PNG Government Introduces Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) For Tertiary Studies In 2020

During the 2020 National Budget Lockup session (meeting of invited top bureaucratic and private sector officials where the annual budget for each year is announced and copies circulated before it is presented in Parliament), the funding for Tuition Fee  Free (TFF) funding  in the elementary to secondary education has been slashed by K291 million kina compared to this year (2019)’s TFF budgetary allocation of K600 million kina. This is almost 50% cut. According to the Treasury Minister-Rt.Hon. Ian Ling Stuckey, the;

 “cut in the TFF policy would shift some responsibility back to the parents. 50% of the cost of fees from elementary to Grade 12 would be borne by parents. This stage of our children’s education is not as burdensome as tertiary education, so shifting responsibility to parents is seen a better way to support affordable education . Presents must investment in education of their children as a mandatory parental responsibility. ” .

The Treasury Department  Secretary Dairi Vele announced that the government will pay for half (50%) fees of the lower secondary students from elementary to Grade 12.   The cut from the free education budget will be used to fund the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) through Student Loans.  HELP student loans will be interest free.

“We will pay for the school fees of Papua New Guineas going to universities. When they find work and their income will involve a certain threshold and through the tax office, we will be able to start to pay that loan back. The money they pay back will pay someone else’s school fees-a common structure around the world”

The Tuition Fee Free (TFF) policy was introduced in 2012 by the previous government of former Prime Minister, Hon.Peter O’Niel.  This has led to an increase in number of students in classes as while as pressing strain in terms of over crowding in classrooms, increase in student-teacher ratio and schools complaining about low level of infrastructure developments in the schools. The National Department of Education pays manages the TFF funding and deposits money into the respective school’s bank accounts on a quarterly basis.

Prime Minister, James Marape said during his public address at the Pacific Adventist University graduation ceremony this year (2019) that the HELP loan start next year.

“No more will you pay “tertiary education school fees. As long as you have NID (National Identification Card) and a residency as a Papua New Guinean, you will get money for your school fees.”

Student Loan Scheme-Nothing New-Trialed In the Past But Failed

The concept of Student Loan Scheme isn’t a  new one. It started in 1999, when the Government under the Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morata , the national scholarship scheme (NATSCHOL) was abolished and introduced Tertiary Education Student Assistance Scheme (TESAS). It ranked the fresh year 12 students into categories of Academic Excellence Scholarship (AES), Higher Education Contribution Assistance Scheme(HECAS) and self-sponsor.  This also applied to students who were already doing studies in the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) from 2nd year to final years. For those who fall under the category of Self-Sponsor were asked to apply for Student Loan Scheme administered by higher institutions governing body, then known as Office of Higher Education (OHE). The Loan Scheme was announced to silence the active student protests against the abolition NATSCHOL scheme.  A lot of students applied for the loans and completed their studies. The Office  of Higher Education discontinued the scheme in the succeeding years.

Repayment Failure Factors.

No#1: No Legislation Passed to Make Repayment Mandatory Through the Tax System.

No supporting Legislation was passed to implement the repayment collection part of the scheme. When the students finished their programs, graduated and joined the workforce, they never repaid their loan to Office of Higher Education. OHE started putting out public announcements in the  public media asking for voluntary repayment by the recipients by way of publishing their names and amount they owned. Whether OHE succeeded or not with this effort was something for researchers to check with the government records.

No# 2: Hard to Track Graduates

With no national databases which can make it easier for government to track student progression and their place of work after they graduate and move on in life. Some students got the loan but never completed their studies due to various personal and other issues. Others may have joined the informal sector or started their own companies.  Worker mobility made it harder for  OHE to track graduates and with no legislation passed, employers did not  assist in the government’s call for  voluntary repayment.

No# 3:  Student’s TESAS Category Changes

Under the current existing TESAS scheme, a student’s TESAS sponsorship category can change at end an academic year. A student who is categorized as self-sponsor and eligible for loan and he or she can get loan for fees for that year alone. The following year, his/her status can move to AES or HECAS if she/he performs better. With Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) lacking robust student management systems, OHE was unable to effectively monitor their client (student) status. This may have had implications on budget preparations to send to national government for budgetary allocation in the following years.

What is Expected of HELP Student Loan Scheme

The above factors need to be considered before implementing it as well. Another set of risk factors are the amount of loan students can borrow and how long it will for the government to take to receive the first lot of repayments.

Amount of money the student can borrow will depend pretty much on the how much fees the respective Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) will charge. HEIs have the academic autonomy do that. Since HEI’s first year intakes are dictated by the Department of Higher Education, Research Science and Technology (DHERST) selection and sponsorship of Grade 12 students from the national education system, the HEi’s won’t accommodate applications from the general public as paying students. This means bulk of the students will depend on this loan scheme. Starting a life after graduation with high debt isn’t a good thing for students.

PNG’s ‘s economy is small with limited job prospects for high number of graduates passing out of the Higher Education Institutions each year. Thus the government takes the risk of sustaining this loan facility until the first lot of repayments comes in.  Whether it will be successful or fail as in the past, only time will tell.