(By Edwin Mbulo in Livingstone and Speedwell Mupuchi in Lusaka)
GOVERNMENT will next year abolish meal allowances at the public universities so that it can concentrate on what higher education minister Professor Nkandu Lou described as other bigger issues in the education sector.
In a recorded cellphone conversation with an unidentified Copperbelt University student, Prof Luo is heard saying that parents should look for their children’s pocket money.
The student, who called Prof Luo, began by asking when the government was going to pay the meal allowances for students at CBU as it had not reflected in their accounts by Saturday.
But Prof Luo wondered what she was supposed to say on a Saturday.
The student then informed Prof Luo that on Friday they were assured the money would reflect in their accounts by Saturday but it had not reflected by 16:00 hours.
“Yah but you know that banks don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays, so what am I supposed to tell you?” she asked student.
Prof Luo then told the student that she was informed that Zanaco was told to work round the clock to pay the students.
She said the bank might start working on the allowances Monday (today).
“It’s between you and the bank,” she said.
The student requested Prof Luo to make a follow-up and sure the allowances are paid because they do not want unnecessary tension in school.
“Anyway I think from January, we will not be paying any pocket allowances; we will pay for your tuition, we will pay for your project, we will pay for your accommodation, I think this allowance thing is gonna drive us crazy,” Prof Luo told the student. “That way we would even support more students. That’s too much, I think we need to stop this whole thing of allowances, let your parents also take responsibility for you at that school because it’s too much for anyone to bear. So in the New Year, I will announce so that you know that when you are coming to school your parents should look for your own pocket money, so that we can concentrate on other bigger things in education.”
Attempts to get a comment from Prof Luo failed with her aid saying she had just arrived at a meeting a few minutes before 14:00 hours.
But acting permanent secretary Alex Simumba said students would still get their meal allowances.
“The minister is talking about a consideration, for example, in the TEVET institution, the bursary we offer does not provide for meals, it provides for accommodation, tuition, which are quite big,” Simumba explained.
“From the conversation, you can hear the Minister is saying as from next year, meaning that that is not a point that has been debated, if you get me correctly. You can hear from the insistence…it was like the inquiry (about meal allowances) was getting on her nerves because I believe the one who asked…and the minister talked about Zanaco, in short what the minister was saying is not yet an official position. One cannot say that allowances have been abolished,” he said.
Simumba said even if there were plans to abolish the meal allowance, it was an issue that should be discussed widely on its pros and cons because some of the sponsored students come from “very, very poor families”.
He said removal of the meal allowance had both positive and negative ramifications.
“You hear the minister was saying effective January, that is not the official position, the minister has not discussed with all of us as bureaucrats, so I can neither confirm nor deny,” he said.
“Of course, the minister has the right at her level to say what she wants on the direction of the ministry but what I am talking about is that it’s not a matter that I have heard. What I know is that the payment of the students’ meal allowance still remains the same. In fact, when you phoned me initially, I got very surprised because it’s something that I have not heard,” Simumba said.
He also said it was wrong for students to call the minister to find out if their meal allowances were ready.
“I think that’s very wrong. I am the one who has been acting PS, the appropriate person to answer that question was me as acting PS…but if it’s the student getting to the minister, you can see that the student was getting on the nerves of the honourable minister,” he said. “So the official position is that the meal allowance still remains the same. If there is any change, surely government will make an official notification and Parliament will be informed accordingly through a ministerial statement that from this date, government will not pay any meal allowances to the students.”
Simumba said removing student meal allowance was an issue that the nation could debate.