Rivers State students studying overseas face frustration due to non-payment of their allowances by the state’s government, CHUKWUDI AKASIKE of Punch Newspapers narrates their ordeal.
THE strong faith in what good quality education can do to individuals, states and country, no doubt, inspired the Rivers State Government under the Rotimi Amaechi administration to establish an overseas scholarship programme for some of the state’s bright youths in 2008.
The aim, according to Amaechi, was to encourage the beneficiaries of overseas scholarship schemes to return home, after completing their courses, to develop the state with their wealth of knowledge and experience.
But the achievement of such loft objectives appears to be threatened, following feelers from majority of the students, spread across Europe, Asia and America, that all is not well with them.
There is an indication that the students, who have been away for the past two years, are facing tough times in their various foreign universities as a result of unpaid tuition fees, rents and other allowances.
It would be recalled that the first batch of 100 students left for Singapore early in 2009, while the second batch left for Canada on May 4, the same year. All had been rosy until the state government could not pay their fees, rents and provide them allowances in 2014.
The beneficiaries have tried to send out messages stating their conditions and the challenges they faced as a result of government’s failure to fulfil its own part of the bargain and to make the overseas scholarship programme achieve its goal.
Some of the students, who went through a rigorous process to emerge beneficiaries of the programme, are currently roaming the streets.
While some of them risk possible termination of their studies, it was gathered that others had already been stopped by the respective university authorities for not being able to pay their fees. One of the students, Victor Obuforo (not real name), said he had at a point found it very difficult to feed, as a result of the untold hardship caused by the failure of the Rivers State Government to pay their allowances.
“I had to choose between working in the morning and going for classes later. With an empty account, I had to skip that and go for the job. It may interest you to know what that job it is. I went into loading lorries to earn 40 pounds just for feeding. We need help as fast as possible,” Obuforo said.
Also, a Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Huddersfield, who also craved anonymity, said, “We are on the verge of losing the opportunity given to us to come here and learn, go back to Nigeria and make our country a better place. As a Mechanical Engineering student, I have been able to secure a placement here in one of the biggest motor companies in the United Kingdom.
“If you know what it is to get a placement as an African student here in the UK, you will know that we have really had sleepless nights. We have passed through a series of interviews and written applications to get this opportunity. Now, the opportunity is going to be taken away from us just because we cannot pay our school fees.
“It is a bad image for our government at the moment. Our landlords can no longer receive just one month rent from us because they believe that we could be sent back anytime soon. This has also affected other Nigerian students here. The country’s name, as well as that of the state, is at risk.”
If the fear expressed by the student is mild, the revelation from one of the students’ representatives in the UK (Nottingham), Barile Zinah, could be shocking. He explained that although his parents had been sending him money from Nigeria to feed, some of his colleagues were not lucky to get such assistance.
Zinah added that some of the students from Rivers State were currently working in charity homes where they take care of old people and those with mental challenges in order to survive. The undergraduate, who interacted with The PUNCH via electronic mail, disclosed that some of his colleagues were washing toilets in some restaurants in the UK to keep bodies and souls together.
Explaining that some Nigerians may think that some of them were lazy and they could not work to raise their schools fees and rent, Zinah said it was not possible to do menial jobs in Europe and pay school fees of between £12,000 and £15,000, depending on the university. He specifically said that with the menial jobs, a person was paid between £5 and £6 an hour.
“I travelled in 2013 and my study is going to end in 2016. For an average student on a scholarship in the UK, the school fees ranges from £12,000 to £15,000, depending on the university. Students are paid £400 for accomodation each and an upkeep allowance of £400 for men and £450 for women. I am owing about $7,500 as tuition fees for three semesters and four months’ rent plus bills, which is about $1,405.
“My parents now send me money for my upkeep and feeding. But not every student is opportune to have parents or guardians that can sustain them throughout this period. Some of us have resorted to taking up jobs in charity homes where we are expected to take care of old people or people that are mentally unstable. Some students have also taken up cleaning jobs, washing of toilets in fast foods joints, such as McDonald’s and Burger King,” he said, adding that all entreaties through letters to the RSSDA did not yield any positive response.
Zinah said he was currently on internship with his university, saying, “Not everyone is lucky to get an internship, but I can tell you that for my fellow students, it has been hell. They have run into debts; their bank accounts are showing overdrafts. Feeding is very difficult because it is eight months now without rent and upkeep.
“My landlord is tired of listening to my pleas. A majority of the students were kicked out by their landlords and their details given to debt collectors. On several occasions, we were forced to beg friends from other countries or from UK for money or food. We even borrow when it becomes necessary.”
He, however, called on the state government to come to their aid, even as he expressed the fear that as universities resume across Europe in September, many students of Rivers State origin are not sure they will be allowed to continue with their studies or stay in the various European countries.
“Our fate hangs on a thread. This whole saga is not politically motivated and every single word said here is not exaggerated. It is 100 per cent accurate. Universities will resume next month (September) and most of us aren’t even sure if we will be allowed to continue our studies in our respective universities or even be allowed by the UKBA (United Kingdom Border Agency) to stay in the country.
“Also, I know many people reading this will come up with the assumption that we are all lazy and that we are idling away and waiting for the government to send us money. But, no matter the part-time job you take, you cannot pay your school fees, not to mention rent, bills, our upkeep and transportation. We are calling on the Government of Rivers State to come to our aid,” Zinah appealed.
It is, however, the same pathetic story for Rivers State undergraduates in the United States of America, whose school fees, rents and other allowances remain unpaid. One of the students, who does not want his name mentioned, told The PUNCH he would have died of hunger but for a white man who housed and fed him and five other students from the state for one month.
“Our families help out when they can. But, in most situations, we have had to ask the church we attend for help. They’ve provided us with groceries and money. That’s how we’ve been able to survive during difficult times. At a point, we were kicked out of school because we couldn’t pay for our summer housing. A church member housed six of us for over a month. They fed and took care of all of us. These are white people. People we’ve never met in our lives. I just thank God that He strategically placed them here to help us,” the undergraduate said.
Although the state governor had provided the sum of N712m to settle the debts, some of the students explained that the money was for overseas graduating/final year students from the state. One of them said that the UKBA had given the helpless students 60 days to leave the United Kingdom.
“I am writing this on behalf of the Rivers State scholarship students under the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency in Huddersfield. It is no news that the scholarship body is owing all the students abroad eight months allowances plus rent. But the pressing issue about these particular students is that the school has terminated their studies due to failure of the agency to pay their tuition fees. Now the UKBA has given them 60 days to vacate the country.
“Many letters have been written, but to no avail. We know that the governor released 712 million recently, but not to this effect. The money was meant for students in the final year that couldn’t graduate due to fees being owed. The protest you see in this video is in no way political or masterminded by any element to ridicule anyone. They just want their voices to be heard,” another student, who also craved anonymity, stressed.
Reacting to the development, the Special Adviser to Governor Nyesom Wike on Media and Publicity, Sir Opunabo Inko-Tariak, promised that the governor would address the matter “very soon”, adding that the problem of the non-payment of overseas students’ school fees was caused by the immediate past administration. Inko-Tariah also pointed out that the Amaechi administration was not prudent with funds, especially when the state was buoyant.
He said, “You cannot send students out of this country to go and suffer, especially when you know that the state is buoyant enough to pay their school fees and all the allowances. Unfortunately, we had a governor who was financially reckless and insensitive to the plight of the student and bothered less about them. Amaechi bothered more about his own political ambition. That is what kept the students in the sorry state that they have found themselves.”