Disincentives reign in scholarships
In the last couple of years, scholarship schemes at the behest of both the state and federal governments have been mired in one shade of controversy or the other. The lamentable scenarios abroad painted by these controversies do not only further sully the country’s reputation, they also constitute a clog in the wheels of affected student’s education advancement. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY and KANAYO UMEH, write.
AS undergraduates in the University of Ibadan between 1969 and 1972, we were paying almost £200 pounds, including accommodation and feeding. However, at the end of my first year, I was recommended for Cocoa Marketing Board Scholarship Award. At that time, the old Western Region was giving the board a sort of bursary award. The Federal Government would also give bursary; the regional government would give bursary and some industries would give scholarships. So we had several opportunities. It was only those that did not have scholarships or grants that paid.
“At the time I was finishing for my undergraduate programme and was going for my postgraduate diploma, I got a fellowship from UNICEF. By the time I was ready for my PhD programme, during General Yakubu Gowon’s era as Head of State, there was massive scholarships for masters and PhD programmes,” that was how the Vice Chancellor Bells University of Technology, Ota, Ogun State, Prof Isaac Adebayo Adeyemi, recalled the glut of scholarship awards that held sway during his undergraduate and postgraduate days.
He is only an infinitesimal part of the legion of Nigerians that enjoyed scholarship schemes put in place by several governments, companies, boards and parastatals between 1960s and the 1980s
Fast forward to 2015, the story takes a 360-degree turn around, of course for the worse.
For instance, after considering a number of factors, the River State government, through the state Commissioner for Agriculture, Mrs. Onimim Jack, in Port Harcourt, recently told parents of beneficiaries of the state governor’s overseas scholarship scheme that the current economic situation had made it impossible for the sustenance of the scheme, adding that the government was making arrangements to see how the students would return and continue their studies in state-owned universities.
This was after Governor Nyesom Wike, in June last year vowed that he would review the scheme in order to sanitise and purge it of alleged deep-seated corrupt practices. On that occasion, he had claimed that a report by his transition committee stated that the past administration sidelined the state scholarship board and appropriated its powers to award scholarships to the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA), which resorted to the use of consultants to source for overseas scholarship for beneficiaries of the scheme.
Today, Miss Chika Didiah, one of the beneficiaries of the Rivers State governor’s scholarship scheme is regretting the entire scenario that is playing out, and her decision to even accept the government scholarship in the first instance.
She disclosed that since they (beneficiaries) returned to the country three months ago, she has been at a loss as to how, and where to start from having been abandoned by the government. She regretted that her former schoolmates at the Rivers State University of Technology (RUST), from where she left for the overseas scholarship, have all graduated while she has been left hanging.
Penultimate week, Kano State joined the league of states that are pulling the plug as far as foreign scholarship is concerned. The state cited its dire financial situation, which has made the sustenance of the foreign scholarship unrealistic.
In the last couple of years, the fate of Nigerians students studying in the Russia under the Federal Ministry of Education’s Bilateral Education Programme (BEA) has not been radically different from that of their counterparts sponsored by different state governments.
For instance, in the dying days of 2014, the students under the auspices of the Association of Nigerian Scholarship Students in Russia (ANSSIR) protested the non-payment of their stipends for eight months.
This was shortly after students sent to Russia by the Bayelsa State Government had also protested the non-payment of their 14 months stipends and tuition by the state government.
President of ANSSIR, Mr. Ike David Ikenna, who led the peaceful demonstration at the Nigerian Embassy there said they decided to stage a peaceful demonstration to disrupt the normal operations of the embassy so as to get words out that they have not been paid their allowances for eight months.
This, according to him, became inevitable as all avenues to peacefully demand their allowances from the Federal Scholarship Board, Abuja had failed.
The BEA scheme is a joint programme run by the Nigerian government (through the Federal Ministry of Education) in collaboration with governments of other countries such as Russia, China, Cuba, Morocco, Algeria, Ukraine, etc.
Under the scheme, outstanding students from all parts of the federation are nominated by the Nigerian government to the foreign governments. The receiving-country then places the scholars in universities and pays their tuition while the Nigerian government pays for students’ visas, flight, and a monthly allowance of US $500.
Last December, BEA scholarship students in China, penned an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari narrating their plight in that country. The students, who said they were constrained to write “this open letter to you to bring to your notice the plight and sufferings of Nigerian students under BEA,” added that they had explored all available formal means of resolving the quagmire, but to no avail.
“As we write to you currently in December 2015, all the 27 BEA students in China are yet to be paid a ‘kobo’ since January 2015. This includes eight students who graduated in July 2015, majority of whom had to borrow money to buy their return tickets at the risk of almost being deported due to close expiration dates of their visas. The situation has seriously impeded academic, social and emotional welfare of students, whose major means of sustenance comes from this allowance from the Federal Government. Students cannot fend for themselves as the policy in China, like many other similar countries, prohibits any form of paid work by foreign students, especially those on scholarship,” the students wrote.
“It must be noted sir, that this non-payment/delayed payment has been a perennial issue for years, with scholars having to wait for four to six months at the minimum before their stipends are paid by the Federal Scholarship Board. Reasons for such delays are often issues bordering on budgeting processes, bank transfers etc. This year the problem escalated even further that part-payment of five months stipends was made to scholars in some countries only as at October/November 2015 (a delay of 10 to 11 months), while others such as China are yet to receive a dime up till now, let alone talk about the balance.
“The executives of the Association of Nigerian Students in China (ANSIC) have been working tirelessly with the help of the Nigerian Embassy in Beijing to find out the root cause of this present predicament so as to bring succor to the sufferings of the students, but all efforts are being frustrated with vain results,” they cried.
While taking cognizance of the dire economic situation in the “country partly resulting from the crash in oil prices globally,” they said that “a whole year’s delay in payment can sincerely not be attributed to lack of funds, but to human inaction and indifference, especially in our case in China, where even the part payment is yet to be made. It is mind-boggling that there is no reliable explanation from the Federal Scholarship Board under the Ministry of Education as to what exactly is the problem regarding the inability to pay scholars in China like most others, even after countless cries for help.”
They, therefore prayed for momentary reliefs, which included, “That the unpaid allowances (from January to December 2015) of BEA scholars in China and other countries in similar situations should as a matter of urgency, be paid in full to ease our hardships and enable us pay our debts; that the budgetary provisions of scholarship students henceforth be removed from capital budget in order to avoid such delays in the future due to budget processes, which are always cumbersome and bureaucratic; that the entire BEA scholarship scheme be reviewed to be more effective and transparent, and when possible, an upward review of allowances should be made in line with current economic realities.”
They also want “a mutual, healthy and more open communication channel to be established between the Federal Scholarship Board, the Ministry of Education and all scholarship students,” just as they called for the establishment of “a monitoring team that truly accesses the quality of institutions of study and living condition of students, to avoid unfair standard in treatment and education that scholars receive.”
Finally, they also want the Federal Government to ensure that “scholars who have graduated be considered for roles in Nigeria in order to checkmate brain drain, which is seriously impeding national development after investing in students for so long.”
Last month, it also emerged that over 300 Nigerian youths who were sponsored by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), to study at Constanta Maritime University, Romania, were facing threat of expulsion from the institution over their sponsor’s alleged failure/refusal to pay their school fees and sundry allowances.
The Guardian findings indicated that the students, who are studying engineering, navigation and naval transport, each pay as much as €5,720 (about N1.3m).
A breakdown of the figure indicate that each of the students pays €4,500 tuition, €300 as feeding allowance; €400 for accommodation; €220 as stipends and €300 as winter allowance. While feeding, accommodation and stipends are paid monthly the school fees and winter allowance are paid once a year to the students who are in years one to three.
At the Federal Scholarship Board, Abuja to ferret the true position of things, The Guardian was told that the director in-charge of the directorate was on leave. The Deputy Director, Bilateral Education Agreement, Mrs. Chioma Nwadei, who is standing for the director, however, declined to speak, saying she was not permitted to speak on the matter.
But the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Dr. Folasade Yemi-Esan assured that the ministry was working assiduously to ensure the prompt payments of stipends of the affected scholars.
She added that the ministry has already written to the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, on how to work out modalities to fully access money meant for the BEA at the beginning of every year in order to avoid undue delays.
“There are quite a number of issues that we are grappling with but I can assure you that we are working to ensure that for scholarships, we will try to access the money early. We have written to the minister of finance to ensure that we access the money early. Some of these children are very young. So, we are working assiduously to ensure that we pay them their stipends as at when due.
“However, because of these problems, I have set up a small committee which has the Director in charge of Finance and Accounts (DFA), who is to look at how at the beginning of the year, we call pull all these monies that are meant for scholarships together and pay the scholars.
The permanent secretary disclosed that inconsistent and delay in the payment of the stipends of the students was as a result of the ministry’s inability to fully access monies meant for the ministry.
“The problems we are having is in the where we have put the payments of these scholarships; it is under the capital expenditure and in the last year for example, if you look at the performance we have been presenting at the National Assembly. For capital, it was only fifty percent that was released to the ministry and that is why we have not been able to conclude and complete the payments.
“I can imagine what these children are going through, the ones in Cuba for instance, we had an added problem of remitting the money. Nigeria cannot remit money directly to Cuba. It was so cumbersome; we had to send it through the embassy of another country before it finally got to them.
Speaking on the allegations of corruption on the part officials of the scholarship board, Yemi-Esan said, “Since I resumed as permanent secretary of the ministry, I have not seen any petition on corruption in the scholarship board. What I have seen is that money does not get to them as at when due.