Op-Ed: The real reasons why Nkandu Luo is taking students’ meals off the table
By Sishuwa Sishuwa
On 6 February 2019, Minister of Higher Education Professor Nkandu Luo announced that her ministry had with immediate effect stopped disbursing the stipend, popularly known as ‘meal’ allowance, paid to government-sponsored students in public universities for their upkeep. Luo said the move was necessitated by the need to extend the government’s financial assistance to students in other public universities and to make parents to share the cost of the education of their children. To avoid misrepresenting the reasons that Luo cited for the move, it is worth quoting her remarks at length:
“Given the fact that we have extended support to the other institutions, we are going to strictly restrict our support to tuition fees, accommodation and these will be paid directly to the institutions where the students are going to be studying so that we don’t have a situation where people are not able to pay for their tuition and their accommodation. Then the money to do with their books and projects is what will be paid directly to the students. So the new support that is going to start this year will not include pocket money popularly known as BC [meal allowance]. This way, we will have a shared responsibility between us and the parents of these children.”
Broadly speaking, there are three points to be said about Luo’s decision.
The first is that the Minister of Higher Education was less than truthful in explaining why the government is stopping the payment of students’ living allowances. Before examining this this point in detail, it is worth noting that the Higher Education Loans and Scholarships Act Number 31 of 2016 expects the government to provide for a living allowance to eligible students in educational institutions of higher learning. Section 24 (1c) of this law stipulates that
Subject to the provisions of this Act, a loan or scholarship granted to a student shall not exceed the aggregate of
(a) the fees payable to the higher education institution per academic year;
(b) a prescribed sum of money per academic year to assist in defraying the cost of books and other supplies required by the student in the student’s faculty or department at the higher education institution; and
(c) a living allowance in the prescribed amount per academic year.
The fees or other charges that are payable to a higher education institution by a student granted a loan or scholarship shall be paid by the Board directly to the institution.
The Board shall, in granting a loan to a student, require repayment of the loan at such times within such periods as the Board may determine.
The Act further defines a ‘loan’ as “a loan granted to a student by the Board for the purpose of defraying the costs connected with the education at a local higher education institution, including costs connected with the board and lodging of the student for the purposes of attending the higher education institution”. Why then is the government taking away willy-nilly what the law expects it to provide as part of the student-financing loan scheme? The simple answer is that the government has run out of money because of its lack of fiscal discipline, careless debt contraction, loyalty to corruption and excessive extravagance. A lack of priorities in public expenditure (one that has recently seen the procurement of an extremely expensive aircraft for President Edgar Lungu, a fleet of high-priced cars for ministers and an exorbitant sojourn abroad for Esther Lungu and her entourage to engage in some kind of ‘vision nutrition’ in the USA – viewing four out-of-date firetrucks donated to her charity organisation by those who found them unsafe for use) alongside inflated costs in public procurement has left the government on the verge of collapse. The student meal allowance is simply the earliest casualty of this inexcusable wastefulness, perpetrated by a kleptocratic regime and some of the basest of us – a coterie of unscrupulous elite scumbags, hypocrites, kakistocrats, and scoundrels of all hues who somehow find themselves in power. The decay in the economy will only deteriorate, possibly triggering civil unrest, which might help to explain why Lungu and his friends in power are proactively making huge investments in police weaponry, not in Zambia’s greatest resource: people.
Our national plight and complex challenges call for a different kind of leadership, one that is competent, sufficiently educated, and in possession of clearly defined moral and ethical values – courage, compassion and love for fellow human beings, moral force of character, integrity, genuine humility, honesty, a predilection for consultation, consensus-building, communication, co-operation, active listening, and the selfless pursuit of the public good, and not the selfish striving for personal gain. It is hardly possible to look at Lungu’s Cabinet today without being struck by the calamity of the absence of this kind of leadership. Founding president Kenneth Kaunda once attempted to mould a national character built around the named leadership qualities, but we have since been starved of effective leadership (apart from the short-lived tenure of Levy Mwanawasa) that we have now forgotten what it looks like. The full character of the Zambian society has also changed: we have sunk so low that we can only rise. If we have a country where stealing begins from State House and extends to all manner of public servant, whatever the rank, then the problem runs deeper than bad leadership. We steal even when we absolutely have no need to – not that theft is ever morally justified – and pick out the very worst of our elements to govern us, even when better options are readily available. Ours is an underlying social moral cancer, one we will only cure at great pain to ourselves. I fear, sometimes, that we are becoming a country where a laissez-faire attitude to life has become the norm, one where when things get bad, people just party more, or pray more, or both. Turning the tide of this trend would require a mobilisation and union of energies, probably not seen since the struggle for independence, and a strong, compassionate and visionary leadership.
Nkandu Luo should have been truthful. Tough times are ahead for Zambians – not that these and the past times have been any easier. Our country is saturated with debt and our government has little to show for it. The consequences are now beginning to show. Clearly, much of the money borrowed has been wasted or stolen. Nevertheless, it will have to be repaid and I am afraid that government finances will become tighter, as we struggle to dismantle the mountain of debt that has formed since 2012. To illustrate: according to the 2019 national budget, the government is this year alone expected to spend K15 billion (K 15 trillion in old currency) on servicing external debt and K 8 billion on servicing domestic debt. As a result, public investment in social sectors like education, agriculture and health will decrease considerably, setting in motion a devastating process whose output will be a disease-ridden, impoverished and illiterate national population. Zambians, sadly, are not unfamiliar to these events and the fact that the actions of our government have brought us here again is sheer madness. If Zambia were a business company, she would have long been liquidated.
The second point to be said about Luo’s move is that her stated reasons for scrapping the living allowance are not persuasive for various reasons.
The need for additional scholarship loan schemes in new public universities cannot in itself be a reason for subtracting living allowances from the provisions made available in the present scholarship scheme. On the contrary, if the government establishes additional universities, they have an obligation to increase the number of scholarships proportionally, and not find the money by reducing the number of scholarships for University of Zambia (UNZA) and Copperbelt University (CBU) students and by cancelling meal allowances for all students, starting with this year’s intake.
Meal allowances should be an essential component of a scholarship, since attending university rests on various essential costs, of which tuition fees, accommodation and food are the most essential. This explains why the earlier cited definition of a loan includes ‘costs connected with the board and lodging of the student for the purposes of attending the higher education institution’. The phrase ‘board and lodging’ means food or meals and accommodation provided to an eligible beneficiary.
The claim that the move represents an attempt to make parents share the responsibility of educating their children with the government by making them pay food costs is laughably disingenuous, since parents are already contributing considerably by having to pay transport costs, food and accommodation during vacation, and miscellaneous living costs such as clothes and toiletries. In addition, the parents pay the opportunity cost of not having their offspring entering wage employment or assisting in the family farm or other enterprises. It is also worth noting that many children of this generation do not have parents. Those who are lucky have guardians, who have already taken over the government’s duty to look after the orphans (child welfare).
If present scholarships are means tested, then it follows that those who receive them have parents who cannot afford to send their children to university. This has the corollary that scholarships should include not only meal allowances but also the other expenses listed above that cannot be afforded by very poor families.
It is not even clear that meal allowances are a cost to government, since the present scholarship scheme is a loan scheme where the recipient is required to pay back the money to the government. But if students are subsequently unable to pay back the loans because they cannot find employment, this is directly the fault of the government, which has always justified expenditure on university education as an investment for future development. This means that government is supposed to control the number of university places to match the needs of the labour market. The current large number of unemployed graduates indicates that the government has overly expanded universities, has spent money it cannot afford, and now seems to be trying to find the money by starving the students. Given the above considerations, it becomes clear that the removal of meal allowances has no rational basis.
The final point is that Luo’s decision to take hungry students’ meals off the table could also be a result of her own entrenched but false belief that living allowances are responsible for student protests at public universities. (The actual cause of student protests is the delayed disbursement of living allowances and the frequent lack of clear communication between the government and the students when such is the case.) Unrepentant, and guided by this flawed thinking, the minister has had various run-ins with the students, and has previously taken action to unlawfully suspend the students’ union activities at UNZA and CBU, and also to divide UNZA into several colleges which would be administratively, academically and even geographically separated, apparently in a strategy of ‘divide and rule’. These considerations raise the question of whether the removal of living allowances is yet another step in Luo’s irrational and vindictive war against the university students, where the minister’s purpose is to physically punish the students and also to show them that she is the boss.
The minister’s action seems to be a further escalation of the long-standing and intermittent war between UNZA students and the government, which began as far back as 1967, where the government’s reaction to student protests takes the form of invasions of campus by militarised police to brutalise students, and also by long closures followed by exclusion of student leaders. The removal of living allowances may therefore be interpreted as a further extension of government terrorism, adding the new strategy of starving the students, presumably to reduce their energy in mounting protests and to force them into compliance or submission. Such a strategy may have exactly the opposite effect, thereby signifying government’s further descent into irrationality in dealing with students. The great irony of the situation is that this vindictive war against UNZA is being conducted by a minister who is a professor of the same university. As a professor of microbiology, Luo presumably has an expert knowledge of micro-organisms, but seems to have no understanding whatsoever of her fellow humans – not even their need for food.
I make an earnest appeal to the government and the wider public to prevail upon Luo to reverse the decision to withdraw the payment of students’ living allowances. Her action is ill-advised and likely to condemn generations of Zambians, especially the poor and mostly those in rural areas, to a subhuman and wretched existence underpinned by poverty, disease, superstition, ignorance, hunger, squalor, want, and ill health. Removing the living allowance that enabled so many Zambians to escape that fate through determination, chance and effort provides a guaranteed way of hoisting more numbers onto the already existing heap or mass of wasted talent.