The students’ union is fighting over the wrong issue. The Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF) received over 22,000 applications for state funding for the 2021 academic year and rejected 16,185. The Namibia National Student Organization (NANSO) is engaging the Fund on behalf of several hundred students who feel their applications were wrongly rejected. The real fight for the union is on behalf of all student recipients of education loans, past and present. All student loans must be converted to grants with service options for repayment.

Our graduates, most of whom cannot find employment in their fields after graduation, need to be free from the yoke of debt. After the COVID nightmare subsides, the government must prioritize education and training by paying the fees for all who would otherwise qualify for an NSFAF loan.

The mothers and fathers of the Namibian constitution intended that our people be educated at government expense. Illiteracy and ignorance are always the cornerstones of the destruction of democracy. Though well-intentioned and honored, they could not have foreseen the ICT age 33 years ago at the nation’s founding. Being able to read and write after primary and secondary school is not enough to sustain Namibia in the 21st century and beyond. The country’s workforce must be competent and globally competitive.

Some of our best and brightest young minds are not achieving higher qualifications because they cannot afford it. There is no greater tragedy for a small country like Namibia than losing a potential doctor, architect, engineer, geologist, medical researcher, dentist, or lawyer because they are forced to work behind a desk at Home Affairs to survive.

If loans cannot be written off, why not develop social services work in remote and underserved areas of Namibia. Why not send unemployed graduates with pending loans to these places to work. While this entails setting up another agency to monitor and manage the program, it can be a way to have temporary employees with stipends working off their loan debt to the government. Train them to help staff a clinic, assist with training programs, or apprentice various professionals in remote areas where no one else wants to go to work. Each year worked at a social development job deducts an amount from their loan bill. It is a win-win-win proposition. The former students get skills and experience. The local people would have access to needed government services provided in distant places. And the uncollectable section of the loan book of NSFAF decreases. The state funds spent to run such a program are in line with the government’s constitutional commitment to educate its citizens and build a strong democracy.

To fight for the inclusion of a few hundred who have been disqualified for various reasons is indeed a part of NANSO’s mandate. But it is a waste of time. Plowing through each application individually and evaluate whether they were rejected within the well-published criteria of the NSFAF is an exacting task. Indeed, a watchdog effort must be made on any government agency. Bureaucracies are usually inefficient, and corruption will slip in between the cracks. NANSO must guard against allowing their watchdog efforts to become a time-consuming policing action.

The energy of the students’ organizing body must be expended by loudly and consistently agitating for the end of the loans altogether. The fight must be for NSFAF to manage grants, not loans.

Let those who graduate do so debt-free. Let those who leave college without a degree for specifically identified reasons repay what they used up if the degree remains incomplete. Repayment could be through a job at a social development program. Set up internships and apprenticeships with worldwide development partners so our higher degree graduates can obtain experience in their fields and bring those skills back to Namibia. Those who do not return in an agreed amount of time have families locally that must then pay for the Namibian financed education.

NANSO must fight the good fight but in the right direction.