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Raw deal in student loans

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Despite approving almost half of loan applications from students in institutions of higher learning, the Higher Education Students’ Loans and Grants Board (HESL&GB) has given unsuccessful students a raw deal by not using software as earlier promised by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

It has come to our attention that, despite approving 4, 474 applications, out of 10,198 applications, in the 2015/16 fiscal year HESL&GB has backed down on an earlier arrangement to use a special kind of software to prevent bias in the selection exercise.

The board just announced the approval of 373 student applications on January 11, after it first approved 4,166 applications during its first selection in 2015. This means a total of K1,255,000,000 has been earmarked for disbursement.

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While 4, 474 may have justification to smile all the way to the college campus, the unlucky ones could have good grounds to complain as one of the people close to the selection process confided in us on Tuesday that HESL&GB has not procured any software to be used in the selection process.

The source added that such software costs as much as K15 million and that there is no way the board could get it from a single source without advertising in the media.

The source said, among other things, the board did not flight any adverts in the media calling for tenders from service providers on the same, adding that no-one involved in processing loans has been trained in the use of special software designed for that purpose.

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This is despite what the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said before appointment of the Executive Director for the board in April last year.

The then acting spokesperson for the ministry, Manfred Ndovie, told The Daily Times of April 30, 2015 that the board would rely on designated software to identify beneficiary-students.

“We will be guided by the Act [The Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Act], which will be able to give us direction on the beneficiary students’ identification process. In terms of eligibility, everyone is eligible but the percentage of such eligibility will matter most.

“After its appointment, the board will acquire a special kind of software which will be used to assess the personal details of all loan applicants. The details will include things like family background and schools attended. Using the details, the board will be using software to rate students in terms of percentage terms, and the disbursement of the loans will be in accordance with the percentage of the software awards,” Ndovie is quoted as saying.

When asked about procurement of the special software, and whether it was used in approving names of the 4, 474 successful students, HESL&GB Executive Director, Chris Chisoni, took two weeks to respond.

And, when we contacted him on Wednesday, Chisoni said he could not immediately respond to the questions “because I am busy sorting out the issue of loan applications that have been approved” and asked for more time.

However, when contacted on Friday, he seemed to not be aware of the issue of using special software in selecting successful applicants.

Ayise [my friend], it’s not me who did that [who announced that the board will be using software to rate students]. I can only give you details related to what I am doing in my office right now [and not about software]. I am only doing what I am supposed to do in my office. As for the issue of special software, go back to those who said those things [and not me],” said Chisoni.

He could also not be drawn to comment on reports that the board has not procured any such software, maintaining that those who introduced the software issue [the Ministry of Education, under which the board falls] could explain.

The process of approving student loans and grants has already come under a barrage of criticism, with the Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC) demanding that HESL&GB should publish names of recipients in the media “to ensure transparency”.

CSEC executive director, Benedicto Kondowe, said in an interview recently that the loan application and approval process was marred by a number of challenges.

“For example, other stakeholders, including chiefs [traditional leaders] were left out of the beneficiary identification process and a lot of deserving students have been left out,” said Kondowe.

He also called for increased transparency in the process of identifying beneficiaries.

However, Kondowe did not mention the need to use special software.

So far, according to the board, the list of approved names of students has been forwarded to all universities and colleges whose students have been granted loans.

The board was established by a Parliamentary Act Number 2 of 2015 with the mandate of facilitating and implementing government’s efforts aimed at “increasing access to higher education by providing loans to deserving needy students who have been registered in accredited institutions of higher learning both public and private in Malawi”.

According to the United States Department of Education, there are a range of software used for student loan and general purposes. The software include Direct Loan (DL) Tools for Windows, Release 15.0, which is a multi-year Windows-based application designed to compare the School Account Statement (SAS) to loans and actual disbursements recorded in EDExpress or an external file, and/or compare the SAS to the DL Tools Cash database, track cash receipts and refunds of cash, among other roles.

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