Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Editorial | Prof McDonald’s challenge to frank debate

Published:Wednesday | May 3, 2017 | 5:00 AM

Archibald McDonald understands the concept of moral hazard. He also has a clear grasp of the principles of economics and accounting. That is why, despite the flak he will likely take for it, his public intervention in the Jamaican Government’s move to bail out financially hard-up students at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, where he is principal, is welcome. We hope that it reignites a serious debate on the financing of university education in Jamaica, which has taken place in fits and starts for more than two decades.

Professor McDonald doesn’t believe that the Government can foot the bill and is apparently concerned that the Holness administration is being lured into doing just that.

The trigger for the discussion is Mona’s recent move to bar students with outstanding tuition and other debts from sitting their final exams. In the past, such students with arrears would be allowed to take the finals, but have their grades withheld. That didn’t work. Students just didn’t bother to pay.

In the face of Mona’s new, tougher stance, the Government has stepped in, essentially guaranteeing the J$45 million owed by 339 such students. Two-thirds of this group owes, individually, under J$100,000. Their bills will be covered under a scheme that offsets 30 per cent of the tuition fees of students who complete a minimum number of hours of community service. The others will have fast-tracked loans from the Government’s Students’ Loan Bureau, on a basis whose details have not been finalised.

This money is separate from an additional J$300 million the Government is to share out in September between the UWI, a regional university, as well as the Jamaican Government’s University of Technology and the Caribbean Maritime Institute.

Professor McDonald is from the generation of Jamaicans, of the Manley era, who, he acknowledges, benefited from free university education. This ended in the 1980s and the professor has no expectation of it returning in this period of fiscal constraint.

WE CAN’T AFFORD FREE EDUCATION

“I don’t believe we can afford free tertiary education at this point in time,” he told this newspaper. “Nor can we afford (free) health care – and I’m a surgeon by training.”

The fact is that while tertiary education is not free, Jamaican students at state-supported institutions are heavily subsidised – by up to 80 per cent of the economic cost of their tuition. Indeed, for the current fiscal year, before the recently announced top-up for September, the Government budgeted J$10.67 billion in subventions to universities. This is approximately 11 per cent of its overall recurrent spend on the sector and 75 per cent of the allocation to tertiary education.

It is also more than three times the allocation to early-childhood education, the necessary foundation for the system that is broadly, agreed to be in crisis. The UWI – albeit with a third of its 50,000 students being Jamaican – receives 61 per cent of what Jamaica spends on tertiary education.

At the turn of the century, the then finance minister urged a debate on rebalancing the education budget, to place greater emphasis on the early-childhood and primary sectors. Unfortunately, his intervention ignited heat rather than thought.

Yet, there is much to discuss, including the deep problems at levels of the system; that nearly half of the students who would like to enter UWI can’t get in; and that, as is now being highlighted, many of those who get in can’t pay. Professor McDonald has provided a platform for new discourse.