In January 2020 the Government announced a new scheme, where the Vanuatu National Provident Fund (VNPF) offered VT500 million to the Ministry of Education, (MoET) to administer a loan scheme, in which members can borrow against their own retirement savings to fund their children’s (or their own) education.
Over 30 Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and community groups members of Kolisen Blong Leftemap Edukesen (KoBLE) convened on Friday 26th of March, 2021, for KoBLE’s network meeting as KoBLE invited a VNPF officer to explain the Members Education Support Scheme (MESS).
Whilst commenting on the scholarship initiative from the government, they wanted to understand how the scheme worked and how it was that VNPF members were being encouraged to borrow from their own savings and pay back with interest for something that should be free, and is free in the existing scholarship schemes funded by our government and friends in the Pacific.
The Vanuatu government has signed up the Sustainable Development Goals, along with all the other countries on the planet, committing itself to provide a free quality education for its population. The demand for scholarships has increased, and whilst the numbers funded by Australia and New Zealand has remained stable, the total numbers awarded by the Training & Scholarships Coordination Unit (TSCU) has risen steeply. Ongoing scholarships increased from 345 in 2017, 465 in 2018 and 736 in 2019.
The government says it has insufficient funds to cope with the demand for scholarships, so came up with the MESS loan which caters for tuition fees, air fares and accommodation, while the government pays a living allowance.
So what is wrong with it, and why all the complaints? The first problem is one of principle and international commitment:
• Everyone has a right to education, no matter their financial circumstances or political affiliation. The Vanuatu government has made international commitments to provide education for all its people, but it seems to have now making families borrow against their own retirement funds to provide education for their children (or themselves). Teachers are having to pay for their own upskilling from their VNPF.
The country needs better teachers, and the government needs to pay for their in-service training. The government is also thinking of using the MESS to pay for Form 12 & 13 students, not just those going to college. One can see where this is going – very soon everyone will have to borrow against their VNPF to send their children to any school.
• The second problem is how the scheme works. Many consider it as a leftovers scheme. The rest can apply to the MESS for a loan, but only if they have a guarantor (or more than one), and agree to pay back the loan when they have a job. But here is the problem — as the Wan Smol Bag and Island Rock Association participants in the meeting pointed out – “we all know that these miraculous ‘jobs’ don’t exist in the numbers needed, and unemployment is rising in Port Vila.”
• So, few jobs after students finish their courses, but the need to pay back doesn’t disappear. Let’s be clear, these are loans, guaranteed by VNPF members. The average cost for one MESS scholarship is VT2.3 million. You don’t pay back your loan, your granny loses her/his VNPF retirement savings. Let’s take our parents savings to train our children for jobs that don’t exist?
• The contribution from the government to those awarded a MESS, is a living costs contribution of VT20,000 per month, which does not reflect Port Vila living and studying costs. This has led to some students abandoning their courses.
• Any scholarship system including MESS, as it presently works, is not fair. If you can’t get a guarantor, you can’t get a loan, no matter how smart you are. When asked about student grades, the VNPF officer replied that according to the scholarship VNFP contract, the scholarship is awarded only to students who have A grades. So if you are a school push-out, without qualifications, you can’t get a scholarship, even though the course you want to do would be very valuable to you and the country.
These problems are not new; a quick look at the history of schemes in our neighbours Fiji and Australia, and on the other side of the world in the USA show similar experiences. Debts in these schemes for unpaid student loans are spiraling out of control. The average student loan borrower in the USA graduates with nearly US$30,000 in debt. Many will be unable to pay back, or will spend many years paying interest on these loans. In Australia, bad student debt is expected to double to A$ 4 billion in the next 3 years. In Fiji a big problem of the loan scheme was students ended up changing their names in order to avoid pay back, and bad debt difficult to fix.
The government needs to fix their scholarship programme, not to come up with a loan scheme that endangers the VNPF. Education is a government duty, and should be budgeted for appropriately. KoBLE recommends to abandon the MESS and fix the scholarship scheme.
• Conduct a training needs analysis – what skills are needed in Vanuatu? Ask donor partners for help in this. Award scholarships targeting areas of need, now and in the future.
• Review the scholarship scheme and implement quotas to ensure that youth push outs, youth with a disability and other marginalized groups are represented in the scholarship programme.
• Review education providers, and ensure that scholarships are awarded to only good quality institutions.
• Accept that not everyone who asks for a scholarship can have one, but the decisions made should be on the basis of merit and be transparent. It should not be ‘who you know’. To make it transparent, let’s see the whole community represented in the scholarship selection committee – civil society, training providers, education authorities and donors.
KoBLE is a local NGO funded by Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and is dedicated to advocate for the advancement of educational opportunities for all Vanuatu citizens, especially for those from disadvantaged groups.