Yesterday, the Rwandan Ministry of Education announced that it may cut all scholarships for university students next year and instead funnel the money into primary education. The announcement came from the Minister of Education, Charles Muriganda, in a Kinyarwanda radio broadcast.
A friend called me and told me about the broadcast, so I asked some local reporters for the scoop. Here's what I learned:
The first move at the Ministry is to cancel a loan scheme, in which students could borrow RWF 25,000 a month (about $40), or 250,000 a year (about $400), to help pay for school. That's not nothing: university education is not cheap here, at least relative to what most people earn. Rwanda's state university, the National University of Rwanda, charges an average of roughly $1200 in annual tuition (though fees vary by program), and some private schools can cost as much a $2,000 a year, with books and supplies. So $400 a year helped out – to the tune of 25 to 30 percent.
But equally worrisome is what I'm told Muriganda called "the next step" – canceling all university scholarships. The merit-based scholarship program, which gives high-achieving secondary school students funds for college, may disappear next year, too.
As I understand it, this is not a funding cut, but a funding reallocation. Rwanda has free primary education through the third year of secondary school, amounting to nine years of free instruction. That's boosted its primary enrollment rates to the highest in the region, according to the Rwandan government newspaper, the New Times. It also turns out to be darn expensive, and the funds saved on higher ed will go to the primary ed programs.
So far, it looks like genocide survivors will still qualify for scholarships through FARG, the Fonds National pour l'Assistance aux Rescapés du Génocide (National Assistance Fund for Genocide Survivors). But as the genocide recedes in time, the university student population is increasingly made up of those born just after the genocide.
Higher education everywhere is expensive, but financing a college degree on a continent where few people have access to credit is a special challenge. Some friends of mine wondered if Rwandan students who take out private loans will be able to find jobs afterward to pay them back. Construction, for example, is booming in Rwanda – but the universities aren't churning out majors in construction studies.
Halfway around the world, in Seattle, there's a group trying to tackle this credit-for-college problem. Vittana is using a micro-finance model to get students loans for school. Think of it as a Kiva.org for college: You meet a student through an online profile, you loan them $25, and as they repay their loan, you get repaid.
During the nerd rockfest that was the Clinton Global Initiative, Vittana announced that it would give 10,000 loans of $1,000 each to students in Africa. Vittana wants to educate people for work –in nursing, say, or IT. The announcement is Vittana's first foray on the continent (it's been working in Mongolia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Vietnam), and the organization hasn't decided to which of Africa's 53 countries it will bring its $10,000 in loans, though Vittana says the most likely pilot countries are Uganda, Ghana, Kenya.
In a few months, Rwandan students may be asking, "Can you add us to the list?"