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Government needs to put money where the mouth is!

In the current budget announced on July 6, 2009 the FM promised to subsidize the entire interest expenses incurred during the course period of students from the EWS. Is this just a paper tiger?

Harsh Roongta

21 Jul 2009

The education ministry headed by Mr. Kapil Sibal (actually the ministry is called Human Resources Development but the most important thing it looks after is education) is in the limelight following the realization that higher education and vocational training are the best poverty alleviation tools in the long run.

Lot has already been written about what needs to be done in the higher and vocational education sector. There are plenty of valid suggestions on how to energize this sector by increasing capacity, improving quality, making it more accessible and removing it from the clutches of the bureaucracy and bringing in the private sector.

One important element of reform in this sector will necessarily be in the area of education loans. We have already seen the difference that easier availability of loans can make in the housing and consumer durables sector. Education can be another sector that can benefit tremendously by easier availability of education loans.

Today education loans in India lack any institutional backing and suffer from the disease of "good intentions". At the best of times education loans are a risky business for the banks in any country. The typical higher education or vocation education student will take around 2-5 years to complete his education. He will need a fairly large loan to complete his education. Most likely he will not have any collateral security to offer for the education loan. In most cases his parents (or other close relatives) may be willing to stand guarantee for the due repayment of the loan but their own income may not be sufficient to repay the loan in case the student is unable to complete the course for any reason or is unable to find a job after he completes the course. In fact in a majority of cases the student's family is not even in a position to pay the interest on the loan during the time when he is undergoing the course. They require that the interest amount also be accumulated and the repayment (of both principal and interest) begins only after the course is over and the student gets the job.

So in summary the bank is expected to lend money to a borrower without any collateral security and without sufficient current income to pay back the loan solely on the hope that the student will acquire skills good enough to get a job that will pay him enough to enable him to pay back the loan. So left to themselves the banks are not going to disburse significant amount of education loans except to the well-heeled who can provide collateral/guarantee.

In most countries government funded specialized institutions (such as the older version of Sallie Mae in the US or the FFSAP - Federally Funded Student Aid Program) step in to ensure that loans are available for all students who are good enough to get into any accredited educational institutions that provides higher or vocational education. The loans are not cheap but the important thing is that they are available in spite of the credit issues surrounding education loans. The institution normally does not lend directly but provides back to back refinance (provide loans to lenders to enable them to on-lend to students) and share in the risk (write-off part of such loans if the student defaults and is unable to repay) to make sure that this vital tool to make higher education accessible to everybody (and not just the middle and rich classes as is the case in India). Contrast this with what happens in India. The total incremental education loan disbursements made by the entire banking sector for last year was around Rs. 8,500 crores which is quite negligible considering the bank's total deposit base. Compare this with the estimated home loan disbursements in excess of Rs. 1,00,000 crores for the same period and the contrast is very clear.

So what is the reason for this dismal state of affairs? It is the attitude of the government that "talk" can substitute for action. The finance minister had promised to set up an Education Re-finance Corporation from part of the education cess that all of us pay. That promise is languishing in the bureaucratic by lanes of Delhi for the last 3 years. Meanwhile the policy makers hope that good intentions and strong words will somehow produce results.

Education loans are a part of the priority sector but have no separate allocation. Also education loans cannot be priced higher than 1% above the particular bank's PLR. Thus banks like to do the other kind of priority sector loans (loans to small transport operators, professionals etc.), which they consider less risky. In fact, the private sector banks and foreign banks who cannot be bullied by the government, have completely kept away from the sector (some of them have "education loan programs" but they all require collateral and/or guarantee from a well earning relative and interest servicing during the course period which effectively means that they service only the well heeled sections of the society). The public sector banks on the other hand are forced to show some disbursements under this head, do the minimum that they can get away with without offending the government. They naturally have restrictive rules on the type of courses as well requirement of collateral/income based guarantee for loans above Rs. 4 lacs. All this means that there will be restricted finance available for potential students even as the education sector itself is becoming diversified and more vibrant.

In the current budget announced on July 6, 2009 the finance minister, in a clever play of words, has promised to subsidize the entire interest expenses incurred during the course period of students from the economically weaker sections who somehow manage to get the loan sanctioned from banks. He has said that about 5 lac students are expected to benefit from this scheme. This looks more like a statement aimed at the galleries rather than actually getting some results on the ground. It is very doubtful that the PSU banks in India will give loans to so many students belonging to economically weaker section of society.

In fact if a poor student was bright enough to get admission in say Harvard but did not qualify for student aid from the university, perish the thought that a education loan will enable him to do the course. He will probably have to do the rounds of the charitable institutions for grants/aid or probably some politician will take up his cause after the story is played up in the media. If he is not willing to do that he will probably loose the chance of completely remaking his (and the country's) future.

Finance Minister routinely exhort the public sector banks to lend more towards education loans. It is no surprise that public sector equally routinely ignore this exhortation after paying lip service to education loans by releasing a few prominent advertisements in the media.

Then honble education minister must ensure that the government puts its money where its mouth is and creates the state funded institution that was promised long ago. After that more education loans will actually get disbursed.

To that day Amen