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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

MIXED MESSAGES ON SCHOLARSHIPS

The Swaziland Government is sending mixed messages about the future of scholarships for tertiary students.


Majozi Sithole, the Swazi Finance Minister, said in his budget speech on Friday (18 February 2011) that the government could no longer afford scholarships – and then he increased the amount of money available for them by more than E20 million.


Here’s what he said in one part of the speech.


Mr. Speaker, the cost of tertiary education has reached an unsustainable level and this is in the form of scholarships and subventions to tertiary institutions.


And in another part of the speech.


Mr. Speaker, Government is also committed to supporting students in tertiary education. However, spending on scholarships has become unsustainable. Without changes, Government will be unable to provide scholarships to any students starting university in 2011/12.


That seems pretty clear: the cost of tertiary education has reached ‘an unsustainable level’ and unless something is done the government won’t be able to provide scholarships to students starting university in 2011.


But, then Sithole announced an increase in the scholarship budget for this year (2011/2012) of more than E20 million – up to E248,553,538 this year from E228,142,678 last year. This was also an increase from the allocation of 2009/2010, which was E220 million.


So either it can’t be afforded this year, or it can: what’s it to be?


A new scholarship policy has been forced through by the Swaziland Government without proper consultation with students. Earlier this month (February 2011), up to 3,000 students took to the streets of Swaziland’s capital Mbabane in protest.


The new policy seeks to replace scholarships with loans. At present, a university student would be expected to repay 50 percent of the scholarship. By 2022, the government expects students to repay 100 percent.


Also, students on scholarships will no longer have the cost of their meals, accommodation and personal effects covered by the scholarship loan.


That’s the government’s plan, but in Swaziland, university and college students have a long history of protest and it is clear that the scholarship argument is far from over.


I wouldn’t be surprised if the scholarship policy isn’t changed soon. Student leaders are well skilled in closing colleges and getting students on the streets in protest. With the present wave of prodemocracy demonstrations across Middle East and North Africa, led mainly by young people, uppermost in his mind, King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, might not want to see the youth take to the streets of his kingdom.

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