Fri | Dec 2, 2016

Paying for tertiary education

Published:Sunday | August 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Martin Henry

It's that time of year again. True, today is the 127th anniversary of the birth of Marcus Garvey, but having provoked the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which Garvey founded, about its continued relevance when it was marking its 100th anniversary last month and having done several Garvey pieces over the years, I'll take a pass on this Garvey anniversary.

Marcus Garvey, himself a highly educated man without degrees, did have a lot to say about education, which is the subject today, including this: "Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for today." One of the objectives of the UNIA was "to establish universities, colleges and secondary schools for the further education and culture of the boys and girls of the race". Garvey's home country has done a good deal of this.

It's that time of year again for performance angst at the secondary level and for worry about paying for tertiary education. We have just gone through, in June, the annual ritual of agonising over Grade Six Achievement Test performance and the placement of students in a very uneven secondary system.

BEHIND THE SCORES

Scores in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations are commendably inching upwards, but remain far below acceptable levels in the core subjects of English language and mathematics. English passes have just managed to hit the two-thirds mark, with 66 per cent achieving grades one to three this year, up from 64 per cent last year. For the first time in history, math passes have exceeded 50 per cent, with a substantial jump of 33 per cent - from 42 per cent in 2013 to 56 per cent in 2014. There were increases in the pass rate in 13 others of the 35 subjects for which Jamaican students entered. Several small subjects (small in number of candidates) have been delivering spectacular pass rates. Like physics at 78 per cent! The just-introduced animation course saw a 100 per cent pass rate! But that's for 17 students.

The country needs to be constantly reminded that pass rates, whatever they are, are only as good as they are because entire low-performance segments of the cohort are excluded from either the CSEC examinations or are screened out of particular subjects.

The fact remains that it's only around 10 per cent of those actually sitting the exams that manage to pass the minimum five subjects, including English language and mathematics, required for matriculation into tertiary education. But as that number inches up, success will create its own problem - the problem of finding more spaces and more financing for more qualified students who want to enter tertiary education. The devious two-horse policy of Government (two horses going in opposite directions) of wanting to increase access to tertiary education while holding down financing is bound to come under increasing pressure.

SLB NOT VIABLE

Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites told the Jamaica Observer last week that there is need for a comprehensive approach to tertiary student financing as the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) is unable to meet this year's demand. Like last year and the year before and the year before that, Minister, this is a recurring decimal. The SLB has only $800 million in hand for loan demands of $1.8 billion by new applicants. The SLB simply is not viable as a source of loan support.

The minister acknowledges that there is a deeper issue of how tertiary education is funded. What the report did not say is whether the minister mentioned that the Human Resource and Social Development Committee has been considering the matter. The committee has taken public submissions and has held at least one poorly handled hearing that flung together all the persons and organisations that had made a submission. I have not heard of a report being tabled.

The minister has indicated some uptake on two of the recommendations I have made repeatedly in this space and repeated in my own submission to the parliamentary committee. Public resources outside of the Consolidated Fund should be tapped for financing tertiary education. The HEART Trust/NTA is a cash-rich arm of the same education system. The minister is reporting that the SLB has applied to the Trust to invest some of its reserve funds into the SLB as a "revolving investment", which would be specifically applied to technical and vocational areas.

I have some problem with the 'applying'. The laws of Jamaica are not the laws of the Medes and Persians that cannot be changed. If necessary, the Government should amend the HEART Trust Act to allow transfer of fixed portions of the levy on businesses which finances the Trust into the student revolving-loan fund. Despite its noble intentions and considerable achievements over 32 years, the HEART Trust arrangement ends up rewarding those who did less well in secondary education through fully subsidised post-secondary education while those who did better are 'penalised' by having to part-pay for university education. The transfer of funds into the student revolving loan fund would help to redress this obvious inequity.

The minister is quite right that the Budget cannot simply up and plug the gap between the SLB's current loan resources and applicants' demand. But what the Government can do and should do is repurpose portions of the education budget into rolling capitalisation of the SLB, adding committed increments each year for a specified number of years. The $1-billion gap this year between demand and available supply for new applications is only 1/74th of this year's education budget.

The SLB is not actuarially viable as a lending institution on its current capital base. As the current director has admitted and the minister now publicly supports, even if there is no default at all, the fund would still not properly 'revolve', that is, satisfy loan demands and meet its own operational expenses from its own resources in a continuing and sustainable fashion. As the minister puts it, "even if they collected everything which was owed to them ... they could barely meet that new student need, so they do need another source".

CASH-FLOW PRESSURE ON INSTITUTIONS

As a spin-off from the incapacity of the SLB, even committed loans are not paid over on time to the educational institutions in which the borrowers are enrolled. This delinquency places enormous cash-flow pressures on the institutions and creates a whole new set of service-delivery problems the public hardly knows about.

The other recommendation the Government is finally finding the courage to apply is the triaging of loans. The SLB has been directed to preferentially lend to applicants in medicine, engineering, pharmacy, science and maritime studies. I only pause to wonder why medicine is on the list, since there is an adequate ratio of doctors to population, with only a geographic distribution problem to fix.

There is going to be a lot of bawling. But Thwaites is quite correct: "It is no use saying every profession is as good as any one else, and if I feel like doing it, I should have equal opportunity for finance, because we have to look and see how we can guide and articulate these things towards developmental goals."

Yes, Minister. But just to remind you and the whole country, the qualifying subjects for matriculation into these identified priority areas of tertiary-level studies are the very ones that are the weakest in the secondary-school system in terms of numbers of students taking these subjects, never mind the high percentage of passes.

There has been a commendable expansion of access to a variety of post-secondary education programmes in this country. We now have to think through that deeper issue of how this education is to be funded even as further growth is contemplated.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.