Ministry of Higher Education Permanent Secretary Mabvuto Sakala says the there is no possibility of having ghost students at the University of Zambia (UNZA) or Copperbelt University (CBU).

And Sakala told the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Wednesday that his ministry will enforce recoveries of accommodation allowances which were paid to accommodated students.

Sakala said this when he and his team appeared before the said committee to respond to audit queries cited in the Auditor General’s report for the Financial year ended December 31, 2017.

“A comparison of the CBU GRZ sponsored students to the Bursaries committee sponsored students revealed that there were 1,988 who were appearing on the bursaries database of GRZ sponsored students but were not found on the CBU overall GRZ sponsored students. Consequently, it was not clear how bursaries were supporting students who were not on CBU database,” the AG report revealed.

The report further revealed another K655,000 in accommodation allowances which were paid to accommodated students.

“Accommodation refunds in amounts totalling to K655, 000 were paid to 754 students despite appearing on the list of students accommodated by the universities and appropriately amounts totalling K1, 979, 500 were invoiced in respect of accommodation to the said students. As of 31st August 2018, the amounts paid to the students had not been recovered. [Further], accommodation and tuition fees in amounts totalling K5, 432, 88.42 were invoiced by CBU for 210 students who were not on the applauded schedules. No evidence was availed to ascertain whether the students were authorised or approved to be among the students supported by government,” the report revealed.

In defence, Sakala said the Loans Board was in the process of effecting recoveries of the said funds from the undeserving students.

“The Higher Education Loans and Scholarships Board is in the process of recovering the overpaid funds, we acknowledge and from the continuing students by withholding their subsequent payments while recoveries from students who have since graduated will be added to the loan repayment amounts. A letter has been written to CBU notifying management to inform the affected students about the pending recovery. All the 210 students were part of the 8, 173 students [on] provisional list that was used by CBU when billing the Loans Board, provided the students had registered. However, the students needed to be screened by the Bursaries before being put on the bursaries database. Therefore, CBU invoiced correctly as all the 210 students were part of the students awarded with loans by the Bursaries Committee,” Sakala responded.

In another query, it was revealed 3,782 students at UNZA who were not on the university bill were paid meal allowances amounting to K8, 428, 113.

The audit report revealed a further K71, 082, 937 which was irregularly paid to 3, 568 students who were appearing on the UNZA invoice but not on the bursaries list of GRZ supported students.

In responding to the above query, Sakala said the matter had already been reconciled.

Milenge PF member of parliament Mwansa Mbulakulima then said it was shocking that the controlling officer was giving technical responses which were difficult to verify before the committee.

He said from the presentation, it was clear that the ministry under review needed serious help as it had so many problems.

“The system of recovering from [them], if we cannot recover from those who have honestly completed [because] up to now we are still looking from them, how are you going to recover from these people over this excess payment? There are many components here. We can ask questions here but this is not going to be exhausted [because] this is technical. The next page chairperson [on] ‘failure to lock down the default administrator account system’ what do you want us to ask? It’s technical. We can take two days,” Mbulakulima observed.

“The next page is ‘failure to patch the MSQL database’ [and] look at the answer, it is also technical. That is why there is no need colleagues to even start asking questions from those files, we have to find a way as a nation. This is where they have to tell us [that] they need help. And beyond this chair, they have said ‘available for verification’ [again and again but] but it’s only the auditors who can verify whether this is correct or not correct but even the AG’s office is handcuffed today. How can they comment on something which they haven’t even seen? So it is really a total confusion [because] we believe that a lot of money has been going to our institutions but not accounted for. So for me really, it is a national disaster which needs concerted efforts and there is no need to be defensive.”

It was at this point that Sakala ruled out the existence of ghost students in the named public institutions.

“Going forward chair, we can avail the extraction of these students to the committee. The possibility of ghost students does not arise. What may arise is that when a student registers, for example, and they fail to meet the threshold to move to the next year, they are removed from the list of the beneficiaries of the bursaries or the loan scheme until they meet the criteria for re-entry but we will still maintain them on the database and that is where there is one of the discrepancies. When they meet the threshold to be readmitted into the university, then we reactivate their loans. But in terms of ghost students, it’s not possible to have them chair because we have a situation where the universities will give us the list and then we compare with the list on the bursaries,” Sakala said.

And Committee Chairperson Howard Kunda said it was worrying that the ministry responsible for imparting skills to learners could have so much confusion surrounding its departments.

“[You know] this ministry has been there and we look at this ministry to be a ministry that should be out at the apex because this is what gives us the manpower that is needed for this country. You teach these students so that they can come out and give the best to this country, but if there are these confusions that we have seen and highlighted in our discussions here, it gives us an indication that we need to be worried with what is happening,” said Kunda.