I can still remember the conversation I had with my father in 2001, just before I sat for my national A-level leaving exam. “Son”, he said, “you better pass your exams”. The “or else” was unsaid but we both knew that he didnt have to say it. In those days, you either passed the national exams and went to a government university, repeated the year or, if your parents were wealthy, went to study in South Africa, Europe or North America. Since I knew that the last two options were out for me, I spent sleepless nights making sure that the first option was open to me. And through my hard work I did just that; I was admitted into the faculty of law at the National University of Rwanda on a full government scholarship with a monthly living stipend of 25,000 francs that paid my rent, food, school materials and transport costs.
I had done my part and now the government was doing its own. I called it a ‘educational social contract’ of sorts. Taxpayer dollars (parents’ money) would be used to educate their children if they (the children) worked hard and merited the said education. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would be called a ‘loan defaulter’ by the Rwanda Education Board (REB), simply because I thought that unsigned social contract meant something.
In an article published on Monday in The New Times newspaper titled ‘REB moves to curb student loan default’, the REB announced its plan to work with the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB). The CRB, as the writer put it succinctly, ‘collects borrower’s credit history from participating financial institutions which is then used as a point of reference for lenders to decide whether one qualifies for a loan. It helps to check non-performing loans in commercial banks”. As the writer further put it, “a bad loan affects the credibility of the borrower. This implies that beneficiaries of education loans will find it difficult to acquire a loan once they are blacklisted on list of people with non-performing loans”.
I was torn when I read this article. On one hand I believe that you are supposed to pay your debts. On the other hand, I find it rather incomprehensible that someone should pay for a service which was ‘free’ at the time they used it. Contractually I find that strange. I mean, when I took a bank loan a few years back, I signed a document showing just how much I owed, how much I would eventually owe with interest added and how long it would take me to pay back my loan. I signed the paper and so did the bank. In other words, it was a legally enforceable contract entered into by two parties in which both sides knew their responsibilities. There were no surprises or sudden changes. I wish I could say the same about the REB.
First of all, when I went to university, there was no REB. There were no signed contracts. There was no talk of debt repayment. In fact, there was no talk of any debt at all. Tertiary education was a right to any student who merited it. And there was certainly no talk of seven percent interest rate. Legally, I think that the REB is on very, very shaky ground.
First of all, laws cannot be retroactive in nature. It just doesn’t happen. The 2008 Rwandan Student Bursary/Loan
Policy should only be applied 2008-onwards. It honestly doesn’t make sense to me to make students who studied since 1980 to 2008 to pay by ‘force’. And don’t take the threat to forward your name to the CRB lightly. If you are labelled a debt defaulter, you will suffer high interest rates whenever you want a loan, whether a car, land or home loan. Or even refused one. That is patently unfair.
I’m not saying that the REB is wrong to try to recoup some monies. But calling the money that we received ‘loans’ would be a misrepresentation of not only the facts on the ground, but a misrepresentation of the spirit of academic scholarships. So, threatening to call me a ‘loan defaulter’ is unfair, unwarranted, and in my humble estimation, illegal.
So, we come to an impasse. I don’t want to pay back the ‘loan’ but I understand that there is a financial shortfall in the REB coffers. So, here is my suggestion. Instead of threatening hell and high-water, REB should do what the people behind the One Dollar Campaign and the Agaciro Fund did. REB should tap into patriotic sentiments of all Rwandans, communicate their needs and goals and sell it to the general public. Offer us a simple way of giving money back when we can and tell us why we should. Remind us about the social contract we have as alumni of Rwandan universities to give back. Trying to call us defaulters of loans we never signed or agreed to and ‘naming and shaming’ us is simply unfair. REB can and must do better.