Colin Steer | Tertiary education: access and funding
Debates over access to education and the dynamics, financial challenges and best policies to pursue for the sector have been matters of public discourse for decades. Some of these issues were again brought into sharp focus in the State of the Nation Debate last Thursday by Opposition Senator Damion Crawford in his maiden presentation.
Among his main proposals relating specifically to tertiary education were:
- Education must be rebranded and marketed as 'Learn to Earn'.
- That the Senate should stand against the concept of deregistration in our universities as there is no material benefit the institution can derive from barring students.
- Any institution that benefits directly from the coffers of the Government should not be allowed to withdraw services from a student for whom up to 60 per cent of their fees have already been contributed.
- Exam results should be withheld until satisfactory arrangements have been made.
- The setting up of a Tertiary Education Trust that would allow for student-loan repayment to be extended over 25 years.
It was just under a year ago, on March 10, 2017, in the same Senate, that there was a robust debate on funding tertiary education for students. This was based on a private member's motion moved by Opposition Senator Wensworth Skeffery calling for the establishment of a special fund where citizens could access funding for the education of their children at the tertiary level.
Perhaps with a little more reflection, Mr Crawford might have broadened the parameters of his discussion beyond concern for the plight of students to include other dynamics. Students' challenges are on one side of the equation; paying for all the attendant costs by the Government and the university administrations is on the other. Also, beyond marketing to students themselves, the society as a whole needs a culture shift in long-term planning for their children's post-secondary education.
The Government's position, which has been articulated repeatedly by the education minister, Senator Ruel Reid, is:
1.There is general agreement that our young people must be encouraged and helped to pursue careers for personal and national development. At the same time, we must face the reality that tertiary level is costly.
2.The administration supports the expansion of tertiary education, and the general philosophy is that students and parents should save towards that goal. At the same time, the Government continues to support, through a number of initiatives, including JamVat, the more vulnerable being able to access tertiary education.
3.The JamVat programme provides assistance to tertiary students who qualify for admission but who are financially challenged, to cover their tuition cost. Students who access this programme are then provided with the opportunity to participate in the development of the nation's social capital through their contribution of 200 hours of public service. In response, the Government pays 30 per cent of the student's tuition cost, which should not exceed $350,000 per annum.
With respect to the proposal that a special fund or Tertiary Education Trust be set up, it is worth underscoring that Jamaican students are not without help.
While there are ongoing discussions about reforming its operations, the Students' Loan Bureau already provides tuition funding for approved programmes offered by approved tertiary institutions (ATIs) in Jamaica and at the regional campuses on the UWI (St Augustine, Cave Hill and The Bahamas).
- Through the targeted loan (repaid after completion of the programme of study), the SLB provides 100 per cent tuition funding to programmes which are government subsidised.
- For the full fee/self-financing programmes (for example, medicine, law, nursing, Doctor of Pharmacy and Doctor of Dentistry, etc.), the Bureau provides loans of a similar amount as the government-subsidised tuition.
- Consideration is also given by the SLB to offer incentives for certain programmes of study based on the anticipated skills needs for the economic growth of the country.
Also through the HEART Trust-NTA and the Career Advancement Programme, the Government is offering full state funding for post-secondary education up to the Occupational Associate degree with the Joint Committee for Tertiary Education under the UCJ. In addition, more institutionally accredited universities are being approved.
In fact, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information has developed a new approach towards funding tertiary education. This would see the MoEYI making a grant to the universities to assist with their operational expenses and not for the payment of salaries. This means institutions would then need to determine and fund their staffing structure in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance and Planning.
Out of last year's discussions amid deregistration concerns, strategies developed to support students are:
1.The ministry would set up a committee comprising representatives of the ministry, SLB, the UWI Guild and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security to determine who are the needy students and work with the UWI to pay and, possibly, bond students for up to three years or have them doing some form of community service.
2.The ministry is focusing and realigning the tertiary education system to ensure that the poorest among our children who qualify to access tertiary education can obtain a tertiary education.
3.The ministry has also formulated a policy to ensure that at least one student from every PATH household in Jamaica receives a scholarship to a public tertiary institution in the country.
The ministry has moved to establish a Tertiary Assistance Unit within the Tertiary Unit, which has responsibility for the administration of support through different avenues to support tertiary students. These will include special assistance through identified funding support from the Government, existing scholarships being offered through the ministry for mathematics, science and TVET programmes, as well as other established scholarships including: Jamaica Scholarship, Jamaica Government Exhibition, Emancipation, UTech Open and the Jamaica Technical High scholarships.
With regard to the Learn to Earn marketing concept, while it is interesting, it is not exactly new. Even a cursory glance at the advertising campaigns of the HEART Trust-NTA would demonstrate that the emphasis on training is to better equip learners for the job market and to be able to earn more. This concept is also embedded in the Learn, Earn, Give and Save (LEGS) programme and the ministry's push to align training with industry needs.
Few people would argue that deregistration of students is undesirable, but usually, this is action of last resort. Students are periodically reminded of their need to meet their obligations and for them to explore avenues available to subsidise their studies. The truth is some students resist taking any loan from the SLB - not just out fear of onerous repayment terms, but rather from having different priorities. The prevailing ethos among some is that society has a responsibility to educate them, and then as soon as they graduate, pay them 'good money' so that they can be seen to be successful. Paying back for their education is someone else's responsibility. Withholding exam results has also been tried without much compliance from chronic delinquents.
It was not clear from Mr Crawford's proposal how a 25-year repayment period at lower amounts would affect the SLB's revolving loan scheme. It remains to be seen whether young graduates would be any more embracing of a longer-term repayment for students' loan when they may want to pursue more costly postgraduate studies, purchase a house and/or car, and start a family.
The fact is, there is already a wide swathe of programmes in place to provide more access to training and reduce the financial burdens of paying for tertiary education. These are more practical alternatives to channelling more funds to subsidise students in another special dedicated pool or trust.