Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Editorial | A problem at HEART

Published:Thursday | October 15, 2020 | 12:06 AM

IF THE Government is committed, as it declares itself to be, to the efficient use of taxpayers’ money, it must insist on an urgent determination of whether HEART Trust/ National Training Agency has gone the way of big, shiny bureaucracies with lots of money – of counting their relevance by increasingly frenetic activity, regardless of outcomes. Spending distorts the reality.

At the same time, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in whose ministerial portfolio HEART resides, should certify that the agency is part of the broader review of education in Jamaica by a task force chaired by the Harvard University sociologist Professor Orlando Patterson.

When it was established in the 1980s, HEART was perceived as a rescue agency, an institution operating on the periphery of the formal education system, providing training to vast numbers of students who fell into the crevasses of the traditional high schools. Nearly four decades on, despite its several iterations, the perception of HEART remains largely the same, not least because the old problems in education remain.

Perhaps in a reimagined system, which we expect to be the focus of Professor Patterson’s report, HEART – or whatever it becomes – its resources, and some of its concepts will be part of normal education in Jamaica, without the need for the treadmill of remediation.

CONCERNED ABOUT FINDINGS

This newspaper, to be clear, has no animus towards HEART. However, we cannot but be concerned at the findings of a review of the agency by the auditor general, the report of which was presented to the Parliament last month. The auditor general found an institution whose outcomes are, on the face of it, subpar.

For instance, in the five years between 2014-15 and 2018-19, HEART spent approximately J$30.5 billion on its various training programmes. At the end of the latter period, it should have, in total, “graduated” 232,301 trainees with some form of certification. They would have been in courses lasting between three months and three years.

Instead, only 103,452 – approximately 45 per cent – left with any such declaration of competence. Despite spiralling enrolment, leading nominally to increased numbers of certification, the number, in percentage terms, slipped from 46 per cent in 2014-15 to 44 per cent in 2018-19. HEART’s certification target is 70 per cent, which is too low.

Yet, even those numbers mask deeper failures, especially with external training providers, who, over the five years, were funded to the tune of J$8.3 billion. There was, by any criteria, insufficient value for money.

The certification rate in the programmes run by the external partners was, on average, 38 per cent. Some were as low as 19 per cent.

HEART appears to have been lax, too, with regard to community training initiatives on which it spent J$2.9 billion. These were not necessarily aimed at providing certification, although they were geared for specific outcomes. Yet, the auditor general concluded that HEART did not “adequately” conduct evaluations at “the end of each cycle before disbursing further subventions for the continuation of the programme”. Its reports “did not include information needed … to assess effectively the viability of the training”, and neither was there evidence, the auditor general said, that HEART addressed deficiencies identified in its own reviews.

LOW CERTIFICATE RATE

We appreciate the range of social, socio-economic and other reasons proffered by HEART for its low certification rate. We are, nonetheless, struck by this observation by the auditor general: “We reviewed HEART’s annual statistical reports ... and found no indication that HEART reported on the trajectory of its actual training cost per trainee relative to expectations. Notwithstanding, the low certification rate of 45 per cent over the same period suggested that HEART did not obtain optimal value from training expenditure of $30.5 billion as at March 2019.”

Against that backdrop, reasonable people might question whether the basis on which HEART funds itself, a three per cent payroll tax on employers (J$12.6 billion in 2018-19), did not impact its attitude towards efficiency and accountability.

They might wonder, too, about the efficacy, other than being cash-rich lever available to politicians, of maintaining HEART as a separate and independent agency, rather than subsuming it into the education ministry, where its experiences and resources would go towards fixing the primary education product, instead of its concentration on what, essentially, is ongoing remediation.

Any new thinking on education in Jamaica, a blend of the models of Germany and Switzerland, this newspaper believes, should be high on the agenda – the former with its strong mix of academics and vocational, including technological skills, at the secondary level; the latter with its creative use of the system of apprenticeship.

In the meantime, there is, the auditor general tells us, work to be done at HEART.