Removal of mandatory fees critical to development
Prior to the introduction of the no-tuition fee policy in September 2007, cost-sharing was used to finance education at the secondary level. Cost-sharing placed an obligation on parents to pay fees that were sanctioned and set by the Government.
While parents could appeal for relief where they had difficulty meeting their obligation, they would have to undergo a needs assessment that involved questions regarding income and household conditions that proved quite intrusive and discomforting to many. The needs assessment was simply an inefficient way of determining and effecting welfare assistance in education.
The P.J. Patterson-led administration, amid much pressure and unease, decided to abandon the needs assessment and settle on a fixed cost-sharing mechanism, which saw government contributing 50 per cent of the then $10,000 per pupil fee at the secondary level, and parents the remaining 50 per cent.
In the lead-up to the general election of 2007, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) gave a firm commitment to removing tuition fees at the secondary level. With back-to-school preparations being far advanced when there was a change of administration, the introduction of the no-tuition fee policy saw parents who had already made tuition payments being reimbursed by the newly elected JLP Government, honouring its campaign commitment.
The new financing arrangement meant that in addition to the $5,000 that was already being paid by the state as per the old cost-sharing regime, the JLP Government allocated an additional $1 billion to education in covering the portion for which parents were previously responsible.
Tuition was estimated as the per-pupil operating cost of a school outside of remuneration expenses and major infrastructure projects. Tuition payments made by the then government covered the cost of delivering the curriculum. On top of the $1 billion the JLP administration undertook to increase the per-pupil grant to cover curricular costs - some $500 per pupil each year - and did so in such a way that saw the grant covering some amount of extra-curricular costs.
It is important to note that the no-tuition fee policy did not preclude parents making contributions to their child's education at the secondary level. What it did was to ensure that no fees or requests for contributions stood between a child and access to education.
In other words, while schools had auxiliary fees or other contributory mechanisms in place, which no education minister can prohibit, no contribution or payment was mandatory. Clear guidelines were given to schools in relation to how auxiliary fees were treated, as they had to be set in consultation with their PTAs, and were not to exceed the rate of inflation.
Parents were encouraged to make a contribution, to the extent that they could, to the financing and development of their child's school, but did not stand to suffer the inconvenience or embarrassment of restricted access because of an inability to make such a contribution. This is no longer the case, as the People's National Party (PNP) Government has reversed that policy. The JLP is, however, committing to a return to the removal of all mandatory fees at the secondary level.
The JLP's approach to funding education at the secondary level improved the cash flow of schools, as they automatically received transfers into their accounts pursuant to the Government's per-pupil contribution. Since virtually no school could claim to have enjoyed 100 per cent compliance in contribution from parents under the old cost-sharing regime, the automatic transfers to schools represented a guaranteed and more reliable financing arrangement than cost-sharing.
Removing the burden of tuition fees did not relieve parents of the overall burden of contributing to their child's education, as support in relation to lunch money, transportation, books and other associated costs had to be borne. There were, and will always be, parents who could afford to pay tuition, auxiliary or fees of any other name or type for their child's education, and those parents were encouraged to contribute as much as they could to the school's development. But the overarching concern of the then Government was those parents who could not afford to pay secondary tuition.
These parents were in the majority and stood to be deterred by onerous tuition charges that could have exacerbated the then worrying levels of enrolment and attendance.
love for the poor
Lest we forget, no school closed under the no-tuition fee policy, nor was any teacher told that they were going to lose their job. There was a 10 per cent increase in enrolment, by 10 per cent, by 2011, and our education system is now moving closer to the attainment of universal secondary education.
It is quite amazing, if not befuddling, that a political party that professes love for the poor in the way the PNP does, is so cynical about, and staunchly opposed to, a policy that worked to good effect in the past and made education more accessible to the poor, and will be reinstituted by the next JLP administration.
Minister Thwaites announced in 2013 that auxiliary fees are now mandatory, and in making that announcement signalled an intent to cut teachers and close some schools; but at the same time has not increased the per-pupil grant since taking office from the $11,500 it stood at in 2011.
Decisions taken by the PNP have had the effect of returning cost-sharing at the secondary level. By making auxiliary fees mandatory and not increasing the per-pupil grant to schools as actual operating costs outstrip the contribution by government, those costs will have to be made up by parents' contributions.
With schools seeing their balances at the bank getting smaller while their operating costs soar, they will resort to fees to compensate for the falloff in revenue, and enforce those fees in drastic ways, as we are seeing at present with onerous and exorbitant charges for such things as registration packages, auxiliary fees, and transcripts.
And with the minister having made these fees mandatory based on his announcement, we may well be seeing a return to the days when enrolment and attendance stand at undesirable levels, as parents opt not to enrol their children or send them to school consistently.
The policies of the PNP represent a retrograde step in the march towards universal secondary education and a system that produces graduates fit for the job market and institutions of higher learning.
Make no mistake, education is a vaccine against ignorance and poverty. For it to be effective and make our society safer and more prosperous, everyone must get it. Government has an obligation to facilitate this and should not seek to have education rationed by price or an ability to pay.
- Marlon Morgan is deputy opposition spokesman on agriculture and an aide to Opposition Leader Andrew Holness. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.