Burundi: Scholarship loans, benediction or curse for students?

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February 1st, 2017, the then President of the Republic, Pierre Nkurunziza, signed a presidential decree (Nº 100/18) defining new modalities for obtaining scholarships in Burundi. The decree established a scholarship loan for students in public universities, replacing the old system of providing monthly scholarships to students in public universities. What has been the real effect of the new system so far?

At the time, some people believed that the scholarship loan system was inappropriate given the difficult living conditions of the majority of the population, particularly young people. . They predicted the exclusion of children from the disadvantaged social strata from public education. It must be said that even the governmental reports consider that “the social context is not very favorable to education because of the extreme poverty of the population“[1]. So what has been the real effect of this system and what is its short and long term impact on students’ lives?

 Burundian scholarship loan system

 Since 2018, the Burundian government has supported students by granting them monthly scholarship fees in order to cope with the ups and downs of student life. Since then, the said scholarship has undergone reforms after which it has been transformed into a scholarship loan paid quarterly to students.

In its conception, the scholarship loan helps the student to cover the costs of food, accommodation, transportation and other daily needs. An undergraduate student is entitled to the scholarship loan paid quarterly 180,000 FBu, or 60,000 FBu per month. With the withdrawal of the account maintenance fee at the Post Office, the student technically receives 57,000 FBu monthly. In order to benefit from it, a contract must be signed once per academic year and the beneficiary student must be endorsed by a guardian, parent or spouse. This scholarship loan is granted once the office in charge of scholarships has in its possession all the lists of the beneficiaries.

According to articles 25, 26 of the decree governing this system, the latter is a financial assistance granted, under contract, by the Government in the form of a credit for students and which is refundable. It is granted to those who have finished general humanities, pedagogical and technical subjects and have passed the State Examination and meet the requirements of Article 17 of this decree.

Article 17 of the decree, in turn, stipulates that the scholarship loan be granted to any candidate (1) of Burundian nationality, (2) who holds a certificate or diploma required for the academic course for which that loan is offered, (3) who has never benefited from it for an academic course of the same level, and (4) who has been recognized as fit by a government doctor.

Technically, all general humanities graduates who meet the above-mentioned conditions can apply for a scholarship loan for their high education in Burundi (Art 26 of the decree). Even students enrolled in the second and third cycle can benefit from the scholarship loan. However, if the student has benefited from a scholarship loan for his/her undergraduate education, the granting of a scholarship loan for the master’s program is conditional upon the full repayment of the first loan and so on for the other higher levels (Art 28 of the decree).

A glance at articles 9, 10 and 11 of the scholarship loan contract reveals that the beneficiary must repay the loan as soon as he/she has a job and/or an income-generating activity. He/she is still obliged to repay the entire amount received even if he/she has not finished his/her studies or if it has been withdrawn due to the breach of the signed contract. The minimum repayment is set at 10% of the student’s income. In addition, deliberate refusal to repay the scholarship loan will result in legal action according to the law. The recipient of the scholarship loan who is employed or has an income-generating activity is obliged to declare it to the management of the Office of Scholarships and Internships (BBES), which will inform him/her of the repayment terms. The non-declaration caused by the delay of the reimbursement is sanctioned by a monthly penalty of delay provided for by the tax law.

For officials at the time, the decree instituting the scholarship loan came from the recommendations of a meeting on education issues held in December 2014. The measure was in line with some of the policies of the EAC, some of whose members had instituted an effective student loan system since 1985, for example.

The scholarship loan falls far short of meeting the needs of students.

Generally speaking, the three basic secular needs of human beings are food, shelter and clothing. The 19th century introduced a fourth need: energy. However, these basic needs go beyond food, shelter, clothing and energy in an educational institution. In addition to these four, a student’s basic needs extend to the cost of transportation, health care, stationery, and more recently, Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Several testimonies and reports mention the precarious situation in which students of public university are living in. Students at the University of Burundi, both on and off campus, struggle to make ends meet, which affects their academic performance. The monthly loan, when provided on time (which these students rarely have), does little to ease the burden. The students most affected are the ones in the first years, whose families have incomes too low to meet the most basic needs of their children especially the ones studying and living in Bujumbura.

With housing prices rising in the cities, students living off-campus find themselves under constant stress as they are either kicked out of their homes by landlords for late/non-payment of rent, or are looking for cheaper rental homes. The latter usually fall back to the outlying areas, which poses another problem; that of commuting to class.

The scholarship loan is supposed to help the student manage their daily finances. If this system fails to do so, the student’s precarious financial situation may tend to negatively affect his/her academic performance. A financially stressed student will have to find other ways to get more money, and this will affect daily class attendance as he/she will have to go out during class to get that money. Transportation costs are not always available, so absenteeism in the classroom will be increased. Even when the student is present, aside from a lack of concentration that could be the result of a psychological problem or poor nutrition, the student may not have enough money to meet most financial needs such as the cost of typing some assignments and surfing the Internet.

Several testimonies mention this absenteeism (due to the search for “odd jobs”, lack of transportation), school dropout and poor performance of students at the University of Burundi since the implementation of the scholarship loan system. This system creates other gaps as cultural barriers usually do not allow young women to find additional jobs as they consider night jobs to be risky and only for men. The situation is complicated now for these students but the impact of this system could have more disastrous consequences in the future.

 … In the long term

Students who graduate with debt will feel the effects of their debt for years after graduation. Beyond the stress and anxiety that debt can cause and its short-term impact, student loans can force people to make difficult choices and delay important life events.

In the long run, here are some of the consequences, not exhaustive, that can happen to students who are “in debt”.

Not having the ability to repay the loan

Unemployment increased significantly between 2014 and 2017, especially in Bujumbura. The national unemployment rate, which includes the unemployed not actively seeking work, increased from 2.4 percent to 7.8 percent (with the problem being particularly severe in Bujumbura, where unemployment increased from 20.0 percent to 32.9 percent) from 2014 to 2017. Underemployment is also high in Burundi (65 percent in the agricultural and industrial sector and 51 percent in the service sector in 2017). This translates into low productivity and low wages. Women and youth in Burundi are particularly likely to be in informal employment[1]. It becomes clear very quickly that the terms of repayment of loans are not always easy. Even if the student manages to get a job that allows him/her to survive, the socio-economic situation in Burundi may not allow him/her to make ends meet if he/she has to repay a loan acquired during his/her university studies. The obvious option would be to default on this task, with the risk of sanctions ranging from monthly penalties for late payment to legal action for “deliberate” refusal to repay.

Not having the opportunity to access higher levels of education

 As mentioned earlier, Article 3 of the scholarship loan contract stipulates that those who already have an outstanding scholarship loan claim from the previous cycle are excluded from the scholarship loan. We live in an increasingly specialized world in which the ability to get a “decent” job depends on the level of specialization of the individual. This means additional years of education compared to the “generalist” level that the Bachelor level represents in Burundi. Without funds, students will not have the opportunity to advance their education. This brings us back to the problem raised in the previous point.

Delaying the borrower’s ability to meet social obligations and life goals

Underemployed (statistically the most common case), the individual with a loan will have difficulty meeting social obligations such as marriage, starting a family, … In addition, his or her ability to take out other loans will be reduced because of the repayment of this loan.

At the national level

The long-term consequences of this system at the national level may be the increased decline in university enrollment due to intimidation (starting one’s “adult” life with debt can be intimidating) and the lack of a “skilled” workforce. Cutting off a potential workforce with varying degrees of education would greatly reduce the country’s chances of achieving development. A government report[1] released in 2021 already notes this trend, indicating that higher education has been declining overall, at an average annual rate of almost 5% over the entire period, and that the shift to scholarship loans is among the reasons for this decline.

 In conclusion …

The scholarship loan problem seems to be a major problem for the Burundian education system that requires an urgent and serious solution because students’ academic performance affects the quality of human resources in society. A poor financial situation affects their academic performance, mental and physical well-being, and even their ability to find a job after graduation.

University may not be for everyone, but higher education and related experiences are invaluable to many. Numerous studies show that the lifetime earnings of university graduates far exceed those of high school graduates or non-university graduates, and going to university classes has benefits far beyond economic returns. For society as a whole, access to higher education improves the quality of the population and keeps the economy competitive, reduces unemployment, contributes to increased tax revenues, and eases the burden on public services. The education of the population undoubtedly contributes to the quality of life of a society.

Although the scholarship offered before did not offer much benefit to the student either, the scholarship loan system seems to accentuate the current problems that affect the present of the students. It also seems to cast uncertainty on the future of the student and the country in general, at a time when the country’s present is not looking any brighter.

As early as 2017, some voices were raised against the scholarship loan system; calling for the pure and simple abolition of this system; the best way out being, according to these voices, the search for new means of financing in order to increase the scholarship of children from the poorest families. Failing a return to the old system of scholarships, we support the idea that the Burundian Government should look for other ways to finance the education system and above all ensure that the little it has is not only absorbed by salary costs (the wage bill represents the main category of expenditure, accounting for 79% of total expenditure on basic education). Equitable access to public education is a constitutional right (Article 53 of the Burundian Constitution) which the Burundian State is supposed to guarantee. Finally, it must create conditions favorable to the reduction of the unemployment rate so that it can have a “return on its investment” in students.


[1] République du Burundi 2021. Analyse du secteur de l’éducation. Le système éducatif burundais : enjeux et défis pour accélérer la production du capital humain et soutenir la croissance économique. Dakar : IIPE-UNESCO Dakar.

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