Thu | Oct 29, 2020

Editorial | Talk turkey on university funding

Published:Friday | February 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM

This week’s protests by students and faculty of the University of Technology (UTech), Jamaica, demanding increases in the Government’s subvention to the university, is more than a squabble between that institution and the administration, and ought to be treated as such.

More fundamentally, it is part of the spasmodic national debate about how tertiary education, especially at universities, is to be funded. Unfortunately, though, the subject seems to make us weary quickly. So, the discourse isn’t sustained to a resolution. This time, hopefully, things will be different.

For the fiscal year, which begins in April, the Government proposes to spend J$15 billion on tertiary education, or about 14 per cent of its overall expenditure on education. Approximately three quarters of the budget for tertiary education is allocated to universities, of which the lion’s share, nearly 58 per cent, or J$8.73 billion, will go to The University of the West Indies (UWI).

UTech, which the protesters refer to, very pointedly, as the national university, has been allocated J$1.87 billion, or 12 per cent of the budget. Its supporters insist that this is unfair, although no one, at least among the senior discussants, has openly advocated a rebalancing in favour of UTech. Therein lies a, if not the, dilemma.

In real terms, the Government’s spending on tertiary education has, over the past four to five years, remained flat. Indeed, the current budget represents a nominal, before inflation, 11 per cent increase on the J$13.6 billion allocated in the 2015/16 fiscal year. Moreover, the J$8.73 billion earmarked then for UWI is the same as today. So, too, has the subvention to UTech remained static.


There is a difference, however, in the per capita allocation, based on student count, between the two institutions. With The UWI’s Mona campus, with a registration of around 18,000, accounting for the great bulk of the Jamaican enrolment at that university, it means, roughly, that Jamaica’s taxpayers contribute J$485,000 to the education of each student. In the case of UTech, the subsidy is roughly J$156,000, or a differential of 211 per cent.


Part of the issue here is legacy, and some might argue, quality.


The 70-year-old UWI is listed at 591 among more than 1,200 of the world’s best universities ranked by the Times newspaper of London, which would place it among the top five per cent of more than 25,000 registered universities globally. That ranking is, in part, the outcome of many decades of investment in the regional university.


UTech, which less than two decades ago transformed into a university from a technical college, doesn’t have UWI’s tradition, history, or investment. Unfortunately, UTech’s emergence as a university is taking place during a period of fiscal retrenchment, as it acknowledged in its first septennial review in 2007.


This puts into question UTech’s proposed funding formula of 60 per cent of its budget being met from Government subsidies, whose unsustainability is partly reflected in the fact that, based on 2017 accounts (the latest that is publicly available), the subvention covered only a third of expenses.


Like the case with UWI, lower subventions means pressure on students to pay a greater proportion of the economic cost of their education, with the potential downside of limiting enrolment, at a time when policymakers argue that the economy needs more tertiary-educated workers. UTech, as UWI has been doing, as was suggested in its own review, will also have to seek new sources of income.


But the situation demands more than this, though. It calls for a full, frank national discourse on the cost and delivery of university education and how it is to be paid for, including a more efficient use of the students’ loans funds. This debate should also consider whether UTech shouldn’t rationalise its offerings and, if it doesn’t, whether students shouldn’t pay the full economic costs for non-technology courses, such as law and business.