga could have walked to UNZA, which probably is visible from where she used to live. She could have registered for one course instead of four and completed her degree at a cheaper slower rate or she could have taken a very good on-line course for free from one of the top American universities with a little guidance from UNZA.
The author is  director Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Studies Copperbelt University

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