Nandi Senator Wakili Cherargei Kiprotich condemned the directive by Education Cabinet Secretary (CS) Amina Mohamed to the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) to enlist the services of law enforcement agencies to arrest and prosecute graduates who have been unable to repay their loans.
Senator Cherargei slammed the directive by the education ministry saying it was absurd that the police would be used to hunt down unemployed graduates as if they were criminals.
“Some people must be living in a vacuum in this country, completely detached from the rest of us, that they are not conversant with the unemployment situation in the country, to the effect that they would even suggest the arrest and prosecution of unemployed graduates over student-loans,” Cherargei said.
He said the move to compel graduates to repay student-loans would make life unbearable for the young adults citing unemployment and low earnings especially in the informal sector as the main reasons why the over 70,000 beneficiaries have been listed as defaulters.
“Most of the graduates don’t have jobs, it is not easy to get a job immediately after graduating. Going after unemployed graduates and those with informal jobs and lower wages is unfair,” he said.
The one-year period given to graduates to begin repaying their loans, Cherargei said, is insufficient. The legislator said parliament would consider legislative proposals to amend the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) act to extend the 1-year period to a minimum of 3 years.
“The 1-year grace period is too short, a reasonable period should be arrived at taking into consideration the prevailing conditions of unemployment in the country,” he said.
According to the Senator, the grace period should be extended even further for graduates who do not secure jobs within the 3 years.
“Employment opportunities remain scarce and many university graduates do not secure jobs even in 3 years and have to engage in odd jobs to earn a livelihood,” he said.
Drawing comparison to the recent move by the government to bail-out cash-strapped state sugar mills to rescue suffering cane farmers, Cherargei asked the government to waive the debt owed by unemployed graduates now listed as defaulters.
“Sugar debts have been waived multiple times with the government releasing cash each time and watching it go down the drain. Suffering unemployed graduates can do with a waiver?” Cherargei posed.
“There are so many young people out there who are educated and unemployed. How do we expect these people to pay,” Cherargei wondered.
Senator Cherargei said the youth borrow the student-loans with the hope that they can get a decent job by getting a college degree and maybe a graduate degree as well.
“But millions are finding that their college degrees gained them little more than massive debt. And those MBAs and doctorates they paid for with borrowed money – just junk,” he said.
He said without interventions, the student-loan predicament can only bode ill for the future with the likelihood that many secondary school-leavers in need of HELB loan to attain tertiary education will shy away from the loan and consequently not transition to college altogether.
Senator Cherargei alluded to a recent report by a local television station that suggested a notable decline in marriages in some counties saying the scarcity of jobs; unemployment and student-loan debts faced by many unemployed graduates may as well explain the decline.
“Student-loan debt is contributing to the nation’s declining marriages, and eventually birth rates. People can’t afford marriage, children – because they are without jobs and carrying the burden of student loans,” he said.
CS Amina put on notice HELB defaulters warning of dire consequences.
“Law enforcement agencies will follow up on loan defaulters and track graduates. We will also track mobile transactions,” said CS Amina.
The new directive by CS Mohamed sparked a public outcry that prompted HELB to issue a statement.
“Section 15 (2) of the HELB Act gives mandate and authority for the board to have inspectors who will help HELB to recover and also access premises where ex-loanees are actually residing,” HELB CEO, Charles Ringera, said on Friday.
“We get direct authority by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) so that we have prosecutors on board. Those prosecutors are part of the law enforcement agencies that we’re using,” he said.
Ringera said the board had ceded prosecutorial powers given to it by the Attorney General prior to the enactment of the Constitution (2010), the mandate now resting with ODPP.
“All these offences fall under ODPP but the office has delegated prosecution to HELB. ODPP remains the overall owner of the prosecutions,” Ringera stated in a statement on Friday.
The loans board said prosecutors were at liberty to charge defaulters with several offences under the HELB Act including furnishing false information as well as refusal to pay.
According to a report released by HELB, about Ksh.7.2 billion is yet to be recovered from defaulters.