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Varsity students stranded

MASERU — The disbursement of government grants to National University of Lesotho (NUL) students has been delayed, leaving thousands of them in a fix and unable to afford basic meals.

The delay has been linked to a suspected scam involving students who allegedly forged their results in an attempt to continue receiving funding from the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS).

Sources said the NMDS — which disburses government scholarships — had to hold back funding for eligible students in an effort to weed out would-be fraudsters.

The majority of NUL’s 8 000 students rely on the grants to buy books and stationery as well as to fund day-to-day expenses, mainly food.

There was, however, a glimmer of hope last week when some first-year science undergraduates received part of their bursaries from the NMDS.

Students get grants of at least M25 000 a year.

This semester’s payout delay has caused commotion among hard-up students who have threatened to go on strike over the bursaries.

Student leaders said they will first petition the NMDS if they don’t get their bursaries by tomorrow.

The students were expecting the bursaries within two weeks of the beginning of the semester on July 31.

The students said they were now starving, having expended the little they brought from home while waiting for the grants.

The majority of Lesotho’s 1.8 million people live on less than US$1 a day, which means very few parents, or guardians, can afford to educate their children without government assistance.

Poverty could have forced some students to try and dupe the NMDS into continuing to financially support them when they had in fact failed last semester’s examinations.

The NMDS does not fund students who fail their exams and undergraduates have to renew their sponsorship contracts every year they are at college.

The suspected fraud has compounded the crisis at the NMDS whose acting director, Karabo Mabote, was fired last week.

The Sunday Express has not established any link between Mabote’s dismissal and the students’ suspected racket.

Finance Minister Timothy Thahane announced on Wednesday that Mabote had been fired for breaching sections of the Public Service Act, but did not specify what exactly he had done.

Alarm bells rang when one parent inquired with the NMDS why his child, a student at NUL, had renewed his bursary contract when he had failed.

The parent’s inquiry jolted the NMDS into launching a probe which was to net 10 other students who had allegedly forged their result slips.

“One of the parents had come to us indicating that his child had failed, but he had noticed that the child was in the process of renewing his contract,” NMDS principal legal officer Refiloe Makeka told the Sunday Express.

“We then took up the matter with the university to verify and discovered that there were 10 others who had failed but wanted to renew their bursary contracts.

“Seven of the students are in the second year, three in the third and the other one is in the fourth year.”

The NMDS is going to open a criminal case against the 11 students, whose identities and faculties could not be established at the time of going to print.

Makeka said the NMDS had in the past been defrauded by Basotho students studying in South Africa who would falsify their results to continue receiving funding.

“We have had such incidents with students studying in South Africa, but they were caught and their cases ended up in court,” she said.

“Now we no longer get student results from students, but from their colleges or universities.

“But I believe we may have to establish a cross-referencing arrangement with NUL to check which students have passed and those who have not.”

Most of the NUL students who spoke to the Sunday Express complained life had been hard for them without the funding.

“Life’s been pretty bad for us here,” said a student who preferred anonymity.

“We need books, we need to buy food every day, we need toiletries but without manpower money we are stranded.”

Students who stay off-campus in Roma told the Sunday Express they were worse off.

“We need money for rent, otherwise we risk being evicted,” another student said.

“We cook our own meals . . .  it’s just so bad sometimes we have a single meal a day.”

The Ministry of Finance last year undertook to restructure and refocus the operations of the NMDS. Refiloe Phakoe, the secretary-general of NUL’s Students Representative Council, confirmed most of the students had not yet received their grants from the NMDS.

“They have paid only less than 10 percent of the students,” Phakoe said.

“They have only given undergraduates and a few senior students.”

Phakoe said if the NMDS does not disburse the funding by Tuesday there will be “chaos at the campus”.

“There will be a fight,” he warned.

“If the money does not come on Tuesday there will be trouble.

“A hungry man is an angry man.

“Come Tuesday and we will not be attending classes. We are hungry.

“The students are now saying that I am a liar.

“They are accusing me of covering up for Manpower.

“I can feel the tension in the campus. The students have been pushed too far.”

He added: “Manpower must release at least half of the monies to neutralise the people.

“People are starving and very soon they will snap.

“The situation is not good. Students are suffering.”

He said officials at the NMDS had told them the grants had been delayed because they were still investigating students suspected of forging their results in order to fraudulently renew bursary contracts.

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