Martin Henry | Financing tertiary education
This has been a busy time for education. There was Teachers' Day last Wednesday when teachers could forget their troubles and dance and be pampered and recognised for a day.
The day before was Read Across Jamaica Day, an annual event that seeks to advance literacy and the love of reading among children. When children acquire fluent literacy, nothing can stop them as learners. And the earlier in their education life cycle, the better. The single most important task for the nation's education system is to get children fluently literate and learning ready the first time round.
Then the private agency Educate Jamaica has released its ranking report on secondary schools based on the 2016 CSEC performance of grade 11 students, correctly including all students, those who sat and those who sat not. Rank is based on the percentage of the entire cohort passing five CSEC subjects, including English language and mathematics.
While the Ivy League performers among schools led by Campion College are celebrated, only 46 per cent of the 166 public high schools in Jamaica managed to have 50 per cent or more of their entire CSEC cohort passing more than five subjects, including English language and mathematics. This is a critically important vital statistic that must not be overlooked in the song and dance over top performances. If five CSEC subjects with math and English is the equivalent of a high-school diploma, 54 per cent of high-school leavers, not real graduates, are failures after five years of investment - personal, family, and state - in their education.
Belmont Academy in Westmoreland, established just in 2009 as the first school in the Government's Centre of Excellence programme, was a big winner in the rankings. Belmont has jumped from 33rd the year before to 13th for the 2016 CSEC results.
This centre of excellence started out with nearly 50 per cent of entering students reading below expected levels.
Much of the credit for the performance lift has gone to the leadership of the school by Rayon Simpson since 2012. When Simpson assumed the principalship, only 14.8 per cent of students were graduating with five or more CSEC subjects. In 2016, it was 93 per cent. The Educate Jamaica report says that Simpson "is one of the most creative and innovative educators currently in education in Jamaica". His use of peer-mentoring has had a big impact on raising performance at Belmont. Clearly, this school and the 12 above it in the rankings are doing some things right.
Out of nowhere, to cheers by almost all, the Government has found $300 million-plus to bail out final-year university students facing being barred from exams for fees owed and financial hardship, generally. The principal of the Mona campus of the UWI is, of course, quite right that the bailout is neither equitable nor sustainable.
While the matter first came up as a UWI issue, UTech and the Caribbean Maritime University have been included in the bailout financing.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness has floated propositions for restructuring funding for tertiary education. He has called for public discussion and dialogue.
UTech, to which I am attached (but, then again, I could more equally say the same about the UWI!) faces two major injustices in education financing that must be addressed:
1. A college was converted by legislative fiat into a university without a single Jamaican dollar being put up by the Government towards financing the transformation.
2. Per-capita student financing for UTech is significantly less than for the UWI, despite the lab-intensive nature of most of the UTech disciplines, and, believe it or not, is also less than that for several lower-ranked tertiary institutions.
The practical consequences of dodging these issues include aged facilities that cannot be upgraded on current resources; lower staff compensation and with that the incapacity to attract and retain top talent; and less-than-adequate student services.
I have proposed on several occasions a one-off university transformation grant tied to specific proposals and projects for upgrade.
Mr Holness has proposed for discussion a shifting of state subsidy from fees to a subsidy for the financing of students' tertiary education through loans treated as long-term mortgages. He has not yet fleshed out his proposition.
There are several ways in which the State can provide financing for tertiary education. The Government can simply give blanket subventions to institutions, which then recruit students by their own criteria.
Government can give students the money and let them 'shop' for education in an institution of their choice, in which case the institutions would have to compete like businesses for students to get the state money flowing to them.
Government can channel state financing through a system of scholarships ranging from 100 per cent state support for high-priority courses to as low as zero per cent for non-priority courses. Right now, Government is commendably offering a couple hundred full scholarships for math and science education and for technical and vocational education as high-priority areas.
The Government could inject state money into a loan fund from which all students could get long-term, very low-interest rate education mortgage loans.
These options will overlap. It is the mix and mechanisms that need to be discussed and sensibly sorted out.
Three years ago, I made a submission to the Select Committee of the House of Representatives on Human Resources and Social Development following their public call for submissions on 'Funding Tertiary Education in Jamaica'.
Create a rationalised system
I proposed that the Government of Jamaica do the following for creating a rational and rationalised system for financing tertiary education: Undertake a comprehensive actuarial assessment of the real cost of education in all state-owned tertiary institutions. Policy crafted in ignorance is bound to be bad policy.
The Government should underwrite the capital costs of building new institutions and expanding and upgrading old ones to meet projected needs for tertiary education. But, in principle, the State should transfer 100 per cent of the operational costs of tertiary institutions to actuarially determined real-cost tuition fees and third-stream sources of income.
Following actuarial analysis, the capital base of the SLB should be progressively expanded to be able to satisfy, within five years, the demand for loan financing without any special qualification barriers like household income. Two sources of domestic capital inflow into the SLB are: 1) a sliced-off proportion of the annual education budget, 2) repurposing a portion of the HEART Trust Fund for student loans even if this requires legislative adjustment to the HEART Trust Act.
Government should also explore the possibility of directing portions of special funds like the Tourism Enhancement Fund and the Universal Access Fund into tertiary-education student loans,even if exclusively for studying in the sector a particular fund supports.
The Government should adopt the principle of financing students and programmes by 'scholarships' and not financing institutions. A number of positive results would immediately flow from this approach:
Institutions would be forced to offer programmes that students want and are prepared to pay for and to deliver quality services to attract students.
Government could easily offer state support for programmes of study based on a priority ranking informed by empirical evidence on the labour needs of the country and the development priorities set by the Government in public policy. Government scholarship support could range from 100 per cent for programmes of the highest priority to zero per cent for programmes of no priority. Graduates would be obliged to contribute to the Jamaican economy in contractually agreed ways or opt to have their scholarship converted into a regular student loan.
State financing under this protocol would have the effect of attracting top student talent, especially from among poorer Jamaicans, to high-priority areas, linking state investment in education to the labour market and to development needs.
And finally, Government should aggressively promote private-sector schemes of education insurance, including consideration in public policy of a tax break as incentive for participation.
With just about 37 per cent of the 40,000-strong grade 11 cohort qualifying for matriculation into higher education with five CSECs, which include English and maths, the pool of first-time potential matriculants is only around 15,000 students. Tertiary education is packed with students who have only minimally qualified through more than one sitting of CSEC subjects and who need remediation at further cost to the system. And in calibrating the financing of tertiary education, with a clear eye on return on investment, the prime minister and Government must also bear in mind that 80 per cent of graduates, subsidised by the State, migrate.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org