Tanzania's universities have a costly "ghost student" problem
Tanzania’s universities is having trouble with ghosts. The government has suspended student loans worth TZS3.2 billion (US$1.5 million), affecting around 2000 students. This came after a routine verification exercise revealed that some who signed up for loans may not even exist.
Some of the “ghosts” may have registered, qualified for loans and then stopped attending classes. Others may have actually completed their degrees but never had their names removed from the loans beneficiary list. Still others may have died while enrolled but loan money continues to be paid.
In a country of more than 100 000 registered tertiary students, 2000 “ghosts” may not seem like a big problem. But when the loan money is being misspent, deliberately or because of poor administration, the entire higher education system is affected, and ultimately the country.
Student loan fraud occurs all over the world. In Africa, Uganda has had to grapple with “ghost” students and the South African government has investigated its national loans scheme because of allegedly widespread fraud and corruption.
How has Tanzania ended up in this situation? The answer lies in its higher education history. And the solution lies in urgently improving oversight of the loans process.
Higher education reforms
Until the mid 1990s higher education wasn’t considered very important for development in Africa. Most education policies and almost all funding were focused on primary schools. It was thought that university education benefited individuals rather than whole communities or economies.
There was a shift towards the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Organisations that had previously been lukewarm about university funding started calling for African universities to be revitalised. They suggested that there was a strong link between higher education and development.
Many African countries – Tanzania among them – responded by changing their university funding policies. Tanzania’s government reintroduced cost sharing in public higher education. This was considered necessary to maintain the quality of academic programmes and widen access.
The change in policy opened the door for a government-sponsored student loan scheme. This is managed by the government with the idea that students will repay loans after graduating. The loans – which cover expenses like tuition fees, research costs, meals and accommodation – have bolstered enrolment rates. Students qualify for the loans if they’ve been accepted to a degree course at a registered institution of higher learning, whether it’s public or private.
But unfortunately, full or even partial repayment is rare. This is partly because those administering the scheme are unable to track beneficiaries outside formal employment. Unemployment rates in Tanzania sit at around 10%. Graduates can’t get jobs, so they can’t repay their loans. The government – or, more accurately, taxpayers – are left out of pocket. This has a ripple effect on other public services.
So how can Tanzania’s government deal with the problem?
Improving information system
Several universities have started repaying the government for loans that were disbursed but where beneficiaries had not been traced. But a number of problems need to be fixed.
The first is the way in which the loans system is administered. Prospective students currently apply online. There is no proper verification in place to ensure that people are who they say they are, and little follow up to check that students remain enrolled rather than just taking the money and dropping out.
The loan application system should be linked to Tanzania’s national identification database. This is hosted by the National Identification Authority and contains personal details that can be used to verify loan applicants' identities. Another useful link would be to Tanzania’s national examination council, which contains secondary education results.
Once a loan has been issued, students should submit proof of registration to the loan authority. At the moment it’s up to universities to report back to the loan board about how many students have been admitted to a particular institution. Beneficiaries should also be obliged to produce academic progress reports every semester to qualify for subsequent tranches of money.
Tanzania has another problem: there are too many higher education regulatory bodies, with almost similar functions, and there’s little coordination between them. Merging them into a single manageable institution that can monitor and supervise universities is another way to improve oversight of the loans process.
Finally, those officials who issue “ghosts loans” must be properly sanctioned once their guilt is proved and they’ve been convicted. Hopefully this will act as a deterrent to others and ensure that only deserving, genuinely financially needy students are supported by the loans system.
Simon Ngalomba does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.