Oman students face bleak future with crippling academic loans

Many face paying off student loans of nearly DH 200,000 before they start work - if they can find a job.

Students in Oman are burdened with large debts even before they start working
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Students in Oman face thousands of rials worth of bank loan repayments when they graduate, preventing them from owning a home or buying their first car.

In addition to dealing with the pressure of landing a job in a tight employment market, some find themselves with loans of up to 20,000 rials (Dh191,000) that they have racked up in four years of university.

According to the ministry of higher education, about 35,000 pupils in 27 universities and colleges are this academic year studying in various disciplines under the government’s scholarship grant. However, due to the stringent grading system, not everyone is so lucky.

About 4,000 pupils have taken out student loans from privately-funded local banks, according to the Central Bank of Oman's statistics for financial institutions.

"I am graduating this summer with a bank loan of 19,400 rials that I need to pay off when I find a job," Faiza Al Farsi, 23, who is studying at College of Banking and Financial Studies, told The National. "It is already starting to stress me [out]. I will not be able to buy a car to go to work or afford a holiday.

“I am depressed and not looking forward to starting my first job.”

Pupils can just pay the two per cent monthly interest rate while they are still studying but once they graduate, they will  need to pay the full monthly settlement, which can go up to 400 rials – more than half of what they expect to earn when they get a job.

“It leaves me with almost nothing for myself,” said Fareed Alawi, 26, an Oman Air employee. “After I have paid 200 rials a month to support my parents, 175 rials towards the car instalment and 50 rials for petrol, I have to think twice before I buy a burger or smoke sheesha.”

For some, like Khamis Al Sinani, marriage is not an option until after they have settled their student debts.

“I cannot marry my college sweetheart. We are putting off the wedding until 2020, when I am financially ready and after I get rid of the loan,” said the 25-year-old, who graduated with an IT degree last year. “That also means I have to wait another five years to own a home. It is tough and frustrating.”

A ministry of higher education spokesman said that the government was aware of the academic loans some students have to cope with, adding that those who do not receive scholarships have not met the requirements.

“We cannot pay for students who finish off secondary schools with C [average] grades,” he said. “It will inflate the budget that is allocated to the scholarship department. Besides, we need to reward those who work hard at school and not the ones who play around.”

The government has slashed the higher education scholarship fund by 15 per cent this year to 550 million rials after oil prices collapsed to about $50 (Dh184) per barrel from $115 at its peak in the summer of 2014.