[By Tuesday Bwalya]
THE call by Chishimba Kambwili to the government to reintroduce student meal allowances – commonly known as BC – to students studying in public universities is progressive.
The term BC was coined by the University of Zambia students many years ago because the allowances were coming from the Bursaries Committee, later renamed the Student Loans Board. Kambwili was reported to have raised the issue of the reintroduction of BC when he met President Edgar Lungu at the Independence Day celebrations in Lusaka.
This call is welcome and deserves support from all well-meaning Zambians. Kambwili should be commended for making such a request to President Lungu because many students who come from under-privileged homes are struggling to have meals when studying in universities.
BC is the money paid monthly by the government as living allowance to government-sponsored students. Those who are in second year and above are still entitled to this allowance until they graduate. The allowance currently stands at K600 per month. Although this money looks small, it is helpful to students, especially the vulnerable ones.
The Patriotic Front (PF) government early this year announced the scrapping of the BC to all students studying in public universities, starting with first year students for the 2018/2019 academic year. Then higher education minister Professor Nkandu Luo held a press conference where she announced the scrapping of the allowance.
Although the minister cited reasons such as the need for the government to extend the scholarship facility to other students studying in newly established public universities, the main reason however, was that government felt that BC had been a source of demonstrations. Whenever payment of the BC was delayed, students rioted and the government thought removing it would solve the problem. Further, Prof Luo contended that it was the responsibility of every parent to support their children studying in universities, hence the need for government to ask parents to share the burden in educating students.
As at now, first year students at UNZA, the Copperbelt University (CBU) and other public universities who are on government scholarship do not get BC; it has been removed completely. This was in breach of the higher education loans and scholarships Act of 2016 which implores government to be paying not only tuition fees but also a living allowance to students who are on government scholarship.
When I heard the announcement over the discontinuing of BC, I thought the minister was just joking. Alas, it came to pass. When the first year students came to UNZA this year without BC as part of their loan package, my heart was troubled. I vividly remembered how the same BC helped me to have meals and once in a while solve small family problems with it.
Honestly, the scrapping of BC was cruelty of the highest level. It was unacceptable in the sense that BC has been a lifeline to many students. It helps them to have meals, thus enabling them to study without worrying about where their next meal will come from. Like Kambwili has observed, the scrapping of BC has had serious negative consequences. As a lecturer in the university, I have heard some first year students complaining that they were struggling to have meals and buy groceries because their parents and guardians have no means of supporting them.
As you may wish to know, many students in public universities come from poor families, hence find difficulties feeding themselves without BC. I may not have empirical evidence showing how some female students are being abused by sugar daddies for money, like Kambwili put it, but I can say that it is highly possible that this abuse is going on. The bottom line is that all first year students in public universities are struggling to survive without BC.
I remain perplexed at how our Cabinet with many people who benefited from BC would agree to scrap the allowance, removing a safety-net measure for vulnerable students. President Edgar Lungu and other ministers enjoyed the BC while studying in our public universities, but this year, in their own wisdom, they decided to remove the BC which they enjoyed.
I cannot imagine this. It is unbelievable! Prof Luo may be forgiven because she does not understand how important BC has been to UNZA and CBU students; she was schooled in Russia so she does not appreciate it. The act by our government to remove BC from all loan beneficiaries was outrageous and tantamount to removing the ladder after one has climbed the mountain. It was a selfish act and defeats logic.
The reasons that were advanced for its removal were not convincing. Yes, violent demonstrations should not be carried out by our students when they are aggrieved but scrapping BC was too heavy a punishment. It was also a wrong response. ‘Two wrongs cannot make a right,’ goes the saying. The reaction to students’ demonstrations by the former minister was also wrong.
As I conclude, I wish to support Kambwili’s request and appeal to President Lungu on behalf of our students to reintroduce BC. It is just fair to allow our students to have a full package of their loan and scholarship. After all, they will payback; it is a loan now. I know the treasury is in red but the government can cut on unnecessary programmes and make available some money so that BC is reintroduced to all students with government scholarships.
Further, I wish to urge government to consider increasing the BC pay-out as the prices of goods and services have increased.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, Department of Library and Information Science.