From a Throne to a Loan

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Have you ever seen your dreams being stolen? Have you had to compete for unpaid work? Well, I have and I count you lucky if you haven’t. I have watched our young people being humiliated as they beg for a free unpaid internship. I have seen them rejected before their graduation is cake is even over. I have watched parents unseal envelops from the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) thinking its a job only to find its a threat!

Yes, threat to remind them that their daughter or son on whom their bright future hinges is not only jobless but also in debt. Yes, I have watched the lines of sadness on our mothers faces form at the cruel reality that this job market owes them nothing despite all they did; all they went without and all they sold and borrowed for their children to one day sit on some throne of success. And now it is no longer a game of thrones – its a Game of Loans.

A bottomless pit for some driven by higher education debt incurred to acquire a credential that no longer produces value in the market place capable of supporting repayment. Today, I want to share with you the story of graduate student debt that is cripling many at the beginning of their careers.

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What do you mean that you sense I am mad, of course, I sound mad, why would’nt I?
a). When we tell our graduates to become entrepreneuers since there are fewer jobs and some oblidge; but, even before their idea can come together they are listed in credit reference bureaus meaning they can never access the much needed business capital
b). When default rates on student loans are high and your solution is not to realize that the underlying asset based on which the loan was made is faulty and not necessarily the borrower.
c). When I see my brother becoming a serial intern and not a single employer wanting to compensate him even for bus fare – so basically I have to finance him to work for someone.
c). When I see a 16 year investment in a degree depreciate faster than the Japanese vehicles dumped on us.

Today, allow me to share my madness by highlighting what I believe has forced our precious resource (youths) into a game of loans with stark odds against them. I will explore three issues which I believe if left un addressed our higher education financing models will collapse and we can as well forget the Africa Rising narrative.

Lets explore each in turn:

1). High student debt/loan
In the case of Kenya, a university student admitted under government selection program graduates with an average of Ksh. 320,000/USD 3200 plus interest. Self sponsored students or those in parallel programs spend over USD 5000 – and yet these are modest lower end tuition fees for light arts programs and do not include cost of living, opportunity costs or interest rates. So why do parents or students themselves incur such costs? It is the belief is that education pays off. It is on this basis that students borrow directly or indirectly with the hope of paying with future returns. However, our graduates are not exactly off to a good start when they cannot land a first job but are often finding themselves in deep pit of student loan. It has turned to what many now believe to be a pointless debt – a lost gamble of dead end investment.

2). Serial Internships
This is a situation where most of our students and graduates have been turned into perpetual interns whom no one pays as if this is the only model employers know of. Worse still is how little these internships get them be it monetary or non-monetary value.

When we consider how effective the internship,  our prominent work force preparation method is in getting graduates ready for work and appealing to employers – then you are left with that feeling that I could be right. I hoped to be wrong because naturally an internship should be a soft entry into the professional world for a student leading to better incomes and ultimately loan repayment. Unlike popular thinking, an internship is hard to find and it is no longer a path to paid work. Ross Perlin in his book ‘Intern Nation’ terms what we are witnessing as ’employers who have chosen to view interns as a source of cheap and disposable labor; an very exploitative mindset instead of a helpful one that treats our students as a cost-free replacement of a paid worker’.

Despite his accurate sentiments, we are aware that this is an employers job market – the employer has most leverage if not all. Consequently, we see that there is competition for this unpaid work reinforcing the ‘Serial Internships’ phenomenon. While market supply justifies this from an employer perspective, it breaks down an implied social contract among businesses and the societies they operate within.

However, huge supply of graduates is not the only driver. There is a much central issue namely the structure of the internship itself. At UReadyAfrica we have noted that Kenya and many countries lack internship models – these are frameworks of structured engagement that would ensure that even if employers do not pay interns in monetary terms, there exists a framework through which some form of value accrues to the student. Ask 80% of employers today what is the documented value that has accrued to those students offering them free labor; ask them how they hold themselves accountable for such a promise. You will mostly hear meaningless buzzwords such as ‘we are providing you with work experience in a competitive space’. This nebulous state sees to it that graduates earn nothing and mostly learns nil and thus remain in the game of loans.

The last driver of serial internships is the growing situation where even these competitive unpaid internships reward well off students and punish those from poor backgrounds. Think of it this way, most opportunities are available in major country capitals whose rents, transport and food costs are high. Upon graduation, most students from poor backgrounds have to retreat to their villages since staying in town is beyond their means.

3). Depreciation of a graduate
Economist have begun to throw around the term ‘Education Inflation’ describe the emerging phenomenon where almost every young person you encounter has a post secondary qualification of some sort. This ensures a graduates is less likely to pay student debt on time. Why you ask? Well, because employers don’t want to hire them after graduation because upon graduating our youths logically have higher salary expectation and come with higher student debt.

In short, you are more valuable as a student and the day you graduate you change categories from student to unemployed. So do not let graduation ceremonies fool you, our youths depreciate overnight from celebrities to a sore nuisance in people’s offices, call logs and emails begging for unpaid work.

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Most of graduates had never taken any other form of credit save for that student loan they filled in ignorance and pure ecstasy of being admitted into a university. Of course they ought and should pay all their debts be it student loan or other forms of credit – but to label them as fundamental defaulters based on student loan is cruel. To make their first credit history a negative boarders on….Anyway, some would argue that you pushed this higher education dream down our thoughts after all so take some responsibility that it is not turning out like anything you promised. For me, I want to hear conversations around employment and student debt that acknowledges the fundamental challenge of the higher education credential; that admits this is a new job market and the few jobs available can barely feed someone let alone pay high monthly installments. Let us have better repayment structures not crazy approaches like inhibiting youths from marrying until they pay! I look forward to a society that acknowledges it promised a throne and now it is delivering a loan.

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Author: Simon NDIRANGU MWANGI

A consultant strategy and capability development - a trainer drawn to the magic that is the knowledge in people. I am an emmerging thought leader in the sphere of workorce development who uses my industry wide experience to prepare pools of talent

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